There’s a case to be made that trend journalism is the extrapolation of an entire overarching social movement from the phrase, “some say.” The Globe has a trend story today on how black men are treated differently in office environments. The subhead: “Some black men say they’re held to higher standards than whites in the workplace.” The thinly sourced piece contains several assumptions that range from dubious to outright ludicrous. Let’s have a look.
It begins with the story of a black man who wore denim shorts to work on casual Friday.
One person wasn’t used to seeing James dressed so informally, someone else asked him, “What happened?” and another supportively told him to “fight the fight.” The interest in James’s attire wasn’t based on a pitched battle about what comprises casual dress. James believes the comments reflected the fact that he was a black man who decided to dress down at the office. “Even when we have casual Fridays,” says James, 36, “I’m expected to wear a suit and tie.”
This is baloney. While the rules governing casual Fridays are a little undefined, it’s a good rule of thumb that if you wear a suit all week, casual Friday means a button down shirt and pants. Now, if you wore khakis and a button-down shirt Monday through Thursday, you might be able to get away with shorts on Friday, but even then, shorts are usually inappropriate for an office enviroment. The piece doesn’t say anything about whether anyone else attempted the shorts gambit in that office, but I’m guessing, by their stunned reactions, they did not.
Like many other black men, James says unspoken rules limit how they interact in predominantly white workplaces. In some cases, they must dress more formally than their co-workers, speak softly, or generally comport themselves in unaggressive ways to counteract stereotypes that paint black men as unintelligent, violent, and dangerous. These biases are based on long-held beliefs about black masculinity and sexuality that grew out of this country’s history of slavery and segregation.
Baloney again. Unspoken rules limit how everyone interacts in predominently white workplaces. And I’m not sure about the middle part, because there’s no absolutely effort by the writer to substantiate it, but the bit about the biases is also highly dubious, as well as being unsubstantiated. If stupid, working-age people have a perception of black men being unintelligent, violent and dangerous, that probably came more from rap than from slavery. See: 50 Cent.
Isaiah Washington, who uttered a homophobic slur on the set of the television drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” has spoken bluntly about the predicament of being a black man in the corporate world. After it was announced last spring that his contract was not renewed, he told Newsweek: “I had a person in human resources tell me after this thing played out that ‘some people’ were afraid of me around the studio. I asked her why, because I’m a 6-foot-1, black man with dark skin and who doesn’t go around saying ‘Yessah, massa sir’ and ‘No sir, massa’ to everyone? It’s nuts when your presence alone can just scare people.
Not sure about Washington’s workplace, but I’m guessing it was the presence of a really famous TV actor walking around making homophobic slurs that upset people a little more than his skin color.
Although some have criticized Washington for using race to excuse his alleged homophobia, his statement shows just how outspoken some black men have become about inequities in the workplace.
Does it really?
James makes accommodations because of his 6-foot-2 height, which, he says, has made people view him as “threatening and menacing even though I’m the most peaceful person out there.” He shies away from making declarative statements at work, to prevent himself from appearing too aggressive. “I say, ‘What are your thoughts about it?’ rather than demanding they do certain things,” James says. “I put it out there in a fashion that they feel they have a choice.”
But doesn’t that mean you’ve learned to be a constructive, subtle, collaborative coworker? Imagine, being compelled by unspoken office rules to engage people in dialogue and solicit their thoughts on work matters! Oh, the racism!
I could go on, but I’ll end by saying this: The standard office enviroment is a demeaning, dehumanizing, and hermetically sealed place where no one is entirely sure how to act, or talk, or treat one another. There’s a sense of profound awkwardness, along with the standard quiet desperation, that slowly extracts your soul and destroys your individuality. That is, sadly, the way things are. Almost every complaint made in this piece could be made about anyone of any race. And to stretch to draw some kind of insight into race relations in America in 2007 is utter, complete bullshit.
ALSO: Adam Reilly does a little trendspotting-spotting himself on another story in today’s Globe.