I decided to write this piece because on an almost daily basis, I see Black males endure sexism. Yet because there is little vocabulary on what sexism looks like for them, it goes ignored. In fact, most people have no sense that it impacts Black males at all. More to the point, Black males themselves have no sense when they’re being sexually discriminated against either, whether in the workplace or in personal social situations.
For me, the awakening was fairly dramatic. Last fall a colleague of mine taught a class at a Southern California university. He’s approximately 300 lbs, dark-skinned, with long natural hair (locs). It was an ‘Introduction to Africana Studies’ course. The course had about 19 students: 5 were male, 2 students were White (one male/one female), two were Latinas, and the rest were young Black women. Alongside covering an introduction to how Africana Studies scholars handle history, religion, psychology, sociology, and media, he dealt with gender and sexuality. In his approach, he first introduced them to Black Feminism. They covered some of the primary theoreticians and activists out of the so-called “second wave movement,” the history of how it came to be from the 19th through 20th centuries and covered some of the statistics about Black female health, rape/abuse, income, and arrest rates. He then introduced them to Africana Womanism. For that, a good female colleague of his Skyped in a brilliant lecture/discussion breaking down a pre-assigned reading on said topic (she gave a similar lecture in my class here: https://youtu.be/0BiwAY8r5qU).
He discussed statistics on Black male health, suicide, income, circumcision, abuse/rape/sexual assault, homelessness, education, income inequality, and incarceration. He also outlined the historical context from slavery to now of Black male experiences and gendered worldviews. Within a week, his young Black female students organized and approached the department chair to complain that they felt unsafe (turns out it was mainly one student who read my piece from this blog on the California serial killer Elliot Rodgers (https://newblackmasculinities.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/dissecting-elliot-rodgers). Since he assigned other readings from this blog as homework, she used a non-assigned essay on the site to suggest that he–via I–was defending rapists because of it! She then suggested that since she was raped, he, too, was defending her rapist because this site’s article! He explained that he and I were highly critical of Rodgers and that I, too, am a sexual assault/rape survivor…she denied it as possible and dismissed my experiences. Then upon telling another Black male faculty person about her frustration with the course, she claimed male rape wasn’t a reality. Ironically, that person mentioned to her that he himself had experienced it years ago–to which she stopped speaking to him!).
When the chair (who had actually read my blog post) dismissed their concerns, they went to the African-American female dean and said he was “scary,” “mean-looking,” “aggressive,” and “threatening” (but only after his lecture on Black Masculinism), prior to that he was “sweet” and “supportive.” They dropped the boom however when they complained to her that he was “unsafe.” He was then called to a meeting with a majority Black female class, a Black female department chair, and a Black female dean. Suffice it to say that once he debated with the entire room, the matter was dropped and he completed the semester.
After much discussion and dialogue with other Black Masculinists, he argued that what was occurring was the professional lynching and the racial-sex discrimination of a Black male professor. This confused everyone, because most people assumed that only women experience sexual discrimination, and that the only form such discrimination took was someone being inappropriately propositioned for sex; sexually assaulted, or (God-forbid) raped in the workplace. Black males themselves assume this and are often oblivious to their own discrimination (now to be clear, even I have experienced being inappropriately propositioned by female graduate school professors and employers before, and didn’t recognize it as sexual discrimination at the time because I, too, thought it was only something women could experience. I’d never even heard of racial-sex discrimination against Black males! In fact, after 9 or so years of graduate school and a number of gender courses, the concept had never even been brought up!).
Yet racial-sexual discrimination against Black males is different than our traditional recollections of sexism as recalled by women. It often involves being mistreated in the workplace along lines that are reinforced by centuries-old racist stereotypes (or what Patricia Hill Collins refers to as ‘controlling images’). In other words, for Black males, the most consistent stereotypes are that we are violent, criminalistic, dangerous, and are a constant threat to everyone. To women, we are not only a violent threat, but sexually violent threat, and thus the slightest suggestion that we have provided a sexual threat to someone (often levied without proof) is sufficient grounds for personal and professional ostracization or termination. For the dean in question, students telling her that he was “threatening” and that they “didn’t feel safe” around him was enough to nearly accuse him of rape–until he challenged the university over the way in which Title IX applied to him. When he asked what he did or said that threatened the students, no one could produce a credible answer, quote, physical gesture, etc., but had he not had the wherewithal to challenge them, he might’ve likely been fired outright. People don’t generally feel they even need evidence to convince people about the threat of Black males…often the accusation is sufficient to justify guilt. The legacy of this goes back to the lynching of Black males for often imagined crimes without evidence (or trial). However, now it can be implemented with verbal, administrative, propagandistic, and/or career-related “violence.” Yet this legacy has usually been one imposed by Whites on Black folk, it wasn’t one I’d expected from a bevy of Black women… Yet what’s important is why it happened. The real crime here was that he was guilty of challenging conventional gender narratives for space, and fervently including Black male experiences as oppressed beings on the basis of not just race, but gender, and gender is not considered a space for males. More so, “males” and “men” are viewed as a homogenous context, but males of color have varying relationships to elite-White-supremacist-patriarchy…and much of the time Black males are more fervently attacked because of it rather than privileged by it.
