In a piece in The Atlantic, Aboubacar Ndiaye reflects on recent sociological research by Megan Holland (here) and Simone Ispa-Landa (here) on gender differences in the social experiences of black boys and girls bused into suburban schools. This research emphasizes how racial images associating blackness with “cool” facilitate boys’—but not girls’–social integration in suburban schools. These findings underscore the importance of gender in contouring racial experiences—a point multiracial feminists have been making for decades—even while policies and popular discussions continue to reflect a “one size fits all” approach, treating black people as if their experiences are all the same.
The 270 (plus) comments on The Atlantic article reveal that the piece hit a nerve with black women who had grown up in suburban schools. Like the black girls in my own research on suburban schools, in the comments, they elaborate on the ways in which black boys could use blackness as capital to gain social cache, while they did their best to hide their blackness. The girls in my study lived in white neighborhoods, avoided “urban” hairstyles, played tennis and violin, and talked only to white girls. Unlike their brothers, being a black girl didn’t make them cool; blackness made them “nasty.”
Youth culture values the characteristics associated with black masculinity –athleticism, toughness, heterosexual prowess, and cultural cool—as long as they are associated with boys. In predominantly white schools, because these high schools have few black boys, black masculinity is rarer and more valuable, and makes a wide range of black boys cool enough. Context matters.
But the provocative Atlantic title–“Black boys have an easier time”—is misleading. Inasmuch as the piece implies that black girls experience the world in different ways than black boys, it gets it right. But that the title implies that racism may not be “as hard” on black boys—at least in suburban schools–because they get to be cool, it is wrong.
For black boys, cool comes with costs. In Ispa-Landa’s study, white students thought the black boys were cool but they didn’t think they were smart. As Kristie Ford (here) and I (here) show, Black men continue to be haunted by expectations of being cool in college, where it undermines their efforts to acquire the professional identities and credentials that will launch professional careers.
By Amy Wilkins, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.