Racial-sexism against Black males takes place at every age. It’s institutional. Black male toddlers and boys often experience racial-sexism in school, where they are targeted as Black males based on conduct, learning styles, and productivity. And although many of us are familiar with how Black kids are discriminated against, we often don’t think of it as sexism (especially against boys). Black girls and boys are both discriminated against, but rates of common class verbal “punishments”—detention, sent to the principal, expulsions, even arrests, are inordinately highest among Black males (I also consider graduation rates, alternative education enrollment rates, and access to gifted programs as inverse forms of “punishment” when low or high).
One can even question whether there are gendered modes of learning that affect Black boys’ productivity in school. Since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education, alongside mass busing to integrate schools, Black children have been primarily educated by White women. Often, those teachers both fear and don’t understand the very Black children they are slated to teach. They also tend to prefer styles of learning that reflect how girls are socialized: be quiet, work quietly in groups, raise your hand before speaking, be nice, no touching, sit still, etc. Children who can code-switch and acculturate themselves to this style of learning are lauded as intelligent and tend to move up well. Boys, on the other hand, are notorious for tactile learning styles (consider contact sports and the military): work with your hands, be energetic, touch things, interact, move, make noise, compete, work in groups that compete, etc. Such styles are more consistent with how boys learn early to sacrifice for others, protect, and provide.
In other words, such learning styles demonstrate the various ways boys are socialized. It’s not a stretch to suggest these styles have been all but criminalized by the school system. Rates of disciplined and expelled boys have sharply increased across the racial spectrum. “New” learning disabilities have been associated with learning styles more common to boys. Of course, there are boys and girls more attuned to either learning style, since those styles are not limited to biology, but behaviors have overarching trends. Whether it’s nature—where our kids are born gendered—or nurture, where they’re socialized in gendered ways (or both), it is usually well embedded before school begins. However, Black males are disproportionately punished for acting out their gendered socialization, meaning that these issues are extremely raced, classed, and gendered for Black male youth.
For Black male toddlers and boys, statements from teachers might include:
- “He misbehaves more than anyone else in the class.”
- “He needs alternative, ‘special’ education” (despite good grades, participation, and good class performance).
- “I have to spend too much time disciplining him” (but he’s doing the same thing other kids do but who receive far less punishment).
- “He’s too disruptive” (but “other” kids who act out may be “gifted” and “just aren’t being challenged to their potential”).
At one point, my own son was punished for raising his hand and “over-participating,” despite never straying from the topic! [Note to parents: One solution to a situation like this is to volunteer to sit in class on a regular basis. Your presence as a Black parent can often somewhat offset such actions or, at the very least, provide you with ample evidence against arbitrary disciplining of your child.]
Meanwhile, ’tween/teenage/young adult Black males are often treated like potential thugs and rapists, while their adult counterparts— whether blue-collar or middle-class—are often described as “threatening” or “unsafe to be around,” often despite there being no evidence to confirm such accusations.
The lengths of punishments for Black males tend to be much higher, as does the ongoing impact to their future of in-school punishment. While racial-sexism may not be studied at length in most professional statistics on social mistreatment, its rates are well known; one just needs to reflect on the disparities to see its impact on Black males.
For adult Black males, incarceration is one of the best ways to perceive institutional racial-sexism, because the evidence is overwhelming that it’s gendered, not just racial. Approximately 65,000 Black females are incarcerated in America right now, and more than 950,000 Black males—straight and queer. Were the treatment of Black males purely racial, the rates for both groups would be the same. Gender is the primary outlier here. Why is this not considered sexism on racial grounds?
Here’s a short list of Black male “dos” and “don’ts” that many Black males who grow up to be successful learn very early. In fact, one’s learning curve of just a few of the “rules” below may dictate one’s potential for success:
- Smile and make people feel comfortable.
- Make sure your voice isn’t too deep.
- Whistle Vivaldi.
- Dress in bright colors to not scare other people (dark colors associate you with criminality).
- Look people in the eyes (but not for too long).
- Always be accompanied by a woman (or child) so as not to intimidate anyone—especially when applying to rent apartments or houses.
