Beyond the Stereotypical Image of Young Men of Color
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and critiques of these young men usually pivot around common tropes: The violent, drug-involved gangster; the angry, withdrawn teen; the crude, disrespectful provocateur; the unsmiling, unfeeling, untouchable thug.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 posses a range of complexities—insights, emotions, and aesthetics—that the public neither sees nor accepts because our 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 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.”
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.”