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Wynndell Bishop
Wynndell Bishop says he made a conscious decision to speak with a softer voice and present himself in an unaggressive manner. (Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff)

The rules of conduct

Some black men say they're held to higher standards than whites in the workplace

On Fridays, employees at the Boston Architectural College have the option to dress casually. But when Michael James, a director of human resources and diversity at the school, donned denim shorts one recent Friday, his clothing elicited a few comments. 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."

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.

In the past, black men had no choice but to succumb to white society's fears and present themselves deferentially. But today a new generation of black men are bringing attention to and trying to change these implied rules of conduct.

Last month in an interview on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb talked about how black quarterbacks have to work harder than white ones to prove their worth. He said even when he plays well in a game, critics will say of him: "We would have scored more points if he would have done this."

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. . ."

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. It's usually black men with the wealth, fame, or social class to withstand the negative consequences of speaking out about such issues who discuss it.

Tessil Collins, 55, believes his age has earned him the right not to cater to these pressures. Collins works as an industry cluster coordinator of arts, media, and communications at the Boston Public Schools' Office of High School Renewal (he's currently organizing with the Globe Foundation the Media Matters conference for high school students). In addition, Collins runs his own webcasting and creative services business, Spectrum Broadcasting Co. Being an entrepreneur with a second job gives Collins the luxury to speak bluntly.

"Black people with options are always going to give people cause for pause," Collins says. "They're not intimidated by whiteness. They can say things and not feel like it's going to cost them monetarily."

Those who are dependent on corporations for job security learn to deal with this issue by approaching it with a different mindset.

"You can't simply see it as somehow an erosion of who you are," says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University and author of last year's nonfiction work about black masculinity and sexuality, "New Black Man," "that you're inauthentic because you're 'acting white.' It's simply a strategy that needs to be employed in order for you to be successful in your career and in your life."

As an allocation analyst at TJX Companies Inc. in Framingham for three years, starting in 2000, Wynndell Bishop says he made a conscious decision to speak with a softer voice and present himself in an unaggressive manner. "I would say 60 percent of the division I was in was young white women between the ages of 21 and 28," says Bishop, 28, who received his MBA from Boston College in May. "A lot of those women, to my knowledge, didn't have a lot of interaction with black folks other than what they saw on TV."

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."

The adjustments black men make in how they handle themselves often depends on the sex and class of the people with whom they work. When Bishop later held a management job at Gillette's factory in Andover with a predominantly white group of male blue-collar workers, he says he felt a lot more comfortable.

But it's in casual situations, when guards are let down, that misunderstandings can take place. Collins talks about a recent experience - he wouldn't specify at which job - where some UPS packages he was expecting had gotten lost. At one point, says Collins, a colleague approached and told Collins he'd upset the secretary when he asked about the whereabouts of the mail.

"This is how it happens," says Collins, before posing the question in his regular voice. "You go, 'Hi . . I was looking for my package. Can you help me find it?' She sees, 'Where's my [expletive] package!?!' . . . It doesn't matter if you're speaking in the softest of tones. They see this angry black man looking for his package, and it's scary."

Although Asian Americans, Latinos, and men of other ethnic groups also face stereotyping in the workplace, they don't experience the problems that black men do, Neal and others say. Although Asians look physically different from whites, Asian Americans are stereotyped as unthreatening. Unless they're dark-skinned, speak in their native language, or have an accent, Latino men don't stand out.

Black men do.

"If we're sitting in a room of a hundred," says Bishop, "and there's all different white heritages in the room, no one's going to necessarily know the Jewish person is Jewish, but everyone will know that I'm black."

James finds the persistent negative stereotyping that accompanies having brown skin baffling. "It's like we have our priorities in the wrong place," he says. "My success shouldn't be dependent on how I look or how well I can replicate what you're comfortable with. It should be about what I bring to the table and how I help the organization advance in its goals and objectives."

James made a conscious effort to adapt to the corporate world after a series of bad experiences. Finding mentors to guide him through the process helped, he says. His boss at Boston Architectural College is Theodore Landsmark, a prominent figure in the 1970s, when tensions arose over busing in Boston, who shares the wisdom he's gathered over the years with James. James also gets advice from Benaree Wiley, the former president and CEO of The Partnership Inc., which develops leaders of color, and the Rev. William E. Dickerson II, James's pastor at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester.

"I've been terminated from [a] job," says James, who didn't want to specify which company, "because I've taken on the top leaders based on ethical principles. At the end of the day I realized that you can win the battle yet lose the war. . . . You could be the world's best advocate for the right thing, but you would not be as effective sitting on the outside of the door looking in than you are sitting on the inside influencing the change, even if it's not going at the rate you would like to have it go at."

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