- Don’t be too verbally direct (make sure your verbal inflections are soft, and not too terse).
- Don’t look people in the eye too intensely.
- Don’t be too imposing.
- Don’t raise your voice.
- Don’t be passionate (or angry).
- Don’t challenge people’s statements unless ending your statement with a joke.
- Most important, don’t ever fail, especially people’s expectations. Because although Black male failure has become an institutional certainty as a by-product of our sociopolitical underdevelopment, failure confirms people’s stereotypical fears that Black males are incapable of being dependable.
According to a recent report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), there are approximately 47,651 Black male professors in Title IV universities, and 70,375 Black females. There are 616,805 White female and 664,518 White male professors. And if current high school, college, and graduate school graduation rates are any indication, the rates of the Black male professoriate will continue to decline in comparison to other racial and gendered d emo g r a p h i c s i n the academy. These declines, I believe, are due to false accusations of racial and gendered threats, and assumptions of Black male guilt. Few consider what a racial-sexist assault on their character those men are experiencing—a form of professional lynching. Black males need to address these issues forthrightly on legal grounds, and demand better treatment.
Colorism plays a role here too. Colorism is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Coined by Alice Walker in her 1982 essay, “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?,” gendered-colorism refers to discrimination that intersects color and gender. Thus, assumptions about darkor light-skinned males/females often invoke ideas about varying levels of threat. Darker females are “meaner,” but lighter ones are smarter; darker males are more violent and hypermasculine, but lighter ones are more inherently rational. But don’t get it confused; despite the insulting (or complimentary) sounding tone of each colorist, controlling narrative listed above, they each are forms objectification interfering with people being seen as individuals.
Desensitization and Black Masculinity
Black males are oblivious to their treatment not just because we haven’t learned to associate racial-sexism with Black males, but also because Black male treatment is so fraught with mistreatment, underdevelopment, and outright abuse—from childhood to eldership. Many Black males have thus developed a sort of desensitized malaise.
The other day, a good friend of mine visited our old graduate school, and found himself surrounded by 10 police officers with guns drawn, accusing him of robbery and theft. When I asked how he was, he was indifferent to the whole experience. In fact, I almost was myself. I mainly called out of friendly obligation, not out of impassioned anger. Earlier, when I noticed a young woman friend in tears reading an article on the death of yet another young Black woman at the hands of police officers, I was stupefied at her honest display of care. In many ways, even when I read about the deaths of Black males—the Trayvon Martins, Tamir Rices, Michael Browns, and Eric Garners—I responded out of the pure injustice of it; still, passionate, righteous indignation is not quite as readily accessible as it was when I was much younger. And yes, I recognize many of us are desensitized for different reasons, for example: social media, smartphone video footage, provocative TV programs and films. For Black males, danger and lifelong negative repercussions from others’ fear of them is a constant. The result is a form of PTSD. It was only in the moment of seeing my friend cry that I realized how far away I was from my emotional sensitivity; I envied her. I couldn’t find my tears, and the anger I feel is such a part of me I no longer feel. It pervades every frown, every serious contemplation, and every outing away from my house—along with a fear of death (but that’s become even more nuanced than losing my overall emotional connection).
Because of racial-sexism, gendered-colorism, and desensitization, one can see that Black males at any age can be underdeveloped by anyone from almost any demographic. The controlling images of Black males as “weaponized phalluses” from the 18th century to now still influence how they’re viewed, and feeds the fears of spoiled students. The degrees of Black male underdevelopment undermine and complicate traditional notions of institutional male privilege and show how many other types of oppressions apply to Black men we traditionally ignore.
Dr. T. Hasan Johnson is associate professor in the Africana Studies program at California State University in Fresno. His research focuses on the intersections of Africana resistance with religiosity, sexuality, and patriarchy. He also aligns himself with Afrofuturism and created the concept of Black Masculinism to highlight the need and value of progressive Black Masculinities in the Black community. A version of this article first appeared at https://newblackmasculinities.wordpress.com/thenew- black-masculinities-blog/.