Most importantly, when I asked students about these relationships, I was intrigued to find that most of these young men coped with issues like racial discrimination and stereotyping in school by talking with trusted friends about their experiences, emotions, and problems. "We speak about things," one student said. "We listen to each other. We try to give the best feedback to make each other feel better at that moment."
At the same time, many young black and Latino males in my study felt on guard, afraid to be vulnerable at school. One Caribbean-born student suggested that his heightened vigilance stemmed from unease surrounding a "double negative" effect—being both black and immigrant, or both black and appearing intellectually inferior in the classroom. In his view, being immigrant or seen as underachieving adds to the obstacles he already faces as a black male. "At school, I am what they want to see," he said, even as he and others strive to disprove the negative stereotypes weighing down on them.
This perceptive, emotional depth—what I am calling "emotional complexity"—is a strength that schools only need to seek out and acknowledge in young men of color. It’s a simple but radical change; and it unearths sorely needed counternarratives that help disentangle what is true and good in these young men from the denigrating stereotypes about them.
Love, for example, is an ethic often separated from popular notions of masculinity, and it yet is precisely needed to help re-envision who young men of color are. If we take film, television, and media at face value, then men (especially black and brown males) do not love—or at least do not love well. In fact, doing so may raise questions about one’s masculinity.
But the cultural critic bell hooks contends that our nation as a whole disregards love as a critical component our lives and to positive social change. In her words, we are lacking in our ability to "see the depths" of goodness and possibility in others as well as in ourselves. "If love is not present in our imaginations," hooks says, "it will not be there in our lives."
In fact, witnessing middle school boys of color contemplating and interacting using a love ethic challenged me to see them anew. During an 90-minute session with the students, they read stunning essays they’d written about their "Selfless Love Acts" and reflected as a class on the question, "How would you describe love?"
Some spaces, however, do provide a radically affirming experience for students. At the George Jackson Academy, an all-boys school in New York City, middle school students are developing a "love ethic" and critically exploring the concept of love in their lives. This month, sixth- and seventh-graders recently culminated their "Selfless Love Act" assignment. In the project, each student completed a meaningful activity for someone they love but to whom they don’t show love enough. Boys usually chose a family member—grandmothers, stepfathers, sisters, mothers, or brothers. And for their Selfless Love Act, they cooked for families, played with younger siblings, and so forth. The assignment itself was part of a larger project aimed at connecting boys with their own and others’ humanity. As I observed, listened to, and talked with these male students about their experiences, I realized that this process validated important parts of their identities—parts that boys in American culture are typically pressured to silence or ignore.