When Black Men Are Harassed

They not only face harassment, but tread carefully to avoid being seen as harassers themselves.

Doctor working on computer.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Sean (a pseudonym used to protect the subject of academic research), an orthopedic nurse, told me point-blank, “I’ve also had instances whereby I was sexually harassed … I had a male patient that did that to me—made a pass at me. A very open pass. I came in the room. He had just basically stripped naked on the bed.” Once Sean told the patient that if he did not get dressed Sean would request reassignment, the patient complied—but only after insisting that Sean take his phone number.

This behavior was not limited to patients. Sean also described fending off other nurses. In one case, a married colleague “actually physically touched me in the groin area. In the work setting … The first time, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to pretend this didn’t happen. Let’s just leave this alone.’ And then it kept happening. Every day it was something. She was either brushing up against me, her breasts or something—it was every day, it was repeatedly. So finally I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to report you to the board of nursing. I’m going to skip the hospital because I know they’re not going to do anything. I’m going to report you to the board of nursing.’ ” After this threat, the colleague relented.

There is no doubt that the #MeToo movement has introduced major cultural change. It’s not that this marks the first time women have publicly tried to draw attention to mistreatment from powerful, high-profile men. But it may well be the first time in modern memory when women’s accusations have had swift, concrete consequences for the men in question, rather than the women themselves being summarily dismissed, disbelieved, or disregarded. It is long overdue for women to receive the benefit of the doubt and for institutions to stop defending and protecting those who create unsafe work environments. But while women are finally being believed, sexual harassment and violence isn’t gender-specific. A 2017 poll conducted by PBS News Hour, NPR, and Marist reported that 22 percent of American workers reported being sexually harassed or abused at work, with 35 percent of women and 9 percent of men alleging harassment. Women’s stories are finally being taken seriously. But what happens when men get harassed? And what about when those men are also marginalized themselves, like black men or other men of color?

Since 2007, I’ve been researching the ways black men navigate work in professional, predominantly white occupations. The fields in which these men are employed are varied and include nursing, engineering, academia, medicine, and law. While many of these men saw opportunities for advancement, ongoing racial discrimination meant that they encountered micro and macro aggressions at work—having their appearance heavily scrutinized, capabilities doubted, and mere presence in the workplace questioned. But as black men, some of them also faced unique forms of sexual harassment that heavily affected the ways they navigated professional work environments.

The patterns that Sean described—unwanted touching, repeated infractions, a belief that the institutions where they work will not act—are troublingly similar to the accounts we have been hearing from women. But for Sean, being a black man in a profession predominantly comprised of white women made this experience much more complicated. For one thing, black men constitute only about 2 percent of all nurses, and describe persistent racial discrimination in the field. And as Sean noted, being in the minority in this way made his situation more uncertain: “A lot of times it’s not even reported because the thought is that men don’t report things like that. And if you report things like that, people are going to question your sexuality, your identity.” For black men in this profession, racial and gender power dynamics, especially the assumption that black men don’t belong in the field in the first place, put them in a situation where their #MeToo moments may not be so easily anticipated or shared.

Even in professions where (white) men were in the majority, black men still encountered behaviors that created uncomfortable work environments. For instance, when colleagues became too informal, black men felt nervous that persistent racial and gendered stereotypes meant they might be wrongly identified as bad actors. Nathan (another pseudonym for academic research purposes), an emergency room doctor, characterized his workplace as one where sexual banter and joking were common among his colleagues. These sorts of off-color exchanges were par for the course, and most of his co-workers found them harmless. But for Nathan, they always introduced a level of discomfort: “I don’t really joke with them too much. When things get to an uncomfortable level, I just tend to either walk away or not answer. You just try not to get yourself involved. Because when the supervisor or whoever asks, ‘Who was there?’ the response is, ‘Three nurses and the black guy.’ ”

As a doctor, Nathan was not subject to the overt physical harassment that men like Sean encountered in nursing. But like many women who’ve shared their stories recently, he worked in an environment where sexual jokes and banter created a culture that affected his ability to do his job. Being a black man in this predominantly white setting affected the extent to which he could socially interact with colleagues in this space. As he put it, “You always stand out a little bit, so whether you say something or you don’t say something, they always remember that you’re in the vicinity and you’re there. It’s just better to leave.”

Ricky (also a pseudonym), another doctor, also described treading very carefully—sometimes even leaving the room—whenever colleagues’ banter crossed a certain line. He said, “The relationship between nurses and physicians is very, very casual. I don’t co-mingle as much as some of the other colleagues do, because I still need to be able to influence people and I don’t want people to get so casual with me to where I can’t lay out a decision plan for the department and get people to respect that.”

Ricky went on to note that even if he weren’t in a leadership role, he’d “still have to be careful. There’s a lot of innuendo that goes on between nurses and doctors in the ER … I joke around and have fun, but I have a line that I don’t cross. Sometimes you’ll become so casual in your comment to where you may have a new nurse that may come into the department and you’ll say something, expecting them to respond like others have, and they get offended by it.”

Ricky’s account highlights another important dimension of this issue: For black men working with white women, racial and gendered stereotypes about black masculinity are never far from the surface. Since the post-slavery era, the cultural trope of black men as rapists and threats to white women has been used to legitimize various forms of white-on-black violence, including segregation, mob rule, and lynching. In predominantly white professional spaces, black men report being very deliberate and cautious in their interactions with white women to avoid evoking the caricature of dangerous black men. Consequently, sexualized jokes can create a uniquely uncomfortable work environment for black men, as they carefully navigate the occupational minefield of connecting with colleagues without ever crossing particularly fraught racial and gendered lines.

While it hasn’t generated much attention, black men have been having their own experiences with sexual harassment at work. Like many women who have come forward lately, they silently endure sexual banter, walk a fine line when it comes to being friendly without falling into gendered stereotypes, and, in the most extreme cases, confront unwanted groping and touching.

These experiences suggest that as we are finally starting to give women’s stories due credence, it is important to remember that sexual harassment is, at its core, an issue of power—who has it, who doesn’t, and how institutions can choose either to protect or discipline those who abuse it. If the outcome of the #MeToo movement is that policies change to ensure that no one from a socially disadvantaged group has to be subject to harassment, then this will be progress that has far-reaching implications, and not just for women.