Beyond the Stereotypical Image of Young Men of Color

Minority youth are often portrayed through a distorted lens. But many live counternarratives every day.

Anthony Asael / Getty

"Shut up and listen!" With these instructions running through their heads, a group of about 1,000 adults convened on the rooftop of a downtown Oakland garage. More than 200 "inner-city" high schoolers were already there, sitting face-to-face in cars with the windows down and convertible tops peeled back. They were talking in small groups, rapt in dialogue about their lives. The adults circulated through the crowd, listening to the conversations and learning about the students’ views on race, gender, and education, as well as the misperceptions that surround them.

That was two decades ago. Staged in 1994, this performance art piece—appropriately titled The Roof Is on Fire—aimed to give voice to urban teens by encouraging them to express their diverse concerns. "Everything we do every day is stereotyped," said one organizer of the event, a black teenager. "If you heard on the news ... ‘young black male,’ you’re not gonna think anything positive. What’s positive that’s gonna pop in your head when you hear that?"

Fast forward 20 years, and this student’s penetrating observation still holds true. In the American psyche, young black and brown males are continually seen and stereotyped as threatening, enraged, and beset by hardship—just as they were decades ago.

Imagine if The Roof Is on Fire were replicated today on a national scale. What would happen if young black and brown males were able to critically dialogue with one another and define themselves rather than undergo others’ stereotyping? What would happen if policymakers, journalists, educators, and others listened and tried to understand these young men’s perspectives before making sweeping generalizations about them?

The caricatures and critiques of these young men usually pivot around common tropes: The violent, drug-involved gangster; the angry, withdrawn teen; the crude, disrespectful provocateur; the unsmiling, unfeeling, untouchable thug.

But young men of color possess a range of complexities—insights, emotions, and aesthetics—that the public neither sees nor accepts because American culture often defines these males negatively and far too narrowly. In simple terms, there is much more to young men of color beyond the stereotypical image.

"[Young black, Latino, and other negatively stereotyped males] are a reservoir of questions and answers because they move through the world under a cloud of those [suspecting] questions," said the artist Chris Johnson, co-producer of The Roof Is on Fire and Question Bridge: Black Males. Consider another trope: a young man with baggy, low-riding pants. Chances are he has a beautiful mind: He could be a writer, a spoken-word poet, a future teacher or engineer. Yet he lives under routine scrutiny because of his image. People might glare at him and critique his hip-hop infused style of dress, presuming him wayward or uninspired. "He knows people are asking why he’s doing that," Johnson said. But people rarely desire an actual reply, "so he’s internally rehearsing answers to those questions all the time."

Many members of society draw from negative stereotyping in the media and apply these ideas, often subconsciously, to the young black or brown male striding behind them on the sidewalk, sitting across from them on the bus, even looking up at them in the classroom. They often see him as physical threat. Americans' perspective on this young man then becomes the control and policing of his body—rather than the acknowledgement and affirmation of his mind and soul.

As history shows, the public is most aware of the prejudice and vitriol against young black and brown males when tragedy occurs—and usually in hindsight. A prime example is the 1989 Central Park jogger case, when five black and Latino teenage boys were wrongfully convicted for the rape and beating of a young white woman in New York City. Between 13 and 16 years old, these young men were slandered across the news; their names, photographs, and addresses were released to the public. The sensationalist media even invented a new term—"wilding"—to describe the random, predatory violence and lawlessness it attributed to young men who looked, unsurprisingly, like them. In retrospect this tragedy is a painful metaphor for society’s angst and hostility toward young men of color. They are presumed guilty before proven innocent.

This kind of history offers a backdrop for current events. Today, while many young black and brown men are targeted by police and the media, they remain misunderstood, invisible. National public opinion data cited in a report from the University of Chicago’s Black Youth Project reveals that black youth "report the highest rate of harassment by the police," while fewer black and Latino teens trust police or feel like "full and equal citizens" compared to peers of other racial groups.

To make matters worse, the recent killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, among others, serve as grim reminders to young, disadvantaged men of color that their lives are undervalued in their own country. The cumulative impact of these tragedies on youth is what some scholars call a "speaking wound," when such events echo similar treatment others have faced. These killings re-trigger in young men traumatic memories of racially charged encounters with strangers and police—encounters that could have easily ended much worse.

This far-reaching form of stereotyping and oppression—what Toni Morrison and others call the "white gaze"—has shaped individual lives and collective histories within communities of color. For instance, in a recent New York Times op-ed, philosopher George Yancy described an unsettling encounter he had with a white police when he was a teenager in the late 1970s. Yancy said he was carrying a gift from his mother: a brand new telescope. Nonetheless, a policeman assumed the instrument was a weapon and nearly shot him. Even before assessing the situation, the officer had, in Yancy’s words, "already come to ‘see’ the black male body as different, deviant, and ersatz."