Racial-Sexism and Black Male Youth
Racial-sexism against black males takes place at every age level, from toddlers to young boys, young adults to adults, and middle-aged to eldership. This means that 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 the ways Black kids are discriminated against, we often don’t think of it as a form of sexism (especially against boys). Black girls and boys are both discriminated against, but rates of common class verbal “punishments,” detention, being disciplinarily sent to the principal, expulsions, and arrests are inordinately highest among Black males (I also consider graduation rates, rates of alternative education enrollment, and access to gifted programs as inverse forms of “punishment” when low (see Figure 5)–or high in terms of alternative education).
Yet one can even question whether there are gendered modes of learning that effect Black boy’s school productivity. Since the landmark case Brown versus The Board of Education in 1954, alongside mass bussing to integrate schools, Black children have been primarily educated by women–White women in particular. Much of the time, such teachers fear and don’t understand the very Black children they are slated to teach. This is referred to as unconscious bias. For example, the film Cracking the Code explores this (scroll to 2:08):
These White female teachers also tend to privilege styles of learning that reflect how girls are socialized: be quite, 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 (as evidenced in contact sports and military environments): 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. (See: http://youtu.be/OFpYj0E-yb4).
In other words, such learning styles demonstrate the various ways boys are socialized. Yet now these styles have been all but criminalized in the eyes of the school system, and the rates of disciplined and expelled boys has gone through the roof across the racial spectrum. Also, there have been “new” learning disabilities associated with each element of the learning styles more accustomed to boys. To state what should be obvious, of course there are boys and girls that are more attuned to either learning style as these are not wholly limited to biology, but there are over-arching trends in behavior. 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 ensconced before school begins. However, the punishment for acting out one’s gendered socialization is disproportionately apportioned to Black males, and this means that these issues are raced, classed, AND gendered for Black male youth in a most extreme fashion.
Fig. 1 – Black Male Youth
For Black male toddlers and boys, some statements from teachers might be:
- “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 with far less punishment).
- “he’s too disruptive,” (but “other” kids that act out may be “gifted” and “just aren’t being challenged to their potential.” At one point, my own son was being punished for raising his hand and “over-participating,” despite that he never strayed from the topic at hand!). –Side note: one solution to this is to volunteer to sit in class on a regular basis. Your presence as a Black parent can often offset this (somewhat), or at the very least provide you with ample evidence against arbitrary attacks against your child’s character.
Fig. 2 – Chart on Disparate Discipline Rates in “Revealing New Truths About Our Nation’s School,” Office for Civil Rights: The Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) March 12, 2012, <https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2012-data-summary.pdf>, pg. 2.
Meanwhile, young (tween/teenage/adult) Black males are treated like potential thugs and rapists, while their adult counterparts–whether blue collar or middle-class–are often described to be “threatening” or “unsafe to be around,” often despite there being no evidence to confirm of these accusations. We must remember that this is not just racism, but racial-sexism because it refers to them as both raced and sexed beings.
Fig. 3 – Tween to Teenage Black Male Youth
They receive statements such as:
- “he looks threatening.”
- “he’s bad.”
- “he’s scary.”
- “he looks mean/he is mean.”
- “I don’t want to be around him because he might mug/rape/assault me. He makes me feel unsafe.”
- “he’s aggressive.”
- “he doesn’t handle authority well, he might assault someone.”
Most black males can recall similar statements from personal experience, whether at the job or in social situations. But again, few of us consider it as sexism.
Fig. 4 – Chart on Out of School Suspensions in “Revealing New Truths About Our Nation’s School,” Office for Civil Rights: The Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) March 12, 2012, <https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2012-data-summary.pdf>, pg. 3.
Fig. 5 – Chart on Retention Rates in “Revealing New Truths About Our Nation’s School,” Office for Civil Rights: The Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) March 12, 2012, <https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2012-data-summary.pdf>, pg. 9.
Fig. 6 – Chart on Retention Rates in “Revealing New Truths About Our Nation’s School,” Office for Civil Rights: The Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) March 12, 2012, <https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2012-data-summary.pdf>, pg. 9.
Figures 4 through 6 highlight the bifurcated treatment of not only black youth in K-12 schools, but the specific mistreatment of Black male youth. The lengths of punishments tend to be much higher, as does the ongoing impact of punishments in school to their future potential. Thus, racial-sexism may not be studied at length in most professional statistics on social mistreatment, but the rates of it are already well-known, one just needs to reflect on the disparities to bear witness to its impact on Black males.
For adult Black males, incarceration is one of the best ways to perceive institutional racial-sexism, because it’s so clearly evident that it’s particularly gendered…not just racial. Approximately 65,000 Black females are incarcerated in America right now, and roughly over 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?
