Schwalbe-Shalin on Racism, Gendered Being, and Authenticity

The following email exchange between Dmitri Shalin and Michael Schwalbe, Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology and Anthroplogy, North Carolina State University, took place between October 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008.  The exchange was occasioned by Schwalbe's paper “We Wear the Mask:  Subordinated Masculinity and Persona Trap.” The original text is in black, Schwalbe’s comments are marked red, and Shalin’s response is in blue.

October 1, 2008

Greetings, Michael: 

With much interest I read your paper “We Wear the Mask:  Subordinated Masculinity and Persona Trap.”  Below are a few thoughts occasioned by your insights. 

October 5, 2008


Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my paper. I solicited comments from several other people, but no one read it as closely as you did. If had known about your interest in the sociology of biography, I would have sent the paper to you for comments earlier. In any case, I've responded to some of your questions and comments below. You raise important issues.

The study is based on real life stories.  The respondents must have given you permission to recount their experiences and use their real names, although you do not dwell on this subject.  Did you consider showing your writing to the protagonists, Mason and Atwater, while they were alive?  Given the current interest in co-constructed ethnographic narratives, that would have been an interesting option.  As Carolyn Ellis and other ethnographers argue, bringing participants on the constructed narrative might be an empowering experience, especially when you deal with such thoughtful respondents.  When participant observers enter into a dialogue with observant participants, new possibilities are bound to open. 

I read one piece to Mason, one to Atwater. These episodes are recounted in the book.

I would say that any book like this is co-constructed. Mason and Atwater had to invite me into their lives for an extended period of time. They had to share a great many stories and bits of information with me. Their words, in the form of dialogue, are a big part of the book. But, at the level of writing, the decisions were mine, as both men understood would be the case. At the end of the book, I reflect on the limits of biography when it comes to fully knowing other people's lives.

I agree that the respondent powerfully informs the narrative, and in that sense, co-constructs the story.  Yet, the editorial decisions are the writer’s, which is not the case with a co-constructed narrative where the editorial decisions – especially things to be included/excluded from the narrative – are mutual.  Carolyn Ellis wrote extensively on the subject.  You can find her works in the Intercyberlibrary.  A sticky question of “ownership” arises when the author is the sole editor.  Do the writers have exclusive rights to the story or should they share the dividends – in whichever form they accrue – with the participants?

I agreed to share royalties, 25% each, with Mason and Atwater, if those royalties exceeded the costs of the project.  Both men, however, died before the book was published, and the small royalties it’s earned haven’t come close to offsetting my expenses or the financial assistance I gave the men over the years.  If the men had lived longer and the book produced serious income, it would have been my pleasure to share that income with them.

It’s an issue that would require a separate discussion and an examination of specific cases, but, for the record, let me say that I’m skeptical about the degree of equality that characterizes ethnographies or biographical texts that are alleged to be “co-constructed.” More often than not, I suspect that this claim is mainly identity work on the part of an academic author.   

I have not read your book where you might have explored these issues, but it seems that your stance was traditional insofar as you acted as an outside observer who made no effort to challenge the respondents’ beliefs, offer them solace, become a transformative factor in their lives.  You take a stance as a moral agent, but your impact on society is mediated by your scholarly narrative.

Actually, the book is not at all traditional -- by the standards of sociology. The book is a mix of social history, biography, and narrative nonfiction, with most of the analysis between the lines. If you get a chance to read the book, you'll see that I indeed challenged the men in different ways at different times (Atwater more so than Mason). I also became deeply enmeshed in their lives. The book chapter you read doesn't offer much sense of this. It's much more overtly analytic than the book.

I realize that your paper distills key theoretical points from your book-length narrative, and thus omits some fleshy details.  Hope to read your book at some point. 

