The Black male identity: Conflict and reconciliation

There has been a centuries long intentional effort to sexualize and create fear of the Black male body. This effort has been significantly influenced by popular cultures consistent portrayal of the average Black male as dumb, deviant, and dangerous. The consistent negative portrayal of the Black male image has been efficiently condensed into a limited number of archetypes such as Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mandingo, and the Magical Negro. Additionally, society’s expectations of Black masculinity performance have been shaped by a chronic narrative that describes Black males as hyperaggressive, hypersexual, stoic, and physically imposing.

Many Black males have bought into this narrative as their only perceived source of social power. Based on this phenomenon, society, with some complicity from Black males, has reduced the complex experience of navigating racialized masculinity (which would need volumes of text to appropriately capture) to a hand full of stock phrases such as “the angry Black male,” “the scary Black male,” “the absent Black male,” and “the dangerous Black male.”  As Black males have attempted to adhere to these rigid expectations of Black masculinity performance, in effort to claim popular culture sanctioned social power, they have encountered significant physical, psychological, and relational challenges. Furthermore, the challenges associated with these expectations are exacerbated by the experience of racism, race-related stress, and racial trauma. Lastly, Black males have been taught across the generations insufficient and ineffective coping strategies to manage the challenges associated with their intersecting racial and gender identities.

The combination of societal expectations, peer influences, chronic exposure to limited a narrative about the Black male experience, and the potential physical and psychological consequences of these challenges has added significant pressure for the development of a meaningful Black masculinity. Specifically, to reduce the negative social and health impact of racism and discrimination the Black male’s identity development must help him resolve the conflict of differing expectations of his racialized masculinity and reconcile his maleness and Blackness into a coherent sense of self. There are three paths towards identity reconciliation that the Black male can take: the development of a (1) ridged unintegrated Black masculinity, (2) an unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity or (3) an integrated Black masculinity.

A ridged unintegrated Black masculinity highlights the Black male’s attempt to cope with the negative expectations associated with a racialized masculinity by embracing the faulty images projected on to them. These Black males are negatively affected by social oppression (e.g., racism) and become conduits through which negative beliefs about the Black male experience are shared and reinforced. A rigid unintegrated Black masculinity represents an inflexible obedience to a loosely defined racialized masculinity. An unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity highlights Black males who develop masculine identities not rooted in a culturally influenced self-concept. These Black males believe the best coping strategy for racism is “denial” and racialized masculinity identity flexibility. Black males with an unstructured unintegrated Black masculinity are negatively impacted by social oppression and a shared “denial” of systemic racial issues in society.

An integrated Black masculinity highlights Black males who have learned to cope with the negative expectations associated with their racialized masculinity by developing their critical thinking skills regarding the consumption of media, adhere to a flexible expression and performance of masculinity, embrace an Afrocentric foundation to their understanding of their Blackness (e.g., collectivism vs individualism, cooperation vs competition, emotional expression vs stoicism), and utilize adaptive coping strategies for the experience of racism and race related stress.

Promoting the generational transmission of racial healing

Our increased understanding of racial trauma has led to a focus on its transmission across generations. This focus has enhanced our awareness of the racially traumatic narratives that maintain the negative effects of race-related stress and trauma. However, a discussion concerning the generational transmission of healing has been absent from this exploration. Without a balance of both an awareness of the impact of racial trauma and healing, Black individuals will lose sight of their capacity to dismantle systemic racism and create therapeutic spaces for racial healing. To achieve this balance, we must (1) engage in a reinterpretation of healing, (2) find strength within while also seeking external support, and (3) utilize an intentional and authentic approach for the healing of racial trauma.   

Reinterpret healing

Western approaches to healing measure success by the absence of pain and suffering. However, this is a challenging expectation given that trials and tribulations are a common part of the human experience. Additionally, these trials often contribute to a better version of ourselves. As the proverb states, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” To reinterpret healing, we must reimage a connection/meaning healing process rather than a compartmentalization/control healing process. From a Western perspective, healing involves the compartmentalization of the illness and the returning of control of one’s body from sickness. However, racial trauma does not lend itself well to healing through compartmentalization and control because of its chronic and ambiguous nature (as well as the sociohistorical influence of intentional racism). Instead, racial trauma healing must be reinterpreted as a process where we strengthen our relational connections with ourselves and the Black community as well as engage in thoughtful meaning making about the expression and source of our Blackness.   

