If you only looked at media portrayals (and a great deal of sociological research), you might write off black men as mostly trapped by an educational system that too often fails them, labor market that under-employs them, and criminal justice system that over-incarcerates them. You might conclude that there are a few black men who happen to beat these social structures and become highly visible role models who advocate for adopting appropriate values as a way of achieving social and personal success. Overall, however, it would be easy to conclude that most black men fall somewhere in these two camps.
My research challenges this generalization. Realizing that black men who work in professional jobs are virtually absent from much sociological research, I conducted a study of the ways that race, gender, and class shape their work experiences to get a sense of how we can learn more about the sociological processes that impact various aspects of their occupational trajectories. The findings are reported in my new book, No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work.
What I found is that the current theoretical frameworks that ostensibly explain black middle class workers and black women professionals fit these men imperfectly. I build from Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic theory of tokenization, which contends that those in the numerical minority experience certain perceptual tendencies—heightened visibility, emphasized contrasts with the dominant group, challenges assimilating into the majority, and penalties for not “fitting in” with them. I argue that intersections of race, gender, and class mean that tokenism imprecisely explains these men’s work experiences. Instead, these overlapping factors produce what I describe as partial tokenism—a phenomena in which some outcomes reflect what we would expect based on the token theory, while others are markedly different. Thus, for black professional men, race, class, and gender intersect to affect their relationships with mentors, colleagues, and supervisors; shape their general work experiences; and inform the ways they present themselves as minority men in these hegemonically masculine professions.
I focus on several key areas of black professional men’s work: the general experiences they have at work; their relationships with women of all races; their interactions with other white and black men; the ways they construct performances of masculinity; and the ways that they engage in emotional performance. Ultimately, the results indicated that in each of these areas, race, gender, and class shaped these men’s work experiences in unique and previously unexplored ways.