From years of experiences and commentary from other Black males, here’s a shortlist of Black male “do’s” and “don’ts” that many successful Black males learn very early. In fact, one’s learning curve of just a few of the “rules” below may dictate one’s potential for success:
- do smile and make people feel comfortable;
- do make sure your voice isn’t too deep;
- do whistle Vivaldi;
- do dress in a brightly colorful fashion so as not to scare people (dark colors associate you with criminality);
- do look people in the eyes (but not for too long);
- do 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;
- and most importantly, don’t. ever. fail. people’s expectations. Because although Black male failure has become an institutional certainty as a bi-product of our socio-political underdevelopment, failure confirms people’s stereotypical fears that Black males are incapable of being depended upon.
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in a recent report (special thanks to Dr. Tommy Curry), there are approximately 47,651 Black male professors in Title IV universities, and 70,375 Black females. There are 616,805 White women and 664,518 White men. 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 demographics in the academy… But further declinations are due to false accusations of being a racial and gendered threat, which people comfortably assume must be Black males’ fault, but few consider to be an assault on his character, a popular form of professional lynching, and a form of racial-sexism against him. That said, Black males need to start addressing these issues more forthrightly on legal grounds, and set precedent about how they demand to be treated.
For my colleague who taught the class above, when the dean raised Title IX as a reason for assuming our threat to students as Black males (me via this blog), he brilliantly argued it from his own subject-position rather than conceding it to solely a woman’s experience. He argued in writing: “while Title IX was invoked during [our] meeting with regard to the students’ rights to protection, I find it necessary to assert my right to protection under Title IX as well. Most particularly,
“Section 1681. Sex (a) Prohibition against discrimination; exceptions. No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” (Title IX Education Amendments of 1972, (Title 20 U.S.C. Sections 1681-1688),
Furthermore, “Gender Harassment
While it is clear that discrimination in violation of Title IX must be “on the basis of sex,” courts have held that subjecting an individual to sex stereotyping may constitute sex discrimination in appropriate circumstances.” (Title IX Legal Manual, “Gender Harassment,” Department of Justice
Here, Title IX ALSO applies to Black males who are being personally or institutionally discriminated against on the basis of sex and race, and Black males need to start using this information to alleviate themselves from racial/gendered threat. So in essence, people should know that the face of sex discrimination may not just be petite women enduring undue cat-calls in the workplace, but a 250 lb. dark-skinned Black male who may not smile very often. (Hmmm… I wonder why?)
Colorism played 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, “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” (1982) essay from the book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (pg. 290–91). Gendered-colorism refers to discrimination that intersects color and gender. Thus, assumptions about dark or light-skinned males/females often invoke ideas about varying levels of threat. Darker females are “meaner” than lighter ones, but the lighter ones are smarter; darker males are more violent and hypermasculine than lighter ones, but the 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 and don’t allow for people to be seen as genuine individuals.
A university I taught at had, historically, few (if any) dark-skinned, African-American males hired as tenured faculty. Students had even articulated to me over the years that lighter-skinned male faculty make them feel more comfortable, while darker ones make them less so. Although I doubt this type of discrimination is new to any of my readers, how many of you considered it on gendered grounds in regard to men? I know Bill Duke’s excellent documentary series Dark Girls (2011) and Light Girls (2015) brought the issue of colorism to the fore, but the subject approach might convince people to think that it has no relevant application to Black males.
Desensitization and Black Masculinity
How do these things impact Black males themselves? Well, it’s not just that Black males are oblivious to their treatment 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. Because such experiences are so readily available, many of Black males have developed a sort of desensitized malaise… The other day, a good friend of mine was visiting our old graduate school, and found himself surrounded by 10 police officers with guns drawn, accusing him of robbery and theft. When I spoke with him and 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 really out of impassioned anger. When I noticed a young woman I know in tears reading an article earlier 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 such as the Trayvon Martins, Tamir Rices, Michael Browns, and Eric Garners, I responded out of the pure injustice of it, but 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 densitized for different reasons…social media, smartphone video footage, provocative TV and film, but for Black males, danger and lifelong negative repercussions for others’ fear of you is a constant. With that comes a sort of PTSD. It was only in the moment of seeing my friend cry that I realized how far away my emotional sensibility was…and I envied her. I couldn’t find tears…and the anger I feel is such a part of me I no longer feel it. It pervades every frown, every serious contemplation, and every outing out of my house–along with a fear of loss of life (but that’s become even more subtle and nuanced than the loss of my overall emotional connection).
Between racial-sexism, gendered-colorism, and emotional desensitization one can see that Black males at any age can be institutionally underdeveloped by anyone from almost any demographic. The controlling images of Black males as ‘weaponized phalluses’ from the 18th century to the contemporary moment has still influenced how they’re viewed, and in fact feeds the fears of many a police officer, hate crime attacker, lynch mob, white woman in an elevator, or (even) a spoiled student. The degrees of Black male underdevelopment undermine and complicate traditional notions of institutional ‘male’ privilege and raise the question of just how many other types of oppressive matters apply to Black men we traditionally ignore?