Not long ago, my 10-year-old son, Jason, came limping into the kitchen, a doo-rag (scarf) on his head, some bling (an over-sized, shiny but fake medallion) around his neck and wearing—just barely—a pair of pants about two sizes too large, his plaid boxers peeking out over his backside.
“What are you supposed to be?” I asked.
“A thug!” he snarled, wiggling his crooked fingers at me in what I was later to find out was the signage for a West Berkeley street gang.
“Oh, no you are not a thug!” I snarled right back.
“I be gettin’ down!” he retorted, comically twisting his body around to the tune of his nod-nod-nodding head. I caught a sparkle of amusement in his eyes, a hint of a grin across his down-turned mouth, so I knew that he knew that I knew that he wasn’t all that.
“Jason, we do not have thugs in our family and we do not talk or dress like thugs, either. So, you can take that stuff off before you go anywhere with me.”
“Aw, Mom,” he intoned. “You just ain’t with it.”
“I guess I ain’t.” I replied. “But, I am with you and you’re with me, so go change your clothes. Now.”
“Unnnh,” he moaned and trudged on upstairs to discard his cool while I continued filling out applications for private middle school.
This was not the first time we experienced culture clash between Jason and his schoolmates and it would not be the last. The first time was not with the little brothers from the ‘hood but with upper class white boys in Jason’s pre-school. Jason had been accustomed to being around girls, including his older sister and two little girls in day-care. He was equally comfortable playing fireman and house. However, just before he turned 4, the slightly older boys in his pre-school began excluding him. Why? Because not only did he not join in when they persistently declared that they hated girls, but he actually had the nerve to play with them. On the day that Jason came home and announced, “I hate girls!” I felt a great sadness, as though some innocent, non-discriminating part of him had been lost.
Today, among the measures of manliness for 10-year-old boys is one’s ability to “suck it up,” to refrain from showing emotion when in pain. On a recent sleepover with a group of classmates, one of the boys tore an emblem off of Jason’s new jacket. When asked to give it back, he refused and instead ripped it up in front of Jason’s face, bringing tears to his eyes. Not one of the other boys criticized the youth who so boldly destroyed Jason’s property. Instead, Jason was berated for showing that he cared so much. Later, the host of the party introduced another fun game which required that his guests line up so that he could forcefully punch each one in the arm. Whoever flinched was declared a sissy. Jason refused to participate, so you can guess what they called him.
Now, there’s the male thing and then there’s the black male thing.
On top of being encouraged to dislike girls and show no pain, black boys, who often grow up to suffer from higher rates of illness, poor education, violence, unemployment, incarceration and even suicide, are placed under particular pressure to not exhibit their pain, anger and frustration, though exhibit it they do, by tragically becoming both perpetrators and victims of their environment. This is the dilemma that many blacks felt Bill Cosby ignored when he publicly criticized black parenting skills. While alternately shunned and feared on city streets and in classrooms, young black men are fully embraced on playing fields and dance floors. Small wonder that so many little black boys see sports and music as the only pathways to success.
Not my son. No way. He is exposed to all manner of talented role models and achievers. But, is that enough when the vast majority of his black schoolmates view the world so differently? By the way, when considering the rise in corporate crime, global wars, racial and sexual violence, and the shameful neglect of this country’s youth, disadvantaged and elderly, young white boys don’t have much in the way of role models, either.
While I agree with Bill Cosby’s assertion that black parents must assume more responsibility for the behaviors of their children, I would have added that white parents should work harder to unlearn racism to better prevent it from being absorbed by their children. And we would all benefit from teaching our children empathy, tolerance and appreciation for others by practicing those values ourselves.
I think we’ll forgo private school for now. I want my son to feel comfortable with a wide range of cultures, ethnicities and classes that better reflect our growing, changing world. Perhaps, Jason and his friends can learn to become the role models they all need, right where they are. Besides, who wants to fork over all that private school money? I could buy myself some bling. For rizzle.