In theoretical terms, your arguments unfold along the following lines.  American culture disseminates the ideal of “hegemonic masculinity” that stresses potency and self-control manifested in men’s capacity to follow the chosen life design, achieve status, provide for one’s family, win mates, and so on.  African-American males born in the segregated South were severely hampered in their ability to realize this gender blueprint.  As a result, they faced the choice of either settling into the roles that underscored their subordinate status and “subjugated masculinity” or defying the racist system by recourse to a life strategy that flouted societal norms and allowed one to assert hegemonic masculinity by aggressively pursuing sexual adventure, cultivating street smart demeanor, and engaging in impulsive behavior which afforded the downtrodden a chance for authentic existence in the world where odds were stuck against them. 

These were just two options. These options represented patterns into which many, but not all, working-class black men of the era were drawn. I would also say that some working-class black men of the era were drawn to different patterns at different times in their lives. Relocating out of the South also gave some men more options.

Perhaps you could have mentioned in your paper this wider range of options to cue the reader on to the biographical repertories enciphered in the era.

One can never say everything on every occasion.  There has also been a great deal written about how Black men (in both the North and the South) have dealt with the indignities and constraints imposed by white racism.  I would encourage interested readers to explore this literature.  A good place to start is Herb Boyd and Robert Allen’s anthology Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America (1995, Ballantine). 

This reasoning reminds me of Merton’s thesis according to which society disseminates culturally desirable achievement goals while providing unequal means for achieving these universal ends.  Those at the bottom of social hierarchy with blocked pathways to success feel pressure to use deviant means to achieve legitimate cultural goals.

The case study you report offers evidence supporting this theoretical model.  Mason-Reet cuts a compelling figure in your narrative as an example of accommodation, with the oppressive forces nudging the man into a Sambo-style character.  Still, Reet manages to highlight what Goffman calls “role distance” – action patterns accentuating the agent’s prowess as a skilled performer maintaining autonomy from role requirements. 

Mason maintained some autonomy from his performed character, but the autonomy diminished over time. As I suggest in the paper, over time he came to be more and more captured by his persona. Goffman might have said that Mason came to believe in his own act. I would say that Mason came to believe that he didn't have much choice but to be the act.

The Goffman’s reading and your alternative interpretation are of particular interest to me.  Hope you develop this tangent at greater length.  I recall your paper on Goffman and emotion that you contributed to the special SI issue on Identity and Postmodern Condition – does it exist in the digital form?  I would like to add it to your section in the Intercyberlibrary.

I don’t have an electronic copy, but perhaps the piece is somehow accessible online (or in an old-fashioned library).  Here’s the full citation in case anyone wants to track it down: Schwalbe, M.L. (1993). “Goffman against postmodernism: Emotion and the reality of the self.” Symbolic Interaction 16: 333-350.     

Atwater-Shine is another colorful character in your narrative.  His role distancing behavior takes a nonconformist form, as he openly flouts conventional norms imposed on African-American men by a racist society.  Atwater “cast himself not only as a victim of racism, but as a man who was doubly beaten down because he tried to fight back” – hence, his persona as “a flashy hoodlum and skilled lover” (p. 2).  Each man “struggles to live authentically, without masks worn to please more powerful,” yet each pays the price for the kind of persona one chose to be, for “a protective persona can become a self-destructive trap” (p. 3). 

While Atwater’s case fits in with your argument, it raises the possibility of an alternative explanation.  Atwater did well in school; he was fortunate enough to acquire early on such a symbol of status as a parents' car, which he used to carouse with friends and win sexual favors.  You mention “out-of-date books” in his racially segregated school, along with the fact that Atwater "saw that black folks who went to school and got degrees often got no better jobs than black folks who didn’t go to school” (p. 4).  Yet, this awareness appears to set in when Atwater was already a pugnacious teenager, after his free-wheeling habits were formed, and before the racist handicaps had a chance to divert him from conventional pathways to success.  You signal the transition to racially conscious attitude toward society and the individual's place in it in the following sentence:  “What, then, was the point of school, Atwater thought, if whitey wasn’t going to let him get ahead anyway?” (p. 4). 