Though this type of encounter occurred in the past, this perilous brush with the police reads like it would today. Such encounters are haunting; they hold sway in the imagination and unmask the implicit bias people of color face.

The policeman’s knee-jerk reaction to Yancy not only criminalized him, but—most devastatingly—denied the notion of black male intellect and imaginativeness. "He failed to conceive, or perhaps could not conceive, that a black teenage boy … would own a telescope and enjoyed looking at the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn," Yancy concludes. "In retrospect, I can see the headlines: ‘Black Boy Shot and Killed While Searching the Cosmos.’"

Nowhere is the white gaze so evident as it is in our public institutions, where black and brown males are all too often accused of transgression and subject to disciplinary measures. But while the protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have begun to confront institutional racism within our legal system, young men of color often feel the burning glare of misperception early on in school, where teachers and other officials are more likely to perceive their actions and emotions as disrespectful or defiant.

Within school walls, the bodies of "blacks and browns"—boys and adults alike—are often seen through the prism of discipline. While on one hand black, Native American, and other male students of color are disproportionately disciplined in schools, the sociologist Ann Arnett Ferguson observes that adult black and brown men are often called upon to dole out the discipline. This is problematic, she writes, since these same male adults "may become suspicious, dangerous characters in the eyes of ordinary citizens on the streets outside." As a result, this portrayal of men and boys of color—as recipients, and then arbiters, of discipline—reinforces a cycle of control that fixates negatively on surveillance in school and beyond.

Schools have not evolved to fully embrace these men, argues Fanon Hill, a community organizer in Baltimore and the creator of the city’s recent Black Male Identity Project. Fathers as well as sons are excluded. "Young [black] fathers spoke with me about not being welcomed in schools," Hill said. "I’ve walked into schools with some of these fathers, walked down the halls, up the stairs ... we weren’t spoken to at all."

Research also supports this claim. Drawing from a national study on teens ages 13 through 17, a team of sociologists found that schools vary their messaging based on whether students are white or of color: While white students often see schools as places of care that invest in them, where teachers are supportive mentors, students of color (including males) generally report that schools teach them discipline and social responsibility. And if the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights data on the suspension of boys and girls of color is any indication, commonplace school procedures likely play a part in this messaging.

These examples indicate that we need to understand young men of color more fully and clearly than we currently do. In short, we need to "shut up and listen," and shift our thinking away from policing and toward new ways of seeing.

In my most recent research published in the Harvard Educational Review, I explored emotional complexity among a small cohort of black and Latino males in Boston’s middle and high schools. These young men’s narratives represent a powerful counterpoint to what popular media says about black and brown male teens. In a series of individual in-depth interviews, most young black and Latino males in my study discussed the importance of relationships in their lives. For example, one Puerto Rican eighth grader, along with his 17-year-old brother, regularly cooked for his family, cleaned around his house, and helped take care of younger siblings while his parents were working late-night shifts. Another 18-year-old "Spanish" male student, meanwhile, talked about how seriously he took his role as a mentor to his younger sister, choosing to abandon teenage antics once he arrived home.

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.

"Everyone expresses love differently," said one seventh-grade black boy. "Depending on who you are and your experience, you may love in a different way." A sixth-grade Latino boy said, "The world can be very tough and vast … You can feel so tiny in such a big place, and love is that connection that can make you feel not so small." In the end, another sixth-grade Latino boy said it best: that the project made him aware of a whole different side of his peers and challenged others to look beyond the negatives when thinking about communities of color.

This kind of experience is rare. Far too many young men are shamed and silenced into distancing themselves from their emotions, from the personal truths they live everyday. Harsh or unsupportive environments can do this to a person. In my research, young men who spoke with no one in their lives about their emotions or problems kept silent for fear of victimization—because of neighborhood violence or because they lacked opportunities to be vulnerable and expressive with others. But if context is the issue, then settings can be created that intentionally nurture the capacities youth already possess. Schools like George Jackson are a testament to this possibility.

Young men and boys are capable of deep thinking and feeling, says psychologist Niobe Way, a professor and co-convener of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at NYU. It’s American culture that doesn’t acknowledge or support this aspect of self. Interventions—or "love interventions," as Way calls them—are needed to counter the devastating forces of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Performance art projects such as The Roof Is on Fire offer another way to intervene. Not only do they allow youth to reclaim their diverse identities and carve out new spaces for critical exploration, they also catalyze audiences and outsiders to listen, rethink, and reframe previously unquestioned assumptions.

These kinds of projects, many of which are artistically driven, point to new directions for engaging with and understanding men of color, young and old.

At a time when young black and brown men are regularly stereotyped, silenced, and blamed for the oppression they face, American culture needs develop ways to embrace these young men as they are—not as they are made to be. Change first and foremost lies with Americans, who need to engage imaginatively with these young men in order to build new understanding.