Friday, October 26, 2012

Identity Theft pt 2. – Black Masculinity & its trouble with Education

“Black males are overrepresented in every category associated with failure, and underrepresented in every category associated with success.”    
                    - Dr. Pedro Noguerra, NYU Professor of Education

The heaviness and truth of that quote is what drives this post. The quote starts with two words, that have everything to do with classifying a group of people who have a shared sociological identity – BLACK MALE.

I am not an expert on this topic, but perhaps maybe one day I’ll stretch my wings and at least be a thought leader that contributes some solutions to what I see as an epidemic crisis.  The fact that some prisons are built based on third-grader’s test scores speaks volumes to the trajectory of which black men and their education have real consequences. Don’t assume consequences are all bad, it is merely the result of an action and or decision. Some black men and their education have awarded them a lot of positive consequences, while others…not so much. Here’s my take on where we stand presently…celebrating our successes, and accepting some real obstacles ahead.

I’ve included two video clips in this post to help articulate my sentiment(s).  The first video highlights Urban Prep Academy (UPA). UPA is a predominately black all boys Chicago high school set in a low-income neighborhood. For the past three years 100% of its graduating class has been admitted to college. The school doesn’t stop there, they view college completion and retention as the ultimate goal. While Urban Prep Academy is not the only solution to helping fix the black male education crisis, it is certainly one solution and a forerunner of promoting positive change.

Another clip I’m sharing is a trailer for a documentary called Beyond the Bricks. It’s a film that documents two young black males experiences struggling through the Newark New Jersey public school system.  While I can assume some of the systemic entities that have probably contributed to these men’s struggle (poverty, lack of positive male role models, lack of proficient teachers, textbooks & relevant curriculum, etc) one of the things that the film’s costar points out is: “ It had a whole lot to do with me. At first I tried to blame everybody else, but the only person to blame was myself.”

Let’s just stop right there…call Bill Cosby and tell him someone has admitted it. “Black men are doing this to themselves!“ And to be honest, …on some levels, that is completely accurate.  Black men (and other members of society) are affirming black maleness identity in ways that have nothing to do with valuing a formal education.

More often than not, young black males are not conditioned/taught to see themselves as learned, smart, nerdy, brainy, etc. or through the lens of a formal education. While there may be just contextual reasons for this behavior, the unfortunate aftermath is that it steers young black males away from the importance that education plays in our society. Whether we like it or not, education is our social capital to navigate our way through society…to have life choices in plain speak.  Black men are often told that school smarts are for “white” people, and are redirected to be street smart. Don’t get me wrong, street savvy skills can get you very far – but they aren’t typically qualifiers for job postings. Most job postings require some degree of formal education…and while we all know a degree doesn’t guarantee a job – it’s a foot in the door to be considered. Again, this is about having life choices…and education opens that door.

I’d be lying if I said that young black male children who show a sole interest in learning and scholastic endeavors without any other type of “appropriate black male” behavior to balance that out (sports, rapping, clothes, etc) are usually ostracized and/or ridiculed.  Of course we want to encourage our young boys to have social skills and be well rounded, but isn’t an avid interest in relevant societal topics like science, art & history well-rounded?  If a young black boy is only interested in school – something MUST be wrong with him! Quick – get him on a sports team, to the church, or a girlfriend as soon as possible. The message that we are really sending through that idea is that his performance of blackness and maleness is lacking....he is insufficient. I know this all too well because I was that boy…luckily I had parents who affirmed my scholastic interests.

I think the takeaway charge that lay ahead for us all is that we have to continue to monitor our own beliefs and be intentional about language. Words have power.  Even if we’re not in a position to expose little black boys to the things they need/should see to broaden their identity horizons, at the VERY LEAST use words that can affirm them as competent thinkers who take part in the education process.  I haven’t always been the most consistent at that myself, and I’m a black male teacher who teaches young black boys.  It’s easy for me to praise and affirm the ones who show an interest in learning, and get frustrated with the ones who can’t sit still or show no effort for their work.  “Stay in school” means nothing to a black boy who will go through the motions of school but never truly connect and identify with how school can help him lead his best life.  I know it can be done though…one person at a time.  

Leave Madea in Jail so Middle of Nowhere (& other good black films) Can Be Seen

Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing The Middle of Nowhere with my sister, her best friend, and one of my best friends visiting me from out of town. “So what…who cares…everyone goes to the movies,” you’re thinking. “And I’ve never heard of Middle of Nowhere!” – EXACTLY, you’ve never heard of Middle of Nowhere…and that’s what this post is about.

