Unmasking Black Gay Privilege
Huffington Post | David G. Savage
Whereas “white male privilege” is widely debated, a study by Princeton University researcher David S. Pedulla suggests that black gay men may benefit from forms of privilege as well. Such an idea is counterintuitive to many people who consider black gay men to be triply disadvantaged — subjected, individually and collectively, to prejudices of race, gender and sexuality. But according to the study, “The Positive Consequences of Negative Stereotypes: Race, Sexual Orientation, and the Job Application Process,” and echoed by a number of black gay men with whom I have discussed the issue, being perceived as gay, if one is black, may indeed impose an “offsetting stereotype” of being nonthreatening that advantages some black gay men over some black straight men. I call this phenomenon “black gay privilege.”
The study found that when people were provided resumes to review to make salary recommendations for job candidates they perceived to be black gay men, they recommended salaries equal to those recommended for candidates the reviewers perceived to be straight white men. Candidates perceived to be straight black men, along with those perceived to be gay white men, were recommended lower salaries. The study concluded that black gay men face less prejudice than either straight black men or gay white men. While the study and its conclusions are fraught, it raises issues worthy of exploration. Does “black gay privilege” really exist?
Racial stereotyping of black men as lazy savages given to extreme sexual prowess and posing an existential threat to white society is deeply rooted in America sociology. From the time of slavery to now, black men have been perceived either as thugs to be feared or, if successful, having “made it against the odds.” There has been little room for alternative narratives in the America imagination, notwithstanding the election of Barak Obama to the presidency of the United States. It remains true that in some companies, normative perceptions of black men are tinged with fright of the black “boogieman” that manifests in biases in hiring, promotion and salary. This same phenomenon is present in the social interactions black men have in stores, with police, and walking down the street every day. It is also true that to mitigate their shame in being biased against black men generally, some white power elites give preferential treatment to gay black men. After all, they can’t be chided for being prejudiced against black men if they hire “the gays.”
The literature shows that the masculinity of black gay men is often feminized in popular culture, thereby reducing the impact of traditional black male stereotypes and serving as a counter, sometimes beneficial, stereotype. Within companies, black gay privilege carries a tacit obligation and expectation that one’s gayness trumps ones blackness in affairs with the company. In this sense, black gay men are paid to be compliant.
Black gay privilege is an attempt by white power elites to erase the shame of their prejudice. But black gay privilege is as great an assault against black gay men as it is against black straight men. For it casts black gay men in the “sambo” image of the past in which black men who were deemed “acceptable” to white employers were caricatured by whites and blacks alike as compliant, affable beings whose primary goal was to please. Hence, black gay privilege is not an endorsement of black gay men, but rather a denunciation of black male authenticity from which some have benefitted.
I have benefitted from black gay privilege throughout my career as a senior human resources, financial and diversity officer. I have accessed spaces and opportunities that “stereotypical” black men were not able to, and I have been in a position to ensure that my salary has always been competitive. While I would like to claim that my successes have all been based on my merit, the truth is that some have been based on peoples’ perceptions of me as a black gay man they could work with. They were unaware of what James Baldwin called “the fire shut up in my bones” for black male equality. I am not alone. One colleague framed his use of black gay privilege as subversive, saying:
I … love it when they can’t see the steel behind the chiffon — it gives me an edge. I have used black gay privilege to open doors for straight male counterparts who would have never been given an opportunity — and they didn’t even realize what was going on.
Yet, black gay privilege is a harmful microaggression against all black men, as the underlying message is a rejection of our humanity. This is an ageless burden that fractures and disconnects black men from the social fabrics of the organizations we serve. Such phenomena speak less to black gay privilege than to white privilege in constructing a racially divisive paradigm to placate their bias. It is incumbent upon black gay men to examine the impacts of black gay privilege on their lives, and for employers to countermand the implicit biases that have given rise to this system of prejudice.
As a black man, I perceive any attempt to separate me from other black men, gay or straight, as an assault on my dignity; indeed, a reproof of my being, for my spirit is connected to all black men, which is the greatest privilege of all.