Navigating the “Scary Black male” narrative

I feared for my life,” He looked big and scary,” “He looked like a grown man,” “He fit the profile.” These and other statements have been used to justify the murder of Black males across the country. These Black males were young, old, fathers and husbands who were engaged in activities such as asking for help, walking home, or playing in the park. They are forever tied together by the narrative that the Black male body is dangerous, deviant, and unworthy of fairness and justice. Instead, the guilt and execution of Black males is determined by any citizen on the street when often their only crime was existing in spaces as Black males where they are hated and feared.

Scientific research has consistently supported the unspoken phenomenon of the perceived “Scary Black male.” Black boys are aged by two years compared to their White counterparts contributing to the expectation of accountability for “boys will be boys’ behavior.”  Unarmed Black males are more likely to be shot in “shoot/don’t shoot scenarios” by police than armed White males. Also, the fear response is more likely to be activated in the brain when White individuals are shown images of Black males compared to any other racial group. Almost daily it seems the media is highlighting the consequences of this perception in the form of murder, criminalization, and lower expectations. Society has bought wholesale into the brand of intentional, institutional and cultural racism that discounts, devalues, and despises Black life. An equally unfortunate phenomenon is the number of Black males who have internalized this form of racism contributing to a hatred of themselves and other Black males.       

Despite the perceived forced choice of engaging in stereotypical Black maleness under the threat of a gun or refusing the “Black male stereotype box” under the fear of emasculation, Black males have a choice regarding how they receive and respond to the scary Black male narrative. When facing overwhelming racism that threatens the lives of Black males, we can be conscious, courageous, and, committed. We can be conscious of the intentional narrative that has been created to deny the humanity of Black males. By assuming a posture of greater attentiveness to the messaging we receive, Black males can critically assess the social content they are exposed to rather than a passive acceptance of the scary Black male stereotype.

With heightened awareness, Black males will also experience a call to action to rewrite the narrative associated with the Black male body. However, rewriting and reimagining the Black male experience can come at significant cost. Black males who refuse to accept the scary Black male stereotype can face ostracization, claims of being “uppity”  or having a greater association with Whiteness, and even violence. To challenge the scary Black male narrative, Black males must engage in courageous action by addressing racism at the institutional and cultural levels. Lastly, recognizing that change requires persistence, we must remain committed to challenging the scary Black male narrative over time.

There is an intentional effort to undermine, redefine, and malign the Black male experience. This effort has contributed to the development of the “Scary Black male” narrative. The scary Black male narrative depicts Black males as dumb, dangerous, and deviant individuals. There has been a significant cost for the proliferation of the “Scary Black male” narrative in popular culture creating a fear of the Black male body. This manufactured fear has been used to justify the murder of countless Black males throughout the country. We can rewrite the narrative concerning the Black male experience by being conscious of intentional racism, courageous in anti-racism and advocacy, and committed to the long-term struggle of dismantling systems of racism and discrimination.

The tale of two realities: The dangerous Black male vs the White liberator

Imagine its May 2nd, 1967 and 30 armed members of the Black Panther party are demonstrating at the California capital building regarding oppressive government tactics that devalued and endangered Black lives. In response, the Panthers were accused of being “invaders” and arrested on felony charges of conspiracy to disrupt a legislative session (although they were within their legal right to bear arms on capital grounds). Additionally, sweeping legislation was passed with conservative sponsorship and the support of the NRA to restrict the right of California residents to openly carry arms. Fast forward 53 years and another group of armed individuals are demonstrating at capital buildings throughout the country against “oppressive” government tactics related to the pandemic. Instead of being subjected to arrest, branded as conspirators, and serving as a catalyst for restrictive gun rights legislation, these individuals are being regarded as hero’s, advocates for justice, and generally “good people.” The primary difference between these two groups is that one is Black and fought for Black self-determination while one is White and fights for the privileges required to maintain a system of White supremacy.   

Marable (2001) noted, that the essential tragedy of being Black and male is our inability as men and as people of African descent to define ourselves (p.17)” For generations, Black males have attempted to engage in a self-determined identity reclamation process to redefine the expression, performance, and expectations related to Black masculinity. At the center of this reclamation process has been an ongoing struggle for Black liberation. However, the Black male’s quest for liberation has been diagnosed as a mental illness (e.g., drapetomania), seen as ground for incarceration, and as a justification for the mutilation and murder of the Black body. Whereas White males are celebrated for their “quests” for justice, Black males are vilified and ultimately labeled as dumb, deviant, and dangerous individual’s. The costs for this demarcation are incredibly high, contributing to social and economic oppression, a restricted and negative perception of the Black male experience, and pain, suffering, and death of the Black male body.

There are a number of reasons why a Black males struggle for self-determination (which at this point has turned into a fight for a safe existence) contributes to a perception of him as dangerous and criminal while White males are seen as moral and are afforded societal validity in their claims for “justice.” Tying the Black male’s struggle for self-determination and liberation to criminality and deviancy allows society to control the Black male narrative. This gives society the ability to simultaneously oppress Black male’s (e.g., mass incarceration, disenfranchisement) while vilifying them when they protest these conditions (e.g., kneeling during national anthem). Here, society can maintain the “moral high ground” while discounting the lived experience of Black male’s and criticizing their methods for giving voice to their struggle.