Find strength within while also seeking external support

Given the collective nature of Black culture, the generational transmission of healing requires the sharing of racial trauma experiences. This collaborative approach ensures that no one Black person is holding the impact of race-related stress by themselves. While our African roots encourage us to “conquer the enemy within” in the form of internalized racism, we are also reminded that “in crisis the wise build bridges while the foolish build dams.” As part of the generational transmission of healing narrative we must seek out (and offer) opportunities for external support. If we want to experience healing from racial trauma, we can engage in the process alone and remain vulnerable to the deleterious effects of systemic racism. However, if we go together, we can experience a healing that will last generations.

Utilize an intentional and authentic approach for the healing of racial trauma   

Healing from race-related stress and trauma must be purposeful and not reactionary. The generational transmission of healing involves a collective exploration of our identity as Black people and the ways in which society has attempted to limit our Blackness. Additionally, we must foster spaces for the collective processing of our shared experiences of race-related stress and trauma and seek to offer a counter narrative of reconciliation, solidarity, and self-determination. Lastly, due to the insidious and chronic nature of systemic racism, we must communicate meaningful skills to address instances of racism as well as pass on narratives of our capacity to disrupt and dismantle systems of racial oppression.

The top three priorities for the Black community in 2020

Build generational wealth

Wealth in the US is unequally distributed by race. This phenomenon is most evident when the average wealth of Black Americans is compared to that of White Americans. According to Federal Reserve, the median and mean net worth for Black families is $17,600 and $138,200 vs $171,000 and $933,700 respectively for White families. These statistics indicate that Black families have less than 15 percent of the wealth of White families. The literature has noted several factors that have contributed to these stark differences including: (1) racial discrimination in housing policies, (2) labor market discrimination, (3) credit and student loan debt, (4) limited access to tax-advantaged forms of savings, and (5) a lack of life insurance. In 2020, we must work towards reducing the wealth gap, knowing that the odds are stacked against us, by: (1) using our political voice and action to fight against discriminatory housing policies, (2) pooling our resources to promote entrepreneurship and land/home ownership, (3) be intentional in our savings, retirement, and debt management, and (4) securing viable life insurance to ensure future generations are not saddle with our debt and have a foundation of financial security to build their own entrepreneurial efforts.  

Take care of our physical and mental health

Factors such as race related stress, limited access to healthy foods, and housing discrimination have contributed to a significant lower life expectancy for Black people compared to other racial groups. For example, the average Black individual can expect to live 10-12 years less than their White counterparts. Additionally, the quality of the years lived by Black people is negatively impacted by chronic illness (e.g., heart disease and diabetes) and environmental factors (e.g., community violence, proximity to pollution). Furthermore, in the last decade we have witnessed a rise in both the number of Black people experiencing mental illness as well as the stigma associated with seeking professional help. Many Black individuals, young and old, are feeling a profound sense of hopelessness that is contributing to increasing instances of suicide. In 2020, we owe it to ourselves, our families and our people to take better care of our physical and mental health. We can accomplish this by: (1) getting a mental health check up (even if we don’t have a mental illness), (2)  getting a full medical workup, (3) practicing intentional self-care, (4) engaging in purposeful healing for racial trauma, and (5) being a source of encouragement to the Black people around us to ask for help if they need it.

Advocate for quality education for our children

 Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” For many Black individuals’ education (in all its many forms) has served as the bridge from poverty to generational wealth. Additionally, education has helped us to refine our entrepreneurial and innovation skills. However, with the creation of the school to prison pipeline, funneling of dollars out of urban and public schools, crushing student loan debt that disproportionately affects Black students, and the perpetuation of falsities about the academic achievement capabilities of Black youth, fewer Black individuals are able to fully realize the benefits of a quality education. In 2020, we owe it to our children to fight for their access to a quality education whether it be K-12, college/university, or vocational. We can accomplish this by: (1) maintaining active attendance at school board and PTA/PTO meetings, (2) developing a meaningful working relationship with your child’s teachers, (3) advocating for alternative disciplinary practices, and (4) advocating for culturally responsive teaching practices.   

