Why asking Black people to educate you for free during Black history month is not ok

It’s February, which means that many folks across the country are leaning into learning and growing around the contributions Black individuals have made in areas such as science, politics, and education. Over the last year, this leaning in has taken on a sense of urgency for many White individuals who perhaps for the first time in their lives are recognizing the incredible struggle that Black individuals have had to overcome to not only survive the experience of White supremacy but thrive in a meaningful way. The sense of urgency experienced by White individuals has morphed into a desire to “go to the source” when it comes to understanding the lived experience of Black people. As a Black individual, this is refreshing and a remarkable contrast from the hyper invisibility experienced by Black people in Black/White dynamics. However, coupled with “going to the source” has been the emergence of a challenging phenomenon where in which White individuals are expecting Black people to share their narrative, history, and context for free. This post briefly outlines three reasons why this expectation of “cultural education for free” is challenging in regards to financial and emotional costs, and the perpetuation of racism.

Financial Costs

Being Black in America is expensive. Black people typically spend more for expenses such housing, food, and education, as well as for culturally specific products and services (e.g., hair care). This discrepancy in spending happens for a number of reasons including difficulty in securing quality loans, predatory interest rates, and a lack of access to products and services. Based on these experiences, the Black dollar is not able to travel as far and is unable at times to be transmitted across generations and ultimately ends up in White hands and pockets. When an organization asks a Black individual to share their narrative, history, and context in a presentation or training format for free, they are contributing to the economic exploitation of the Black experience. This exploitation reduces the ability of individuals to navigate the discrepant costs associated with “living while Black.”

Emotional Costs

Being Black in America is emotionally taxing. Generations of Black people have endured various iterations of White supremacy (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, Black codes, War on Drug, etc.) that have contributed to significant emotional pain and suffering. The race related stress and trauma literature has highlighted that the physical and psychological costs of this emotional pain include depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties, insomnia, and chronic illness. Whenever, a Black individual is asked to share their narrative, history and context, they are being asked to recount emotionally painful experiences that not only include their own but those that they love and care about that span the generations. To share this dialogue within a training or presentation setting means that the Black individual is willing putting themselves at risk for racial trauma and race related stress knowing the potential for significant physical and psychological consequences. The risk required in this effort should be appropriately compensated.    

Perpetuation of Racism

Expecting free labor from Black people is a form of oppression. In many ways the US economy has been built through the free or inequitably compensated labor of oppressed individuals. The justification of this free labor stems from an unspoken social hierarchy that places White individuals at the top of America’s racial caste order. By asking Black individuals to engage in sharing their narrative, history, and context in a presentation or training via free labor, White individuals and organizations are reinforcing the very racist system they are learning about.

In order to truly understand and apply the trainings and presentations given by Black individuals during Black history month (or any other month), White individuals and organizations need to be aware of the financial and emotional costs as well as the ways in which they reinforce White supremacy by expecting free labor. To respect the narrative and expertise of Black individuals concerning their lived experiences, when requesting a Black individual to speak to your organization you should (1) have a dedicated budget for the presentation, (2) acknowledge your awareness of the emotional and financial costs the Black individual is incurring, and (3) identify racism within your organizational policies regarding expectations for presentations and trainings.  

Black man! You have the power to heal!

John Henry, Sambo, Scary Black man, and Mandingo, these archetypes have been used across the centuries to quantify the perceived lived experience of Black males. Despite their differing points of emphasis, a common thread woven through each narrative is a portrayal of Black males as emotionally distant and socially inept. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Black males represent less than .5% of all psychologists in the US. Additionally, mental health professions across various disciplines are also reporting a similar disparity regarding Black male representation. Why are there so few Black males engaged in the psychological healing practices? 

A connection can be made between the narratives imposed upon Black males in the form of the archetypes mentioned above and the Black males belief in their own emotional and relational capacities. Furthermore, if a Black male experiences their own relational and emotional capacities as limited, then they are more likely to not view themselves as individuals that can facilitate healing for others. We can help Black males see and fulfill their healer potential by: 

(1) Normalizing the experience and expression of a full range of emotions early in the Black males upbringing.

(2) Exposing Black males to Black male healers across a number of mental/physical health professions. 

(3) Eradicating systemic barriers that prevent Black males from accessing the education needed to engage in healing work. 

(4) Advocating for fair compensation for healing professionals to encourage more Black males to pursue healing work. 

(5) Affirming and validating Black males in healing professions and letting them know they are needed and supported.

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?