Hello Successful Black Man — Why No Smile?

November 15, 2011  |  

by Sheree Gaines

A few weeks ago, I was at a Tribeca bar having drinks with a friend. A man that she’d been dating for a couple of weeks later joined us. How do I describe what happened next? Trust me, it wasn’t anything so fascinating but it was interesting because it played out like it’s played out so many times. “Chris” was an investment banker (I’m sure his title is much more complicated but that’s a simple way of describing) on Wall Street. When he greeted me, he did so without so much as a grin. He put out his hand, took a seat across from me and next to the woman he’s been courting and continued to act too cool to smile or to even let his guard down.

I’ve encountered his type before – many, many times. It was the case of the IBM: Ivy League (or Intelligent) Black Man. The term is thrown around loosely to describe the successful black man who exudes a particular air of arrogance – an attitude that defies warmth, openness and humility.

We all know that arrogance is not exclusive to Black men of course but considering that I’m a Black woman amongst a peer group where success, this is an area I’m familiar with.
Why does success seem to correlate with arrogance? When you really think about it, what’s the whole attack on humbleness. Our deeper societal values praise humility, yet popular culture and media promote the attraction of arrogance.

As I was sitting across from Chris, I couldn’t help but think he’s doing himself a disservice by putting up such a façade. The arrogant attitude serves nobody. Maybe, in his mind, this is what he’s supposed to act like. But in reality, the idea that “I’m better than you” is not only a obstacle to his own enrichment but also an obstacle for the community as a whole. Whether we admit or not, there is a lot of prejudice in the Black community. One of my other African-American friends subconsciously avoids attending events like Black professional mixers because she’s scarred by the whole IBM attitude. (And yes, we know females possess a version of it too).

As a Black man who’s “made it,” an IBM has the special feeling of being a rare commodity. From the dating perspective, he’s attractive for his success and the the uniqueness of his position as one of the few men of color in the upper echelons. Some may say “who can blame ’em” when it comes to their arrogance of the IBM. But I think it’s time to drop the airs.

I’ve seen Chris a few more times since that initial meeting and I have to say that I’ve warmed up to him, because essentially he let down his guard. Since I wasn’t reflecting any attitude and was my more usual open and warm self, he felt a bit more comfortable around me. My friend noticed the same thing about him as well. He was so busy posturing and making sure he conveyed his pride at the beginning, she wasn’t sure it was going to go anywhere. But as time passed, he realized that she was a real person who didn’t function like a character out of a script who was only interested in his pedigree. Hopefully, he’ll remember to not hold back his best self when encountering new people because that would be a darn shame.

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