The Deadly Challenges of Raising African American Boys

By Dawn Dow

In the aftermath of Baltimore’s 2015 civil unrest responding to Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of law enforcement, the New York Times published an Op-Doc video, “A Conversation About Growing Up Black,” featuring young African American boys and teenagers reflecting on their daily experiences navigating gendered racism- discrimination that is based on both race and gender. More recently art has served as a reflection of life. The hit comedy Blackish, which centers on an African American upper-middle class family living in a predominately white neighborhood, took a dramatic turn by depicting the family’s discussion of the constant stream of shooting deaths of young unarmed African American boys and men and how to protect their children from the harsh realities of race relations in the United States.These stories underscore an increasingly undeniable truth: African American boys and men’s experiences are strongly influenced by living in a society that often greets them with hostility, fear and contempt.

This is true regardless of class background.

Being middle class is usually accompanied by access to good schools with resources, neighborhoods with little crime and protection from harsh treatment from police, teachers, and the general public. Through interviewing 60 African American middle- and upper-middle class mothers about how they raised their children, I learned that those raising sons were concerned with ensuring their sons were not perceived as criminals and remained safe. These mothers believed their sons would have to continuously challenge assumptions that they were poor, uneducated, violent, and criminal – and assert their middle-class status. Where other middle-class families might see security, these mothers saw potential threats.

Imagine having to explain to your son that the very people who were meant to educate him and keep him safe from danger might also be threats to those aims. Despite their middle-and upper-middle-class status, these mothers did not believe they could protect their sons from the challenges they would face as African American boys, teenagers and men or protect them from experiences like those recounted in the New York Times Op-Doc.

In response to these challenges, mothers described using four distinct strategies: experience, environment, emotion and image management.

Experience and environment management were used to manage aspects of sons’ regular social interactions. Mothers use experience management to seek out opportunities for their sons to participate in activities that would help them understand the challenges they may face as African American boys and men.  These activities might involve spending time with African American men and/or having conversations about recent clashes between African American boys and men and law enforcement. Mothers using environment management aim to exclude exposures to gendered racism from their sons’ regular social interactions. Rachel said, “my son thinks he is street-smart but he is used to being in an environment in which he is known. No one thinks of my son as a black boy, they think of him as my son, but when he goes out into the real world people will make assumptions about him.” Like Rachel, other mothers create bias-free environments in which theirs sons can freely express themselves but they fear how their sons will be treated outside of these safe havens.

Image and emotion management were used to manage aspects of sons’ appearance. Mothers use emotion management to help their sons gain control of their feelings so when confronted with discriminatory treatment they remain composed and, hopefully, safe. For example, Karlyn engages in what she called “prepping for life” with her son.  She said, “I’ll pose a situation, like say, if you are ever kidnapped, what do you do? If the police ever pull you over, how do you need to react?” Karlyn believed child predators and police officers were both dangerous to her son. Mothers also advise sons to take time to decide how to best respond to experiences of discrimination, which might involve reframing their grievance in race neutral language to increase the likelihood it would be better received by white authority figures. Mothers use image management to encourage their sons to monitor their clothing and hairstyles so others would see them as middle-class kids, not criminals. Mothers counseled sons not to wear hoodies or loose jeans- clothing their white friends wore without consequence. Rebecca described:

I tried to explain that to him because he didn’t understand. He said,  ‘I am just wearing my hoodie.’…  You know, just having to protect him and trying to shelter him from unnecessary stress and trauma… You know the sagging pants and all the things that teenage boys do that don’t necessarily mean they are doing anything wrong. … Is it fair? No: Is it reality? Yes.

Although Rebecca and other mothers explained to their sons that this was a double standard, they nonetheless advised them to adhere to it for their own safety.

That conversations about managing emotions, behaviors and appearance are happening in middle- and upper-middle-class African American households demonstrates how negative assumptions about black masculinity do not go away with additional resources. Unfortunately, by trying to protect their sons by encouraging them to conform to stricter standards, these mothers are submitting to society’s unfair view of them, rather than challenging existing power structures.  Although we typically think masculinity provides increased protection to men, these mothers’ accounts demonstrate how masculinity produces increased vulnerability for African American men and boys because of the interplay of gender and racial identity.

Dawn Dow is assistant professor of sociology in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Her article, “The Deadly Challenges of Raising African American Boys: Navigating the Controlling Image of the ‘Thug’” is published in the April 2016, 30 (2) issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.

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