My motive for going to see Middle of Nowhere came from the suggestion of one of my closest friends, who just happens to be a therapist. (I trust his opinions a lot). He said I reminded him of the protagonist in the movie and that it was an amazing film.  The first thing that struck me was…why hadn’t I heard of this amazing film? I’m not always up to speed on the latest and greatest trends or current events, but I don’t live under a rock.

The most obvious reasons I hadn’t heard of Middle of Nowhere is because there aren’t any television commercials for it, it’s not in the previews for other movies, there are no billboards, and/or any other guerilla marketing tactic to spread the word about the movie. 

“So what Brandon, a lot of indie films go through that same thing. Does Middle of Nowhere have a niche audience? Perhaps it’s just intended for a small group of people.”

WRONG again.  Middle of Nowhere won the 2012 Sundance Award for Best Director. It’s message is not unique to insightful upwardly mobile blacks, or indie film followers.  Why is it that it’s not in all theaters near you, but Madea’s Witness Protection, Madea Goes to Jail, Madea in Space etc. are always in theaters with sufficient box office numbers?

This post isn’t even going to touch on how I feel about Tyler Perry movies, the point I’m pushing for is balance.  More often than not films that feature all black casts  depict black characters that live in the South, primarily Atlanta. The characters are either very successful (sometimes unrealistically) or working class and overly downtrodden. The themes that continue to resurface in mainstream black films are the importance of Christianity, traditional family structures, comedy and food. While I certainly think all of those themes are important, they lack the range of feelings and moments that black (and all other races) people experience and can connect with.  For some reason, the financial entities which sponsor movie production and marketing have all agreed that black films pretty much are all the same: Make ‘em laugh, throw in fried chicken, make them cry/show struggle, remind them of Jesus.  I’m sorry movie marketer decision makers that be…BUT I’M TIRED OF FRIED CHICKEN! I want my black movie healthy tonight…and if I want some fried chicken, I know where to go for that too!

Please view the trailer for The Middle of Nowhere. I’ve also included a link to the AAFFRM – African American Film Festival Releasing  Movement.  ( They are making a point to show the depth and range of black filmmakers.

 Remember, just because a film is all black and/or made by a black person – doesn’t mean it’s only for black people. No one thinks twice about movies made by white people…we assume it’s for everyone. I love a ton of white filmmakers and movies with all white casts… Steel Magnolias being one of them. I think the all black cast that remade it should have left it alone…but that’s an entirely different post. 

The Scale of Selfishness

There is a unique scale of selfishness that all relationships require. The scales have to be wiped clean of past experiences and both people must dump their selfish load on the scale and do their best to maintain balance.

Throughout our lives, there will always be stages where individuals need a developmentally appropriate amount of selfishness (an infant, identity-forming ages, early adulthood, etc).  Given that some amount of selfishness is needed for one’s own life, how does that selfishness factor when you join forces with someone with the (assumed) intent to be unselfish and giving? Should we look to see what we can get from a partner and recognize what we can give as well? Some see that as a solution, but that’s not what I’m advocating.

I believe there are some fundamental truths about selfishness that are simple and can lead to a healthy and sustaining relationship.

1.           Do your best to engage in a relationship with someone who has a similar life stage and/or selfish weight as you do. The full-time PhD student and business-owner’s selfishness may be a match made in Heaven because they both can understand each other’s needs.  It’s more likely they have similar selfish weight. The “in-search-of-myself” person may not be the best match for the “established & willing” persona. One needs time to invest in their own identity and well-being, the other feels content with their life and is looking for someone to reciprocate what they can give.

2.           Love for someone else IS SELFLESS. Isn’t that enough said? Don’t get into a relationship with the intent or unexpected outcome of constantly taking/receiving for yourself. Love your partner back in ways that have any and everything to do with making them feel loved, not yourself.

3.           Love someone who’s willing to love you as selflessly as they can

4.           It’s only selfish when you inconsiderately get your needs met at the expense of others…besides that, go for it!

To end this post, I’ll leave you with the words of RuPaul. “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?” 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Identity Theft pt 1: The Cost We’re Paying for Buying into Traditional Masculinity

This post will be the first of many on a topic that is very interesting and dear to me. It is not the lament or attempt at revenge to the status quo of men who don’t always fit in society’s view of what is “manly.”  This is an introductory and honest look at how masculinity has hurt people I love, probably people you love and maybe even has hurt you (and me) at some point.

Lack of education, imprisonment, violent crimes, abuse, inability to empathize,  reckless behavior and body image issues are all byproducts of our society’s performance of manhood.  These are just some of the expenses both men and women have paid due to the high costs of  traditional masculine gender roles in society.  While I’m certainly not pinning every bit of  the aforementioned casualties on masculinity,  it would be naïve of me to dismiss the role it plays in our social norms.