 Additionally, vilifying the Black male’s struggle for self-determination contributes to the maintenance of a social hierarchy that centers White supremacy while pathologizing Black culture and the expression of a self-determined Black masculinity.  Within this context, a Black male or an organization that centers the Black experience can be devalued and described using coded language such as “unpatriotic” or “unAmerican” while White individuals engaging in the same behavior are labeled as “patriots” and “heros.” The underlying theme is that when one refuses to engage in or seeks to dismantle systems of White supremacy this is labeled as criminal or dangerous. In the recent past, efforts to dismantle systems of White supremacy were tied to protest and organizational activism. However, in today’s climate, the very act of existence for Black male’s is seen as a threat to systems of White supremacy and has contributed to the vilification, mutilation, and death of the Black male body and experience.        

Ten lessons I have learned about Black Fatherhood

(1) The engaged Black father is not a myth.

(2) We can break generational curses and cycles through engaged and thoughtful fatherhood.

(3) Your presence matters more than your words.

(4) Our children need our affection just as much as our financial support.

(5) We can give our Black boys space to feel, communicate, and process emotions.  

(6) “What they see is what they will be” and our children must see us walking in our purpose.

(7) You can’t give your children what you aren’t giving yourself. Self-care is important.

(8) Part of our role is to develop, cultivate, and support our children’s Blackness however they define it.

(9) Being good enough, is enough.

(10) Use other Black fathers as sources of support, spaces to vent, mentorship and guidance.

Self-care while parenting during a pandemic

Being a parent can be one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. It is fulfilling to develop a meaningful relationship with your child and nurture them as they grow into their potential. However, numerous factors can impact this process, the most significant one right now being the current pandemic. The pandemic has created the need for a redefinition and renegotiation of our roles as parents as we navigate being present parents for our children with the compounding stressors of work, finances, and potential illness. In a time when the need to engage in self-care has become crucial to our mental and physical well-being, we have lost sight of this as we grapple with the changes in parenting roles and subsequent stress. However, remember you can only give to your children what you are giving to yourself (e.g., compassion, understanding, grace, caring). Kindness to yourself will allow you to be more kind to your children. Caring for yourself will allow you to be more caring to your children. And having compassion for yourself will allow you to be more compassionate and understanding to your children. Below are four ideas to help guide your self-care experience while you parent during a pandemic.   

(1) Self-care requires constant redefinition. Popular culture has indicated that self-care must involve elaborate excursions or buying expensive things. However, parenting doesn’t always allow for the time or money to engage in these experiences. Instead, seek out opportunities for in the moment self-care experiences. For example, a 60 second meditation or deep breathing exercise while your child eats, or 15 minutes of yoga during nap time can provide a brief pause to create space for re-centering, relaxation, and rejuvenation.      

(2) Self-care requires practice. Just like a muscle, your self-care will grow stronger with consistent practice. Set aside time everyday to practice self-care. Explore what works for you to create a reflective space that is conducive to your role as a parent. Try out different times of the day with various activities (e.g., reflection, meditation, reading, listening to music, having a supportive conversation) to see what self care practices fit with your schedule. The key is to include some form of self-care each day.   

(3) Self-care must be intentional. The stress and busyness of parenting can contribute to several reasons why we can’t engage in self-care. Who will watch the children? When they are napping that is my time to get other work done (or sleep myself) or I am too tired to engage in self-care. It is easy to allow these reasons to take the focus off creating spaces of kindness and compassion for ourselves. Your self-care must be intentional to overcome these challenges.  

(4) Good self-care requires communication. To help with the intentionality and practice of your self-care, it is important to maintain good communication with your children, partner, family members, and friends. Good communication will help you to create the boundaries needed to facilitate a reflective and gracious space. Additionally, good communication can increase accountability regarding consistently engaging in self-care. Lastly, good communication will foster opportunities for support and idea generation as you develop your self-care practice.

10 questions you can ask instead of “how are you” during a pandemic

  1. What has given you a happy thought today?
  2. What has been the “pit” and “peak” of your day?
  3. What do you need from me today?
  4. What did you do for self-care today?
  5. Is there someone I can connect you with today?
  6. What song or poem would describe how your day has been?
  7. What’s one thing we could do together to make your day better?
  8. What new idea, topic, or discussion is giving you energy today?
  9. What’s something that inspired you to be your best self today?
  10. What are you grateful for today?

Staying Present During a Pandemic

Lao Tzu once said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” With the uncertainty of the pandemic, many individuals are struggling with anxiety. Stuck in their homes and isolated from their loved ones, many individuals are also struggling with sadness and depression. This combination of anxiety and depression has made it difficulty to cope with the frustration, guilt, weariness, fear, grief, and anger that comes along with witnessing and experiencing a chronic globally traumatic event. However, as Lao Tzu notes, the key to managing the dizzying array of emotions is to remember that peace lies in our intentional and conscious awareness that the only true certainty we have is in the present moment we are experiencing  right now. Below are eight thoughts to remember to help you stay in the present moment during this difficult time.

  1. Strong feelings can be intense but don’t last forever
  2. Acceptance doesn’t have to equal hopelessness
  3. You control your mind, your mind doesn’t control you
  4. You can’t always control your environment, but you can always control your reaction to it
  5. Be intentional in your thinking, doing, and feeling
  6. Lean into your experience
  7. Find space for thoughtful reflection
  8. Focus on “doing” less so you can “be” more in the present moment