Atwater's racial awareness emerged earlier than is conveyed by the paper you read. His feelings about school were also ambivalent for a long time -- even after he got out of the army. He knew he was capable of doing good schoolwork, and perhaps even of achieving some marginal upward mobility by virtue of such work. But he dug deep holes for himself because of his fooling around in high school and his screw-ups in the army. For a time, he also lost faith in himself. So there was an objective, racist reality that blocked his mobility, and a habitus that led him to prefer the pleasures of adventuring (drinking, carousing, hoboing, etc.) to re-subordinating himself in a school environment. The book presents these matters in more detail.

Your reading makes an excellent sense, although I still wonder how much of Atwater’s acting out in the army was a protest against racism, how much was his reaction to the inanities of the life in the army, and how much a reflection of his personal struggle to distinguish and prove himself to his peers. 

It is unclear from the text whether this is Atwater’s language or your summary of a typified reasoning an African-American youngster could have adopted under the circumstances. 

It was a slight paraphrase of Atwater's language. I think it's also representative of a pattern of thinking characteristic of many young black men in similar circumstances.

You don’t have to be Caesar to understand one, Weber told us.  All you need to do is to describe a probable course of action and a typical rationalization that accompanies it.  That is the blueprint for verstehende soziologie.  Your approach is somewhat different from Weber’s neokantianism, in that you are attuned to the affective gendered being and seek to demonstrate how the assorted characters and narrative structures of the era reflected the inequities and inequalities of the era. 

Even if this is Atwater’s self-construction, one has to wonder if that is a sufficient explanation of his chosen life path.  Elsewhere in the text you mention that Mason’s children, who were not much older than Atwater, did well in school and followed a more conventional road to success:  “All graduated from high school, two from college, and two from business school” (p. 14).  Why did Atwater turn into the wise guy? 

The answer, I would say, is biographical. It's a matter of how his life unfolded and the particular conjunction of circumstances he faced. This is the story I try to tell in the book. The pieces of the story have to do with being caught between two messed up parents, with the image of manhood toward which he gravitated as a teen, with the car, the sexing around, and many other little episodes of trouble. All these circumstances and events conspired to put Atwater on a different track than Mason's kids. In the book I also show how Mason's kids, most of them anyway, got onto different tracks. What Mason's kids got to see, that Atwater didn't, was that elite whites were "nothing special." That demystification gave Mason's kids the idea that they too could do whatever they wanted, just like the fraternity boys.

Again, your interpretation is entirely plausible.  It does not rule out alternative (complementary?) readings, however.  The problem, as I see it, is with the causal attribution.  In the social domain, we have to be careful asserting that “X causes Y,” for the two tend to switch places.

I think the best we can ever do is to come up with plausible interpretations, ones that are supported by different kinds of data obtained in different ways.  That’s how I tried to develop my interpretations of Mason and Atwater.  A philosopher of science might call this “inference to the best explanation.”  We seek, in other words, the explanation that makes the best sense of all available facts (presuming, of course, a good-faith effort to obtain and deal with all relevant facts).  You’re right, though, that in analyzing individual lives – and social processes more generally – we have to remain aware that what we treat as “effects” can act back on what we treat as “causes.”  It seems to me that this understanding of social reality is a basic part of the symbolic interactionist perspective. It’s not just that X and Y cause Z, but that X, Y, and Z are what they are only by virtue of their relationships to each other, and these relationships also change over time. (This way of looking at things is illustrated in a part of Remembering Reet and Shine [pp. 131-136] where I analyze Atwater’s drinking, especially in connection to his feelings about his mother.)     

Boozing youngsters shunning school and playing hooky are found in every social strata.  Whatever their origins, some manage to overcome a jerky start and earn a place in the conventional world.  It stands to reason that the person’s class and racial affiliation plays a part here – with the right social and cultural capital, a mediocre student and a troubled teen might grow up to be a US president, while a teen with limited resources will find it much harder to overcome the slow start sand self-destructive habits.  Still, we need to ask why some agents hailing from disadvantaged groups are upwardly mobile and hegemonically gendered while others adopt alternative lifestyles and/or settle into subordinate positions. 

