The interesting thing about being the only black man, and black person, in an office is that I have this unique opportunity to educate white people about black culture.
For me, and many black men in my position, we find that once the initial barrier of resistance is overcome and a right of passage is granted, a competent and professional black man can go about the serious business of shattering stereotypes, representing the entire black race, and engaging in the refined behaviors that engender trust from our colleagues. After all, for many of the whites that we are exposed to, most will have had very limited, if any intimate contact with other black men.
Yes, trust is the key that opens up the door to comfort and intimacy with our white corporate colleagues. That’s why, when one of them makes a naive or ignorant remark, we are quick to overlook and even dismiss it. These remarks are considered innocuous by cultivated and mature professional black men. It’s only when they consistently recur that we become agitated, offended, or pissed.
Such was the case when a former co-worker asked me one day about the loud (i.e. colorful) clothes that black men wear. As I recall, the conversation went like this: “Gian, I’ve noticed that in our building that black men wear the loudest colors. You wear pretty bright colors too. Why is that?” He said in a sincere, but slightly quizzical tone.
After I inhaled and exhaled deeply, I made the decision to seriously engage him. But before I could respond, I needed confirmation that he was making a serious inquiry and not just instigating some lighthearted office banter to pass the time on a Friday afternoon. I replied, “How long have you been thinking about that?” His response was firm, “Since I started seeing more black guys working in the building,” he said. “Whenever I see them they are kind of flashy and they stand out…like peacocks.”
No, I didn’t launch into a Paul Mooney tirade, nor did I succumb to any violent impulses which would have caused me to spend the weekend in jail. I pondered what he said and made an effort to make sense of it. I could not, and I abandoned the conversation and went back to work.
Looking back on it (with no emotion and more analyzation) I can now say – many years later – that I can see, on a surface level, how a white person would draw that comparison. Since my co-worker made that statement, I’ve come to realize that my reaction to it was based as much on my ignorance of peacocks, as his ignorance about black culture.
To say that black men are like peacocks is a very colorful use of simile, but it also has merit beyond the obvious flamboyant inference.
Peacocks, like black men, are fascinating species. I only recently learned that only the males are called peacocks and females are called peahens. While the peacock is a wild bird by nature, they have been domesticated in many countries.
When many people think of a peacock, the first thing that comes to mind is their resplendent and colorful tail feathers which only the males have. These tail feathers (which do not come into full bloom until the peacock is about three years old) spread out into what is called a “train” when they are on full display. A train covers more than 60 percent of the peacocks total body length.
The train boasts colorful “eye” markings of blue, gold, red, and other hues. They also have a crest, or crown, on top their head, making them appear even more regal than they already do.
The large train has one purpose: to attract females for mating. Peahens choose their mates according to the size, color, and quality of these outrageous feather trains. A train that lacks vibrancy indicates infestation and lack of vitality.
The bigger and healthier the train appears, the greater the chances are that the peacock will be chosen by the female over its competitors with smaller, less healthy appearing trains. Peahens choose the male who is most desired by other peahens who they believe can produce healthy offspring that will have the characteristics of their dominant peacock fathers who will pass along qualities that will ensure their survival and success in life.
Since the time I was a young boy, I’ve witnessed black men in my family, in my church, and in my inner circle, wear fancy, colorful clothing. Eventually, I would adopt the same practices. As a teenager I noticed that I received attention from the females – much like the peacocks – as a result of my flashiness. It provided positive reinforcement to continue wearing them.
As a young man armed with a credit card, I had more expensive, but equally as flamboyant clothing. I continued to receive attention, but like most young black men who are not subconsciously aware of it, I, like the peacocks, was trying to outshine my competitors and create the outward appearance of status.
In black culture the men are often desperate to be positively acknowledged in a society that is still plagued with so many negative perceptions of them. Status obtained through sports, talent, academics, and other professional pursuits all require significant effort.
Like peacocks, the appearance of status entitles one to privileges, benefits, and a greater selection of women. In black culture, focus by black men is often misplaced, and as a result, too much effort is expended on the acquisition of status symbols instead of the actual status itself. It’s a trap for living above one’s means.
Clothing, jewelry, cars, and other material items communicate false messages of worth (not self-worth) to onlookers. They do not fill the deeper void. In fact, they only divert from the real issue: black men who feel displaced, disadvantaged, and discouraged – and try to compensate for it, like peacocks, by building and displaying a pretentious “train” which includes, but is not limited to clothing.
When I joined the workforce I toned down my colorful attire; opting for the incorporation of colors instead of excessive colorfulness. I did this because I wanted to “fit in,” and also because I no longer felt the need to draw attention to myself in the manner, or for the reasons, that I did earlier in my life. Yes, I still have flair, but it’s more of my personal style than “flash.”
Ironically, I’ve met many white men in corporate America who have a penchant for fine dressing and designer labels, but they are driven by the pursuit of real status that’s not defined, or easily detected by the quality or appearance of their clothing. In addition, the cost of their attire is proportionate with their income.
So even though considerable years have passed, I hope that I have sufficiently answered the question of what black men and peacocks have in common, and more specifically, why black men tend to wear loud, colorful clothing for my former co-worker, wherever he may be.
Gian Fiero is a seasoned educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development and music/entertainment industry operations. He is affiliated with San Francisco State University as an adjunct professor and the United States Small Business Administration (SBA) where he conducts monthly workshops on topics such as career planning, public relations, and personal growth.
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