When society enforces that men must be strong, powerful, independent, rugged, and respected, the structures that teach men these lessons are cracked and flawed.  Instead of producing the well-intentioned, confident and assured proverbial man, we sometimes get domineering, arrogant, greedy, and inconsiderate individuals who will go to regrettable measures to fulfill their idea of manliness. They usually take no responsibility for their actions and have no idea that the catalyst for a lot of their behavior is stemmed in an identity crisis.

The emotionally unavailable spouse, the condescending co-worker, the present and/or absentee father that was never there in the name of providing (or lack thereof) – we’ve all met him. The guy who boasts and leads with his accomplishments,  the guy who made you feel like your body wasn’t attractive, the guy who is intimidated or critical of your compassion and sensitivity, the guy who could possibly mug you on the street – we’ve all experienced how he made us feel. We’re in a culture surrounded by misguided men who are truly just in search of a secure identity.

My aim is not to replace the John Wayne hyper-masculine gender role and identity, my hope is that we can add more cards to the deck.  When boys are born, we shouldn’t reinforce language, media and social structures that teach a one-dimensional archetype.  It’s limiting and has harmful far-reaching effects.

Let’s instead affirm multiple identities for men. Let’s be mindful of the images we use in the media that depict masculinity. Let’s use language that accepts colors and interests beyond blue and sports. Let’s think about the long-term affects of how we can contribute to a healthier society by allowing people to be themselves.  Let’s remember the feeling we feel when we are comfortable with who are and others embrace that.

Whether you accept, acknowledge, perpetuate or reject the notion and ascribed behaviors for traditional masculine gender roles, you give credence to its existence.  Monitor your own beliefs and behavior.

This post required a lot of revision for me because I am very passionate about the topic. I could EASILY turn this post into an advanced sociology class term paper with statistics and analytical examples of how traditional masculinity is reinforced and the (damaging) consequences that ensue, but that would take away from my UnExpert persona. I’m definitely not an expert on the topic, however will continue to blog about this as I hope to one day do research and/or document how gender role socialization (specifically around the male gender role) affects education and life choices for men.  Stay tuned. 

Whoever Smells It...Loves Me.

I have a gage that I use to determine how comfortable I am around a person. It doesn’t involve sharing my most inner deepest darkest secrets, it actually involves  if I can fart around that person, and then we have a laugh (nonjudgmental I may add) about it. 

If I really look back on some of my closest friendships and meaningful relationships, they all involve a fart story. I’m not sure what it is about that exchange that makes me feel closer to someone, but if they can accept me and if I can accept them for all their stinking glory – we just become closer.

Bear with me as I give analysis to the dynamic and or sour exchange that can occur between people when the gaseous ghostbuster arrives on the scene. 

If I and/or someone farts around me and we both laugh and have no issue then it usually sends a message that we accept one another. We can let down our guard of a taboo and embarrassing bodily act that can normally set others off. It says, “Hey, you’re just like me and I don’t judge you for it. My stuff smells too!” There’s a lot of beauty in that. Even when people have dealt some major stinkbombs, I can get over the pungent odor and gross feeling in my stomach knowing beneath the stench is someone who will embrace me, not judge me and accept me as I am.

On the other hand, I’ve had encounters where farting does nothing but make things awkward and gross. Are you still reading? Lol. Take for instance when I worked a desk job and had a cubicle.  If my stomach was a rumbling and no one was around, sure I’d get some ease from the pressure and bloating from my Thai food that I took on my leisure lunch (I do miss the perks of working downtown Chicago and access to great food for lunch).  I’d hope that no one would come around, I usually surveyed the area for a good 5 minutes (which is long when you’re holding in a fart) and hope and pray that no one would walk by and/or that it didn’t leave a lingering nose twitch. Most times I was able to get away with it, but of course as fate would have it, one time I was not so lucky. I had a more senior colleague come in my cubicle and ask me to work on a new exciting project.  Once they arrived on the scene, I’m sure they would have rather asked me “do you need to  take a shower?”  They were as gracious as they could be despite the circumstance. Their face twitched,  my dignity and competency to do the job sank. Though there was an agreement between parties to work on the project, the only real agreement was that I smelled. Every time I saw that person around the office or in team meetings, all I could think was they could see pass my professional and pleasant demeanor, and thought I was a rotten stench mine.  The subtext was…you have no decorum and I don’t accept you. Though I can laugh about it, and even the see the merit in my colleague’s disgust (I would have been disgusted too) it just goes to show that farts can really make or break a relationship.

Here’s to all of my fabulous friends, family members and past lovers that have deepened our bond over an odor! Excuse me. 

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