I have a problem with how we define manhood.
Our definitions are shaky at best and give way to circular rhetoric when challenged.
Too much of what we consider manhood is centered around respect and respectability, edging out important factors like emotional stability and accountability, and ignoring what makes an individual unique. I think that there are too many Black men trying to teach Black boys to become Black men by way of assimilation and respectability.
Too much of manhood is based on what a man wears and what he looks like rather than, say, his capacity for compassion and sympathy, among other emotions. Too often, we address the outward challenges of being a Black man in America without considering what it takes to build the mind, with regard to both education and intelligence, and the ways we allow men to emote.
Some weeks ago, Dr. Steve Perry, principal and founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School and fairly well-known educator publicly established himself as a champion of respectability politics for all of Twitter to see. With a show like Save My Son airing on TVOne and having teamed up with our favorite uncle who we wish would chill out sometimes, Steve Harvey, I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. It’s obvious both of them have taken a class or two from the Bill Cosby School of Respectability.
The tweet read, “I witnessed 200 boys VOLUNTARILY cut dreads, braids & unkempt frosh bc @IAmSteveHarvey @USArmy connected aesthetics to success. Powerful.”
Powerful, indeed, Mr. Perry.
Pressuring young boys into respectability under the guise that success looks like oversized, over-buttoned suits, pocket squares and “clean-cut” hair is big. With titles like educator, CNN contributor, talk show host, author, motivational speaker attached to their names, Harvey and Perry wielded a power that maybe a good many of these young boys have never known.
“Respectable” power– power approved by mainstream media and white folks alike. The phrase “connected aesthetics to success” particularly hurts me because it falls directly into the idea that we as Black people and POC have to look a certain way to fit in and be successful. Assimilation is the name of the game, and it’s severely damaging, especially to a people often found struggling to connect with culture at all. As if it isn’t already difficult enough trying to find identity in being Black Americans, there’s this sense that we need to throw away the parts of us that seem unsightly to some as well.
I don’t doubt that both Dr. Perry and Steve Harvey have great ideas when it comes to education and other ways to push our community forward. And I get it– anything to save our sons and daughters from having assumptions made about them, especially when those assumptions often get them killed.
I understand the desperation parents face when they see kids who look like their’s brutalized by police. I could understand respectability as a survival tactic, if it actually worked. But it doesn’t. It never has.
And when we measure success through the lens of whether or not we’ve seamlessly assimilated, we lose ourselves in the process and engage ourselves in a never-ending pandering for the white gaze. When we teach boys (and girls) to focus on gaining respect and being seen in the wrong ways, we leave the person they are and the person they could become out to dry. When teaching Black boys to be palatable is the goal instead of fully engaging their potential as living, breathing, creative, passionate human beings, we create Black men who are emotionally irresponsible and even completely emotionally absent. You cannot claim to be about the best interests of Black boys and thus the Black community and put upon them the same restraints that society puts upon them. Submitting to whiteness and its standards, even under the guise of staying safe, is how we perpetuate the idea that there can be a superior and inferior race.
So I have to check myself sometimes. I make assumptions about people based on appearance all the time. But I’m learning to take a second to consider my own role in pushing respectability– how I think judgmental thoughts toward parents when they come to the school not so well-dressed or unkempt. We all have parts of our thought process that desperately need some undoing, some unlearning. And, as a people socialized to believe that everything natural about us is wrong, we’re going to have to work together to unlearn these things together.
“When you learn, teach…” — Maya Angelou