Recently, I had a chance to view the web-series, Dear White People, and the documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro. Despite differences in historical context, both shed light on experiences unique to Black boys and capture a common theme - the feelings of Black boys and men often go unnoticed and invalidated. In Dear White People, one of the main characters, Reggie (played by fellow USC alumni Marque Richardson), has a gun pulled on him by a college campus police officer who questions his identity as a student at an Ivy league university. Shortly before his encounter with the police officer, there is an altercation between Reggie and a White student who repeatedly uses the N-word.
One of the most powerful scenes in the series is the portrayal of Reggie crying in his dorm room shortly after the campus incident. In that scene, I was struck by the level of vulnerability portrayed by Reggie, a level of vulnerability that is often absent in mainstream depictions of Black boys and men. Later in that episode, the viewer sees Reggie struggling with how to balance his desire to engage in social action with managing his own feelings of sadness, frustration, and rage. Relatedly, in I am Not Your Negro the viewer is reminded of one of James Baldwin’s most famous quotes, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” In this post, which marks the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month, I provide some context about the complex relationship between masculinity and emotional expression for Black boys.
Masculinity, Identity, and Stereotypes
The portrayal of black boys and young men in the current landscape is often one that invalidates their experiences. For example, the presence of stereotypical roles and images found in commercials, television shows, news programs and other forms of media often portray Black boys as the tough guy, thug, or gangster. On the other end of the continuum, you may see Black boys portrayed as the stellar athlete or entertainer. This suggests that black boys must negotiate their identity considering the oftentimes negative portrayals of themselves in society. In addition to negative societal images, Black boys are faced with constant reminders that their identity is perceived as a threat. Studies have demonstrated the link between experiences of racism and and well-being, resulting in what is often called race-related stress (Harrell, 2000). The cycle of race-related stress can lead to a feeling of invisibility for Black boys and men, or the perception that their identity is not validated due to the presence of stereotypes (Franklin, Boyd-Franklin, Kelly, 2006).
When discussing factors that influence the identity development of Black boys, the concept of masculinity must also be addressed. Masculinity refers to the attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and roles associated with what it means to be a boy or man. It is important to note that masculinity is culturally bound, and that norms about how boys and men should act vary by culture. In U.S. culture, socialization of boys emphasizes toughness, independence, competitiveness, status and restrictive emotionality (Levant, 2011). This socialization serves as a handicap for boys and men as they grapple with how to identify, label, and express their feelings. In the case of Black boys, the intersection of their race and gender may serve as an additional barrier for emotional expression. Majors and Bilson (1992) theorize that one way Black boys and men cope with experiences of oppression is by adopting an exaggerated form of masculinity, or cool pose. Cool pose is often manifested by a tough posture, or mannerisms, to show others that you are in control, despite daily slights of injustice. Alternatively, the lack of endorsement of traditional masculine norms, like toughness, has been linked to positive outcomes such as healthy relationships for Back men (Corneille, Fife, Belgrave, & Sims, 2012).
Black boys need an outlet to express their feelings and a safe space that affirms their identity. Emotional development is considered a core component of resilience according to the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents. “The optimal functioning portrait of resilience for [Black] youth calls for youth to have emotional awareness, perspective taking, and emotional regulation skills” (APA, 2008, p.48). The rage, or anger, described in the quote by James Baldwin is often a secondary emotion accompanied by primary emotions such as rejection, humiliation, and sadness. Below are strategies to promote the emotional development of Black boys.
It is important for Black boys to be able to identify, label, and express their feelings.
It is important for the feelings of Black boys to be respected and validated.
It is important for Black boys to learn how to regulate their emotions so that they can accomplish their goals.
It is important for Black boys to understand the perspective of others.
It is important for Black boys to understand that they are not to blame for feelings related to discrimination or oppression.
It is important for Black boys to define themselves for themselves.
It is important that we affirm the identities of Black boys.
It is important for Black boys to have resources to help them constructively evaluate the images and portrayals they see of themselves in society.
It is important that black boys give a name and meaning to their experiences (i.e. critical consciousness) in relation to the context in which they live.
It is important that black boys be able to identify inequities.
Black boys need to know that’s okay to feel vulnerable.
Black boys need to be seen.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Copyright 2017 Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D.
American Psychological Association. (2008). Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents. Resilience in African American Children and Adolescents: A Vision for Optimal Development. Washington, DC: APA.
Corneille, M., Fife, J. E., Belgrave, F. Z., & Sims, B. C. (2012). Ethnic identity, masculinity, and healthy sexual relationships among African American men. Psychology of men & masculinity, 13(4), 393.
Franklin, A. J., Boyd-Franklin, N., & Kelly, S. (2006). Racism and Invisibility: Race-Related Stress, Emotional Abuse and Psychological Trauma for People of Color. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6(2/3), 9-30.
Harrell, S. P. (2000). A multidimensional conceptualization of racism‐related stress: Implications for the well‐being of people of color. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70(1), 42-57.
Levant, R. F. (2011). Research in the psychology of men and masculinity using the gender role strain paradigm as a framework. American Psychologist, 66(8), 765.
Majors, R., & Billson, J. M. (1992). Cool pose: The dilemmas of African American manhood in America. New York: Lexington Books.