Five things Black people need to leave in 2019

Limiting our history to the slave narrative

Popular culture and the media have centered much of the historical Black experience around the institution of slavery. While important, it is only one chapter in the rich history of individuals from the African continent. Additionally, by only focusing on the slave narrative, the experience of Black people is reduced to that of a victim, being helpless, or inferior. However, the history of Black people predating slavery spans multiple continents, thousands of years, and numerous generations. In 2020, lets truly embrace the concept of Sankofa and learn from our past. A past that not only includes slavery but stories of innovation, exploration, and affirmation.

Seeking approval and validation from White people

In 2019, we sought to soften the White gaze on Black bodies through acts of forgiveness and calls to bear witness to our humanity. However, this effort has compromised our voice, reduced our desire to act, and has made us complicit in our own oppression.  In 2020, we must look from within our communities for affirmation, support, and validation. The cost will be less, the benefits will be more, and our search will not end in compromise or conflict.  We cannot seek from others what we first must receive from within.

The “crabs in a bucket” mentality

2019 saw many of our brothers and sisters achieve significant economic, educational, and career success. However, for each rung that they climbed up the ladder towards greater achievement, there were ten people seeking to pull them back down via the greatest tools of haters, manipulation, gossip, and sabotage. Robert Ingersoll once said that, “We rise by lifting others.” In 2020, we must return to our collectivist roots and seek to rise together in the face of prejudice, racism, and discrimination. Another brother or sister’s success should not be a judgement of our own failures. Success does not have to be an either/or perspective. Instead we can both celebrate each other’s successes AND lift each other up during times of trouble.

Internalized racism

From skin complexion to hair texture many of our brothers and sisters have bought into White norms for beauty, intelligence, speech, behavior, and gender performance/expectations. Furthermore, we have a created a significant in group/out group effect where we attempt to police those who adhere or do not adhere to White norms. This phenomenon has contributed to self-hatred, increased vulnerability to racial trauma, and cultural isolation from one another. Not realizing that we are fighting each other based on someone else’s rules using standards not designed for us in the first place to keep us distracted from the various systemic challenges facing our communities. In 2020, we must conquer the enemy within in regard to our internalizing and subsequent gatekeeping of White norms and behaviors that has manifested in the form of internalized racism.

Stigma about seeking mental health services

2019 saw a rise in suicides and depression for Black individuals that was exacerbated by racial trauma, financial difficulties, housing insecurity, education challenges, and chronic loss. However, during a time when more and more of our brothers and sisters should be reaching out for social and emotional support, the stigma associated with seeking help has continued it’s prominence in our communities. In 2020, we must reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health services by naming and addressing the mistrust of mental health professionals, increasing access by networking and sharing our list of Black providers, and sharing accurate information about the therapy process.  

Unforgiven: The price of a felony for Black males in America

There is a dark cloud hanging over the experience of many Black males in the US in the form of a felony conviction. These Black males are drenched in the rain of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes, and un-forgiveness. Additionally, Black males who have repaid what was deemed owed of them through sentencing, restitution, and probation are regulated only to being the bringers of darkness and cold rain. This is an all too common experience for Black males who do not have the ability to access redemption under societal gaze. According to a study by Shannon and colleagues (2017), 8% of all adults in the US have a felony conviction. This number rises to 33% for Black adult males. Furthermore, one half of Black males are at risk of arrest at least once by the age of 23 (Brame et al., 2014). These studies suggest an increasing vulnerability for criminal justice involvement by young Black male adults within a society determined to criminalize the Black male body.   

It has been widely indicated that Black males disproportionate interaction with the criminal justice system is influenced by the negative narratives associated with the Black male body such as being dangerous, deviant, and dumb. However, these negative messages continue to follow Black males once their period of incarceration has ended and they begin their re-entry back into society. Specifically, two central messages are cynicism concerning the rehabilitative capacity of Black males and the belief that Black males are not worthy of redemptive status. There have been several studies to suggest that the imposition of these messages on the Black male experience as well as the internalization of these messages by the Black male himself can have significant negative physical and mental health consequences (Dill et al., 2015).

