Black Men Quietly Combating Stereotypes
Saturday, July 1, 2006; 5:43 PM
NEW YORK -- Keith Borders tries hard not to scare people.
He's 6-foot-7, a garrulous lawyer who talks with his hands.
And he's black.
Many people find him threatening. He works hard to prove otherwise.
"I have a very keen sense of my size and how I communicate," says Borders of Mason, Ohio. "I end up putting my hands in my pockets or behind me. I stand with my feet closer together. With my feet spread out, it looks like I'm taking a stance. And I use a softer voice."
Every day, African-American men consciously work to offset stereotypes about them _ that they are dangerous, aggressive, angry. Some smile a lot, dress conservatively and speak with deference: "Yes, sir," or "No, ma'am." They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators or stand too close in grocery stores.
It's all about surviving, and trying to thrive, in a nation where biased views of black men stubbornly hang on decades after segregation and where statistics show a yawning gap between the lives of white men and black men. Black men's median wages are barely three-fourths those of whites; nearly 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during his life; and, on average, black men die six years earlier than whites.
Sure, everyone has ways of coping with other people's perceptions: Who acts the same at work as they do with their kids, or their high school friends?
But for black men, there's more at stake. If they don't carefully calculate how to handle everyday situations _ in ways that usually go unnoticed _ they can end up out of a job, in jail or dead.
"It's a stressful process," Borders says.
Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says learning to adapt is at the heart of being an American black male.
"Black mothers and fathers socialize their sons to not make waves, to not come up against the authorities, to speak even more politely not only when there are whites present but particularly if there are whites who have power," she said.