Quilted Science

Patchwork thoughts on psychology, neuroscience, and human behavior.

The Twofold Cost of Sexism to Black Youth

A note on how sexism and examples of sexism impact black boys.

The presence of positive role models can be a valuable asset in the life of children whose natural inclinations still overwhelmingly favor learning from example and observation over learning from instruction. This intuitive reality resonates in the often-expressed sentiment of parents who view good parenting as primarily “setting a positive example" for their children. It is also illustrated by our collective responses to those who would be role models of society today; many times actors, musicians, and athletes: It can be safely argued that most of the public criticism directed at highly successful individuals such as Kanye West or Lebron James is generally not aimed at their performances as musicians or athletes, but typically formulated in terms of their perceived shortcomings as role models and examples of success and leadership.

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Given how much value we attach to role models, I would expect general agreement around the notion that the function of a role model should be independent of gender. It seems trivially true that mothers can be viable role models for sons, the same way in which fathers can be viable role models for daughters. More generally, it would be encouraging to see children find positive inspiration wherever it exists, and irrespective of whom it comes from. Black, White, Male, Female, Dead or Alive. The fact that this aspiration is not a full reality, underlies the central argument and topic for this short blog post:

Sexism and examples of sexism have wide-ranging effects not only on the direct victims of sexism – i.e. all women - but degrade civil society as a whole. Among the pathways in which sexism corrodes society is a particular impact on the young and impressionable who would lean heavily on role models during everyday decision making. One such group - of special relevance to me as a man of West Indian heritage and multicultural upbringing - are black youth in the Americas.

It is a statistical fact that black boys and young black men in the U.S. are systematically deprived from direct access to positive black male role models in their personal lives, and that they are exposed to mostly dysfunctional black role models in the common modern media environment. Since prevailing racism can set psychological barriers against embracing role models from outside of what is identified as ones own culture, black boys face different odds of finding positive role models than do other groups. Within this reality, sexism presents an especially precarious obstacle for black communities to overcome, since it discourages black youth from embodying the positive examples provided by black female figures in their lives.

The argument I am trying to make here is obviously simple, and not meant to describe the relation of sexism to black power struggles generally. It is meant merely as a note on one specific pathway in which sexism – wherever it is encountered- can affect one particular group of society –the statistically defined category of black boys (i.e. not all black boys, but a sizeable and identifiable portion). The argument reads as follows:

Black youth who accept sexist constructs of masculinity align themselves with the oppression of women, and by doing so contribute two-fold to their own disenfranchisement. One specific way in which this manifests is in the a priori rejection of spiritual and intellectual insights developed and consolidated by female black thinkers. Excellent analytic and poetic deconstructions of repression and violence, which amass in the history of black feminist thought, seldom enter black male awareness. Even recent work by highly decorated thinkers of our current times - think Dr. Maya Angelou or Prof. Angela Davis - exists mostly outside of the lived reality of most black men today. Subtle sexist philosophies, so my opinion, is a significantly contributing factor for why this is the case, as it discourages young black men from even exploring the relevance of feminist ideas for their own lives and circumstances. As a result youth of African descent have a harder time learning why the caged bird sings. As a result youth who identify as black, put themselves at a disadvantage when trying to formulate comprehensive arguments around the meaning of freedom and self-determination within their communities. The damage thus done by sexism within the black community is therefore at least two-fold: Beyond being the obvious seed of misogynistic behavior (psychological and physical violence against women) sexist philosophies stifle the ability of African American youth to identify adaptive paths for self-expression outside of sports, music and entertainment, by selectively devaluating the positive examples to be found in specifically female achievement, thought, and instruction.

While the above may seem a somewhat random note, I am posting this specifically in relation to the ongoing conversations surrounding last week’s Isla Vista shootings. Conversations with my own peers, lead me to the conclusion of a special imperative for black communities to stand in solidarity with feminist causes, and against sexism and violence everywhere. By doing so, black men in particular, might find that beyond ‘doing the right thing’, they would in fact be taking an active stance against a central destructive influence operating in our communities.

 

For what it’s worth: The admittedly narrow perspective expressed in the above note, is not meant to represent a narrow perspective on race, gender and violence on my part. It is adopted for this blog post, merely as a way to lend focus to one particular relationship of what is obviously a much larger net of interrelations.

Daniel R. Hawes is a social psychologist stuck in an applied economist's body.

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