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects Black males from arrest to reentry. Additionally, due to society’s negative perception of their rehabilitative capacity and access to redemption, Black males experience a perpetual “double punishment” where they receive a “life” sentence of disenfranchisement, underemployment, negative stereotypes and un-forgiveness upon reentry. We must do better by those that have earned the right to a second chance by serving their time, paying restitution, and navigating the system of probation. Specifically we can: (1) reduce barriers to accessing appropriate physical and mental health treatment, (2) increase access to affordable, safe, and consistent housing, (3) provide training for translatable job skills, (4) provide training and financial support for worthwhile entrepreneurial efforts, (5) facilitate access to social support systems, (6) eradicate barriers for individuals with felonies to exercise their voice in the political process, and (7) remove the life sentence of stigma imposed upon individuals at reentry.       

The top ten reasons I’m thankful for Black people


Our resilience 

We have literally created an often emulated culture from memory 

It is in our nature to see the God in others 

Our ability to turn pain/suffering and joy/happiness into soulful songs and spoken word 

Our innovation and entrepreneurial efforts 

Our spiritual centeredness

Our commitment and leadership related to social justice issues  

Our sense of family and kinship 

Our commitment to honoring and preserving the memory of our ancestors 

Our uncanny ability to turn obstacles into opportunities

Kicking the Back Door Down

Carter G Woodson once said, “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”  Many people have sought to describe how they see the experience of Black males as reflected in film, music, and print media. However, society has fallen woefully short in adequately defining the varying lived experiences of Black males. Instead, Black males have been reduced to stereotypical caricatures such as Sambo, Mandingo, or the magical negro. These ways of thinking about Black males has led to the perpetuation of false narratives such as (1) we have no history prior to colonization or slavery, (2) all roads lead to prison for males of color, (3) males of color are absentee fathers, and that (4) we are apathetic and unmotivated to succeed.

As reflected in Carter G. Woodson’s quote, the constant exposure to these narratives is intentional and designed to communicate an inferior status. Furthermore, due to internalized racism, conflict with societal expectations, rigid masculinity, and peer groups with low standards for acceptance but high standards for maintenance of group membership many Black males are seeking the vary back door built to oppress us. However, we can kick the back down by (1) defining the backdoor, (2) reclaiming our narrative, and (3) sharing the message with other Black males.

Defining the back door

 What’s waiting at the back door for Black males is a limited narrative that suggests that we should see ourselves as struggling mentally and physically too afraid to step into the conditions that have traumatized Black males in the form of institutional, cultural, and individual racism. That we are undereducated and underemployed. And that everyday is just another step closer to our inevitable fate of taking up residence in one of the fine suites by the prison industrial complex. However, we are more and have accomplished more, and have had to overcome more than what the statistics indicate. But to fully realize this, we must reclaim our narrative, conquer the enemy within, and strengthen our connections with other Black males.

Reclaiming our narrative

Three steps must be taken in an effort to reclaim the Black male narrative back from the oppressive and harmful clutches of society. First, we must expose ourselves and other Black males to the varying ways that Black masculinity is performed and expressed as well as differential experiences of Black male “success.” Secondly, Black males must reflect inward in regard to the experience of internalized racism and “conquer the enemy within” so that we will no longer be harmed by stereotypes and negative societal expectations. Lastly, we must work to help other Black males to be seen for the world changing, family raising, innovative, courageous, leaders they are capable of being.   

Sharing the message

We must teach our Black males more about the back door that has been built for them with the materials of racism, stereotypes, and conflicting expectations. As they work to reclaim their narrative, it will be important for Black males to share their message of Black male self-determination. Specifically, Black males must communicate that Woodson’s proverbial back door is socially constructed and Black males can stop the building of the door. Additionally, Black males have the power to reclaim their narrative and the ability to tell their story of being seen and conquering the socially constructed enemy within. Lastly, Black males have a collective responsibility to help other Black males (especially our youth) to be seen, to de-stigmatize asking for help, and caution against a rigid adherence to traditional masculine norms.