When I teach about this stuff, I've found it useful to invoke a "conjunction theory" to explain why some lower-class kids get ahead and most don't. The conjunction is between resources (cultural, social, human, and economic capital), opportunities, and habitus (an ingrained disposition that makes kids ready or not ready to perceive and take advantage of opportunities). I say that all three mobility factors have to come together at the right time if kids are going to get ahead. I also point out that this same way of looking at things is useful for understanding why kids from middle-class families tend to end up in middle-class jobs. The same factors operate. It's just that for middle-class kids, the resources and opportunities are built into their lives, and the correct habitus is built into their psyches.

I agree.  Bourdieu has much of interest to say on the subject, although I take issue with him insofar as he tends to cast a fully socialized body as a semiconductor whose “conductivity” – a capacity to pass particular social currents – appears to be limiting the potential for social change.  Goffman, by contrast, sees body as a superconductor that switches instantly to produce a suitable semiotic display called for by the situation.  I talk about these issues in my paper “Signing in the Flesh.”

You mention that some of “these stories were no doubt embellished; and no doubt Atwater’s drinking was often to blame for his loss of jobs,” but you add that “the core claims of Atwater’s stories were sufficiently corroborated” (p. 13).  Given space constraints, it is understandable that you skipped the corroborating details, which are of particular interests to me, as I advocate the need to interpolate discursive, behavioral, and affective signs.  Still, I would like to see more discussion of whether Atwater’s self-destructive behavior was a consequence of the racist conditions in the South or an independent factor contributing to Atwater’s inability to earn a living and provide for his family. 

I can't see it as an either-or proposition. Atwater's dispositions and behavior were products of his environment, and his environment was one in which it was hard for a working-class black man to earn a decent living in any case -- a fact that in turn exacerbated Atwater's periodic bouts of despair and his general loss of self-confidence.

But, yes, if Atwater had never taken to drinking, he could have been more stably employed. Even so, his jobs probably wouldn't have been good ones. The opportunities were limited by the nature of the local economy and by racism. On the other hand, imagine that Atwater had grown up in an industrialized northern city, or in a place with a better school system. He might very well have found a productive path through school, or found his way to a unionized job in which he could have earned a good wage -- without having to scratch his head for whitey. So, under other conditions, Atwater's life, even given his weaknesses and foibles, might have unfolded quite differently.

This is a sound interpretation – especially as it applies to large groups of people whose life chances are unfavorably structured by the social conditions of their time.  There must be more in your book regarding Atwater to support your interpretation than made it into your short paper I read. 

My sense is that your basic argument is right – institutionalized discrimination affects our life chances, even though cause and effect often trade places in social life.  But the exact causal sequencing needs more conceptual elaboration and empirical research. 

I would say that there are well-known and predictable patterns. I would say that, when circumstances conjoin in the ways I suggested above, we can see which pattern(s) individuals are likely to be drawn into. But I don't think we can ever specify exact causal sequencing. As Stephen Jay Gould used to say about evolution, if you could start over and run the tape (of biological history) over, you would get different results. I think the same thing applies to individual lives. The conjunction of circumstances that puts people onto different trajectories is not predictable. There are patterns and probabilities, yes. But if you started over and ran the tape again, it would not play out in exactly the same way. What's more, a slight difference at an early point could put an individual's life onto a different path. Slight differences can also have cascading effects over time.

Yes, there are always random events that can push the individual’s fate in a particular direction.  With biocritical studies, one moves from the biographical to the generational to the epochal, and then all the way back to the biosocial singularity understood in its historical context.  The emergent hermeneutical horizons also play a part in the agent’s self production. 

It would be interesting to find out why someone like Mason adopted a persona of Dr. Reet, Atwater settled for being Mr. Shine, and Mason’s children went on to pursue middle-class careers.  Under more or less similar social conditions, flesh and blood agents adopt different personas. 

