In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin expiates about American society, writing presciently that it is "a civilization sexually so pathetic that the white man's masculinity depends on a denial of the masculinity of the blacks." As always, Baldwin's writing is relevant for understanding contemporary society and the persistence of American racism and provides some explanation for the marginal professional success black gay men experience. However, it would be inappropriate and misleading to label that success as "black gay privilege" as did Dr. John Fitzgerald Gates. As a gay black man, I find fault in many of Dr. Gates' assertions principally because I have never encountered any of the secret spaces that he described where one gains access to a host of privileges. Furthermore, as a sociologist I am troubled by the instances where his claims of "black gay privilege" is not supported by social scientific evidence.
My colleague, David S. Pedulla, at the University of Texas-Austin, recently published results from an experimental study that asked respondents to make a salary recommendation after reviewing a resume for a job applicant. Resumes were experimentally manipulated along two axes, the race of applicant (white vs. black) and their sexual orientation (straight vs. gay). Results showed that straight white men and gay black men received similar initial offers, while straight black men and gay white men both received significantly lower offers. While these results are important and increase our working knowledge of the role and impact of "intersecting identities," it does not in anyway provide evidence of "gay black privilege." The fact remains we have more questions than answers about than how race, gender and sexuality unfold and intersect in the workplace.
First, while there are certainly drawbacks to conducting experiments versus testing hypotheses in real world encounters, it seems unreasonable to assert the existence of "black gay privilege" based upon this study, because the data only show how respondents evaluate race and sexual orientation in one instance: hiring. Forget the fact that these survey respondents are making suggested initial salaries and that these are not real offers of employment, we know nothing about of the daily experiences of professional black gay men and more importantly if these perceived benefits or privileges are extended during throughout their tenure at a work organization. Does "black gay privilege" still hold when trying to negotiate a raise or a promotion? It is one thing to evaluate a person's multiple social identities on paper and quite another to evaluate that individual in person.
Second, we know little about why black gay men received similar salary offers as straight white men, although there is evidence in the study that black gay men are seen as less threatening. While black gay men may not fit the negative stereotypes commonly associated with straight black men that depict them as sexually and physically dangerous, there are a host of stereotypes that black professional men encounter in the workplace. Sociologist Adai Harvey Wingfield documents how black professional men in occupations dominated by white men are often cast into the numerous roles, including that of the "superbrother." Going beyond the previously discussed research study, I would hypothesize that many professional gay black men are cast and find success as the "superbrother," who has excellent credentials, typically better than their white counterparts. As Wingfield identifies "superbrothers" in the workplace must meet exceptionally high standards and incur massive debts attending elite universities to obtain similar positions held by white men with less impressive resumes. While I agree with Dr. Gates' assessment that many white employers might hire black gay men because they believe they are killing two "diversity birds" with one stone, I am unsure if that translates into privilege or a burden. As doubly diverse employees, black gay men might find themselves working harder for the same salary perhaps despite superior resumes and with the additional responsibilities of serving as representatives of their respective communities. The point here is to question if it is privilege that we are observing or oppression in disguise that requires black gay men to be exceptional and supernatural to get ahead. Furthermore, I would also like to point out as a scholar of organizations, just because someone is present in an organization, it does not mean that individual is in power or has the power to change its institutional structure.
Third, while Pedulla's study adds to the literature on intersectionality, I was struck by Gates' lack of an intersectional perspective when thinking about "black gay privilege." Specifically, he writes "within companies, black gay privilege carries a tacit obligation and expectation that one's gayness trumps ones blackness in affairs with the company." That tacit obligation is unproven and says nothing of how black gay men see and experience themselves in the workplace. Personally, I am unable separate my race and sexual orientation in the workplace. While my sexuality might lead others to see me as less threatening, it does not stop others from confusing me with other gay and straight black men, opening the door to encounter racial micro aggressions, nor does this intersectional identity minimize bonds of racial solidarity with my black colleagues. Although we know little about how black gay men negotiate their identity in the workplace, the intersectionality literature is clear that having multiple social identities is complex. It is more than the sum of multiple identities, rather, it is the reflection of identities intersecting and influencing one another.
While Pedulla's research is promising, we need to rigorously interrogate what it means to be a black gay man. Do these "privileges" extend to black gay men who do not fit stereotypical images, such as those who are not effeminate but exude traditional traits of masculinity or those who are radical queer brothas but who refuse to confirm to Eurocentric standards? Before one assumes the presence of "black gay privilege" one must acknowledge the variety of experiences of black gay men.
This post was originally published on the Huffington Post on April 21, 2015.