Last week, America received two embarrassing reminders of its doting but asexual love for the Nonthreatening Black Man (NTBM). First, professional cowboy-hat-wearer Brad Paisley and Kangol connoisseur LL Cool J unintentionally trolled the entire Internet with "Accidental Racist," a country song that argues that access to necklaces today totally makes up for centuries of slavery. Then came the release of the new Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, a film about racial progress a la The Help, in which the emotional fulcrum is white people learning important lessons about becoming less awful.
Often, the "nonthreatening" label is a cultural-studies-savvy bomb hurled at certain black male celebs and characters who are deemed at best too wholesome, and at worst examples of racial incorrectness. In his least offensive iteration (hi, Donald Glover!), the NTBM deserves a defense, as black men shouldn't have to carry the burden of having to frighten everyone around them at all times, like the world is their haunted house. (That sounds exhausting, actually.)
Unfortunately, the persistence of the NTBM in the media isn't due to a generation of black men who grew up idolizing Steve Urkel. Rather, it's because the trope serves as a subtle code that signals how entertainment conglomerates believe mainstream white audiences want black and other minority groups to behave. Instructions from white men to black men form the core of both "Accidental Racist" and 42. When Paisley croons, "I hope you understand/When I put on that T-shirt [with the Dixie flag]/The only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan," he's pleading for the emergence of a new kind of black man, one who isn't nauseated by the symbols of white supremacy.
42 is similarly obsessed with controlling black behavior, going so far as to make a virtue of Jackie Robinson's (Chadwick Boseman) passivity. Though the film hints that Robinson instinctively understood the need to turn the other cheek to (literally) survive the ordeal of being major-league baseball's first black player, most of the credit behind the slugger's nonconfrontational PR strategy goes to Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Robinson is the film's hero, but his heroism is entirely dependent on his willingness to follow his (white) boss' orders.
The irony at the heart of the NTBM phenomenon is that, while black actors and characters tagged as "nonthreatening" are frequent targets of jeers and snark, they constitute, or are played by, Hollywood's most successful stars of color: Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy. Given the paucity of roles for black actors in mainstream movies, NTBM characters — and the opportunities to work with name-brand directors like Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Robert Redford (The Legend of Bagger Vance) — may even serve as rewards for black actors who toe the line. (Jamie Foxx somehow avoided this fate, partly because Quentin Tarantino is one of the rare white "prestige" directors who consistently create fascinating, fully fleshed-out roles for threatening black actors like Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson.)
Since the NTBM is here to stay, here are some guidelines for identifying him, usually in his natural habitat of movies, TV shows, and advertisements for and by white people:
He's young, usually in his 20: Youth is inherently innocuous, so the NTBM tends to be few in years and display markers of inexperience like slimness and clean-shavenness. As the host of America's Got Talent, Nick Cannon has successfully remade himself from a self-described "gigolo" to the black Ryan Seacrest.
He's surrounded by white people: Being the token black guy generally comes with expectations of group conformity, even feelings of inadequacy. That may explain why LL Cool J is so eager to overcompensate for his blackness in the mayo-white world of country by granting listeners of "Accidental Racist" approval to wave the Stars and Bars.
He's apolitical: In his autobiography, Jackie Robinson, the most famous figure in America's pastime, wrote, "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag." Neither this ambivalence toward his country nor his Communist sympathies made it into 42, because the NTBM is designed to evade questions of social and economic justice. In historical films like 42, the NTBM does what he does best: provide relief that the bad things from the past have no bearing on the world today.
He's affluent, or affluent enough: The active avoidance of white guilt is often a sufficient qualifier for nonthreateningness. Since guilt evaporates in the presence of envy (just ask Abigail Fisher), the quickest way to make a black man less scary is to give him a job, or indicators that he has one. This isn't just true of the Cosbys, but also pretty much any diversity-minded advertisement illustrated by a smiling office drone.
He's neutered, especially around white women: Nothing makes someone invisible more quickly than realizing he isn't sexual competition or a viable romantic partner. That line of thinking is how Morgan Freeman, with his old-man pipes and barnacled face, has been helping out white folks in movies as disparate as Bruce Almighty, Batman Begins, and Million Dollar Baby without missing a paycheck. If the NTBM must have a romantic interest (probably because he's played by Will Smith, as in Hitch), she's probably black or Eva Mendes.
He's relentlessly cheerful: It's no surprise that while local TV news is notoriously stacked with stories of violent black men, the commercials between those scare segments feature black spokesmen shilling Coke and Old Spice with big, toothy grins. This image of corporate-friendly masculinity — amiably parodied by Kenan Thompson on SNL as Corey, "the one black guy in every commercial" back in February — cements the NTBM as a vaguely aspirational figure and a likable helper-buddy to all white folk.