Friday, June 27, 2014

The Myth of the Angry Black Man

When I was a new teacher, teaching in a very low-income, violent part of Oakland, I had made a note on a report card that a certain boy was having problems with anger.  His mother came in and explained to me, not unkindly, that labeling an African-American boy as "angry" could follow him for the rest of his life.  I changed the notation, mostly because I was being conflict-avoidant, but I didn't really understand the impact of the angry black man stereotype. Thirteen or fourteen years later, I understand what she was saying much more clearly.

We have a young man on staff who is one of our class leaders.  "Julian" is a tall, dark-skinned black man.  He is one of the more gentle members of my staff, and has a real gift for relating to kindergartners, even folding his 6'4" frame up to sit on the tiny kindergarten chairs without a complaint.  He is patient and kind with the children at all times, never raising his voice and rarely expressing frustration.

Julian and I have had a number of evaluation meetings, and one thing that he often brings up is that he worries about the kids being afraid of him.  He's afraid of looking angry, telling me that even when he's just a little bit serious, people think he's angry.  He didn't have to continue - I know the next part.  An angry black man is terrifying to most people.

Racial tensions in Oakland are high and there is significant distrust between different ethnic groups.  When I was a teacher, many non-black parents were extremely hesitant about having their children interact with African-American staff, especially men. It is an incredible testament to the community that has been built at Harbor House that parents are comfortable leaving their children with Julian.  I don't mean because he is angry or scary, because that couldn't be further from the truth. He's an incredible asset to our staff and community.

The stereotype of the "Angry Black Man" makes it difficult for all black men to interact with others.  Just being black and male can cause many people to be afraid without evidence.  The darker the shade of his skin or the taller and heavier he is, the more of a threat he is perceived to be. I can't imagine what it would be like to hear car doors lock and see people cross the street every time I was in the area.

Fortunately, the five-year-olds at Harbor House are not buying into this stereotype, thanks to Julian and other young African-American men we have working for us.  These children, from all ethnic backgrounds, have seen role models of all colors.  They will be able to stand up to these stereotypes.