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viewpoint

Purposefully redefining my black masculinity

| Monday, February 27, 2017

I am a complete human being, complex and beautiful. I can be compassionate and mean, get silly and serious, have happiness and pain and experience times of glory and shame. So why don’t I see that complexity of who I am reflected in society’s views of people who look like me?

As an American, it’s validating to understand how far we’ve legally come in terms securing the rights of all citizens who inhabit our Republic. But as a marginalized black man, I personally know we still have decades of hard work ahead of us in regards to social justice, and likely much longer when it comes to true acceptance and respect for all minority groups. I’m writing to address the latter, explaining and dismantling the “positive” stereotypes we too often internalize about black men and who they should ideally be.

African American men are largely identified with certain roles in popular culture that usually get generalized to all black men. When it comes to athletes, rappers and actors or comedians, there are several themes positively attributed to black men. A few of these are toughness, physical and emotional strength, respectful natures and hard work. Notice that while these are all desirable qualities, they don’t say much about who someone is. You don’t know what goes on in someone’s mind, how they feel or how they understand the world when you only want to see these traits. I argue this is not a coincidence.

More often than not, when a black man does anything good that doesn’t fit into the positive “emotionless robot” paradigm, they are either vilified for it or praised for it as an exceptional, unique black man who is somehow incomparable to other black men. For example, when Colin Kaepernick protests police brutality in a peaceful way, no one commends him for being a role model who finds a way to express himself peacefully. There is only criticism that exclaims he’s being an inappropriate crybaby at best and hates America at worst.When a rapper like Kanye West claims he has mental health issues and wants to seek help for them, he’s viewed as a drama queen who is simply seeking attention. When I get into Notre Dame I’m told it’s especially wonderful because of the idea that most black men can’t make it to my position. Yet the reality is there are smart black men in our society that never get the opportunity to refine their skills and apply to college, as there are many racial disparities in public U.S. education.

The result of this restricted view on how black men are supposed to act in America is the systematic dehumanization of black men. It contributes greatly to the negative stereotypes of aggression, criminality and hatred, when every counterexample is dismissed or is framed as an exception to the rule. It oppresses black men by generalizing who we are, allowing people to assume we are all blank, or act like blank, or believe in blank. It gives people an implicit bias to follow prejudice. My acknowledgement of this perpetuation spurred me into re-evaluating myself.

I reflected on these societal pressures and made the conscious decision to not let them control how I act.

When I have passion or enjoy something, I’m going to allow myself to get giddy and appreciate it fully. When I have to cry, I’ll cry. I’m not going to hide it away and “man up” at the expense of my mental health.

When I have a dumb pun to make, I’ll make it gladly and be silly. When I hear someone make a racist comment that goes too far, I will intellectually contest them when appropriate to do so, and practice self-care when not. Even if it’s inflammatory.

When a friend or stranger has been good to me, I will be excessively thankful and humble.

When a friend is going through a tough time, I will pray for them and be as consoling as I can be.

When I talk to a family member, I will end the conversation in an ‘I love you’ every single time I can remember to do so, no matter how unmanly it is.

I will regularly tell my friends and the people in my life how much they mean to me.

And I will not place my self-worth in how other people think I should act, dress, talk, walk, or exist. Partially to deflect some of the unjustified prejudice about how black men should be. But more so because my emotions are a large part of what makes me who I am, and to be goaded into hiding my full range of emotions, parts of myself, for societal constructs about masculinity or blackness is a form of self-hatred I won’t succumb to and I don’t believe anyone else should either.

This is because I am a complete human being, complex and beautiful, worthy of living fully.

Will Smith is a board member of Wabruda, a discussion group on campus meant to enrich the knowledge and critical thinking skills of each member on socio-political issues that aren’t regularly engaged on campus. He is also a tenor (T-time!) in the Voices of Faith gospel choir. In his free time, Will enjoys playing videogames, binge-watching anime or sporting events, and writing.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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