Again, there are cultural options toward which people gravitate, in part because those options are readily at hand and are, to varying degrees, workable. People may also embrace personas that work for them, given their particular configuration of abilities and given the audiences for whom they must perform. When one takes gender and racial hierarchies into account, it becomes clear that persona choices are further constrained. There are some kinds of people that some kinds of people are not allowed to be.

Agreed, even though the range of options available in any given era is somewhat problematic.  Along with similarly situated agents, the individual chooses from the biosemiotic repertoire of patented enselfments, but each agent has a possibility of creating new bioforms that challenges and expands the range of available personas.  As more agents switch to new characters and display novel emotions, they leave their mark on historical being itself.

It’s true that we can innovate.  But, as Howie Becker says in his 1995 article “The Power of Inertia,” innovation can have high costs, because social practices usually come as packages.  Changing one part of the package often requires changing other parts, and so even seemingly small changes can have huge implications, and for that reason are often resisted, especially by people who are deeply invested in the status quo.  Your point also reminds me of West and Zimmerman’s (1987) argument about doing gender.  There is nothing that physically prevents males from presenting themselves in ways that are conventionally defined as feminine.  It’s just that if males do so – that is, if they do gender improperly – they risk being treated as incompetent, immoral, or insane.  Which makes it hard to get along in the world.  This is why I said that there are some kinds of people that some kinds of people are not allowed to be.  As you note, however, the constraints are not absolute or inviolable. Yet the costs may be so high that innovation is nearly ruled out.  (See below for a further comment on gender.)    

I like the way you play with the term “persona” as a kind of character or affect-laden habitus the agent develops in response to social handicaps and opportunities.  This is a more embodied take on self management than the one found in Goffman, particularly in his early works where he states that “body merely provide[s] a peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time.”  In your discussion a socially informed body is more of a transistor or semiconductor with a capacity to pass particular social currents.  It is not just “conduct” but also “conductivity” which deserves attention, or so I argue in my paper “Singing in the Flesh.”

One more thing that caught my eye in your fine paper is your treatment of authenticity.  Here is a key passage that conveys the sense you attach to this term:

Atwater’s Shine act offered the further benefit of granting him a taste of authenticity.  What was living “wide open” but an expression of the unruly impulses that constituted a part of Atwater’s self?  Men to whom mainstream paths to success are open cannot behave this way without risking the approval upon which such success depends.  As Robert Jackall (1988) shows in his study of corporate managers, it is the ambitious mid-range climbers who must stifle elements of personality that might make higher-ups uncomfortable.  Perhaps, then, authenticity is to be found mainly at the very top and center—among men whose power allows them not to give a damn about pleasing others – and at the bottom margins—among men who have nothing to lose.    

This passage implies that authenticity boils down to following an instinct, acting on an impulse, refusing to stifle one’s “unruly impulses.”  Those at the top have more resources to express their true sentiments and satisfy their urges than those in the middle of a social hierarchy.  One advantage that the underworld character like Shine has is that he can adopt a free-wheeling life style and assert his hypermasculinity in the way a conventional person wouldn’t dare to. 

This is a loaded definition of authenticity that invites further scrutiny.  An impulse stifled, an urge left unsatisfied, a frank thought hidden under a safe mask are to be suspect in this reckoning.  Authenticity connotes here a mediated rather than an immediate reaction.  This approach subtly downgrades the role of self-control and reflexivity insofar as they restrain immediacy and repress desire.  Marcuse might have endorsed this view of authentic existence but not necessarily Kierkegaard or Levinas. 

