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“He doesn’t look happy to be here.”
“Why does he look so mad?”
“Look at his boxer hands. He’s ready to fight!”
“He’s going to be a bruiser!”
No, these aren’t quotes from a dramatic movie or reality TV show. These are just some of the random comments I’ve received from white people about my baby boy’s appearance.
Strangers regularly have the gall to approach us as we’re waiting in the grocery store checkout aisle or sitting on the floor at a children’s museum to give their unwanted opinions. While my response has varied — from ignoring these individuals and flashing a fake smile to meeting their gaze with a glare and replying, “Well, he doesn’t know who you are” — these negative projections linger in my mind. And I can’t help but wonder if their views are imprinted on him, too?
My 5-month-old son is far away from the developmental milestone of articulating his own thoughts and feelings, yet he is perceived as angry and threatening based on his furrowed brows or clenched fists — a brutal truth that black mothers in America know all too well.
Before giving birth, and without being certain about the sex of my child, I had developed a fear of not being able to protect a son from this cruel world. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Jordan Edwards. These young black boys were viewed as a “threat” and killed by police. But the notion that an infant could incite unease had never crossed my mind.
Mompreneur and founder of LoveBrownSugar Christina S. Brown can relate all too well. The mother of two was “overjoyed” when she learned that her second child would be a boy. But a part of her was also “terrified.”
Brown tells me, “Not because of the fact that I was having a boy, but because of the stresses I know I will eventually face when he’s no longer considered ‘adorable’ to society. Once he’s old enough and cognizant enough to do things on his own, and venture outside without me by his side all the time, he will unfortunately be perceived as a threat to some people in our country. Regardless of how I raise him, regardless of how smart, kind and polite he is. That scares me.”
Parenting in a society where stereotypes have fueled the oppression of black people and led to senseless acts of violence or death “takes a whole special skill,” says Kimberly Seals-Allers, journalist and creator of the Mocha Manual.
“I think when you have a black boy, you know that the stakes are higher, the threats are higher,” Seals-Allers says. “They are nuanced experiences of things that are going on in the broader community with our children. When I say that, I mean the fact that our children aren’t viewed as children. They are what I called ‘adultified’ and they’re always viewed as older than they are, more threatening than they are, even when they’re just kids.”
Licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, Erlanger Turner, agrees that the stereotypes attached to black boys lead to bias in how they are perceived by society. “Regardless of their actual behavior, people are more likely to misinterpret the actions of black boys negatively because it fits a script that often portrays them this way,” he says.
According to George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, this script was crafted by European thinkers who held racist views about black men, in particular, and black people more generally. He refers to Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus, aka the “Father of Taxonomy,” who, back in 1735, divided human beings into four sub-categories or “varieties.”
Yancy explains: “One variety was called ‘Africanus.’ They were considered black and were said to have a dominant personality type, which he linked to being ‘lazy.’ He also said that black people were ruled by caprice, which means that black people were said to be impulsive and unpredictable. Europeans, on the other hand, were ruled by law. So already, within the 1700s, there was this distinction between black people who cannot be trusted, who are not in control of their impulses, and white people. This is a small step from the implication that black people, especially black men, are dangerous and violent. White people, however, are predictable and are able to constrain their impulses.”
Fast-forward to today, when Seals-Allers points out the dichotomy in language when it comes to talking about white boys — most recently, when a group of Catholic high school students sporting MAGA hats appeared to taunt a Native American elder at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. “It was a quick response to say, ‘Well, these are just kids.’ Now if that had been black children, there would have been a whole other conversation that’s not about remembering that they are children, but about adultifying them, which makes them a threat… makes them criminals. And that’s a problem.”
Because of this, Seals-Allers admits that part of parenting a young black boy is “helping him walk those two worlds,” where he must navigate life in predominately black and brown neighborhoods or mostly white spaces. She communicates why he “can’t do what your white boy friends do” and “if something starts going wrong, you need to leave quickly.” She adds, “That’s a very harsh reality that I’ve had to bring to bear with him, but it’s really for his survival.”
While Brown’s 1-year-old son isn’t yet aware of how the world perceives him, she reveals that she wants to “keep that innocence in him” for as long as she can. But like most parents, this mother is teaching him manners, as well as nurturing and encouraging him to love and appreciate “everything unique and wonderful about him.”
But how do I, as a black mother, balance raising a carefree black boy in an unkind world — and work towards changing the narrative where he’s labeled as “angry,” “mad” or “threatening”?
Yancy believes that it begins with the counter-messages that we instill. “We must remind them everyday that they matter, that their lives matter. We must show them love. Black fathers and black mothers must show them love, hold them, let them know that we are there for them,” he says. “This is why loving our black boys is such a revolutionary act, because we are loving them, protecting them from premature death.”
Both Yancy and Seals-Allers agree that we must also address negative stereotyping head on. “We have to call people out for their language. One of the things I do when this happens is I say, ‘Why do you say that?’ You have to really put that back on the person for them to examine why do they think that about a baby… allow them to sit with that,” Seals-Allers explains. “Anger is an emotion that can make people afraid. This is a language to justify the systems of oppression, the police brutality, all of the things. And we have to start calling it out. It’s part of our advocacy for our children.”
Yancy adds, “Until white America is prepared to remove its fake innocence and confront its racism, we will have to love our black sons with a desperate selfishness. The solution will not simply consist of individual change on the part of white people, but a change in institutions that are predicated on anti-blackness.”
And maybe even more important, Turner suggests, is to motivate boys (regardless of their ethnic background) to express their emotions. “Parents need to focus more on teaching boys that they can engage in emotional expressiveness and normalize behaviors that are often perceived as weak, such as talking about feelings of sadness and hurt. When we teach boys that ‘it’s weak to cry’ or express sadness, then we normalize things like anger and aggression.”
So, to my 5-month-old son (and the random white strangers we encounter in public): It’s OK to be happy, sad, angry, confused or upset. You are entitled to experience your full range of emotions, just like any other person.
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