I think the whole concept of authenticity is suspect! I agree, though, that it can't be reduced simply to something that is unproblematically evident in spontaneous action. For example, suppose I have an impulse to tell a student to stop being a lazy-assed whiner and just do the assignment on time. I have impulses like that quite often. But I don't act on them, because I also have countervailing impulses. So what constitutes authenticity in a case like this? It's not inauthentic to stifle the first impulse in favor of an impulse to keep my job, because the second impulse is no less part of me than the first impulse. Eventually, I sort out these conflicting impulses to act and come up with a way to proceed. Maybe it matters that I imagine it's me -- some autonomous self -- that is figuring out how to proceed.

On the other hand, suppose I had a job where I felt that I was constantly stifling my strongest impulses to act. Maybe these are impulses I define as constituting my "true self" or "real me." I might say of such a job that it does not allow me to be who I really am. So is that a condition of chronic inauthenticity? It seems to come pretty close to what we usually mean by the term. Then again, if I was compelled to stay in the job (for economic reasons) and was eventually transformed by its demands, would it then be the case that the same job allowed me to feel authentic? If so, maybe inauthenticity is just a temporary conflict between self and environment.

That is exactly what I have in mind.  Your example nicely fleshes out my concern with the concept of “authenticity,” which is freighted with too many connotations.   We can call authentic the manner one embraces the social role, the role-distancing maneuvers dramatizing the gap between the agent and the role, the effort to transcend the established repertoire of enselfments, as well as the ability to exist on the intersection of perspectives supplied by the present and future societies.  Acting on your first impulse is not co-terminal with authentic existence, even though the ability to acknowledge to oneself (and others) such an impulse – probably is. 

If my reading of your text has any traction, the question arises what in your own life experience made you settle for this definition.  As someone researching the intersection of biography and theory, I would be tempted to probe further your interest in authenticity and hegemonic masculinity. 

I think there are authenticity issues that arise all the time in relation to gender enactment. The gender order prescribes a one-dimensionality that rarely corresponds to the complexity of real human selves, even after we've been shaped by the social world. Most of us, I suspect, have impulses to act that, if overtly expressed, would lead us to be seen as doing gender improperly. Perhaps it's the case that the gender order inevitably induces experiences of inauthenticity, even among people who are not in any obvious way gender dysphoric.

True.  We have made some strides in recent decades accommodating a wider range of gendered existence, but most of the gender markers are still fairly rigid. 

These issues are central to your research agenda, and they might be meaningful to you personally as well.

You might be interested in an older piece of mine, "The Mirrors in Men's Faces." It was based on my ethnographic study of the mythopoetic men's movement. The piece appears in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (1995). You can probably access it via JSTOR.

There is your piece listed in the Intercyberlibrary:  Why Mythopoetic Men Don't Flock to NOMAS, but it must be a different one.  I will look up this paper. 

I do not know you well enough, Michael, to offer a hypothesis.  Nor would I feel comfortable exploring the matter without your approval and cooperation.  This is the kind of question that biocritical hermeneutics would raise, and I can only hope that you will address it (if you haven’t done so already) at some point. 

Once again, thank you for letting me read you paper.  I would like to post it in your section of the Intercyberlibrary.  Let me know if this is OK with you. 

Supposedly, the authenticity book is going into production soon. But I haven't seen any page proofs yet. I doubt that copy editing will lead to any substantive changes, but there could be tweaks. So perhaps it's better to wait. Once everything is finalized, then I have no objection to posting it in the cyberlibrary.

With warm wishes,


Thanks again for your comments. I hope we get a chance to talk about these matters in person, perhaps at some ASA meeting down the road.


* The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is the web-based, open-source project that serves as a clearing house for those interested in the dramaturgical tradition in sociology and biographical methods of research.  The EGA is located in the Intercyberlibrary of the UNLV Center of Democratic Culture,  
Postings on the website are divided into four partially overlapping sections: “Documents and Papers,” “Biographical Materials,” “Critical Assessments,” and “Comments and Dialogues.”  For inquiries regarding the EGA projects, please contact Dr. Dmitri Shalin,  When you cite the materials collected for the EGA, please use the following reference:  Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives, ed. by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV: CDC Publications, 2009).