Uncomfortable conversations with a Black man: An ode to my pops
Today is my late pops birthday. The weeks leading up to it had me thinking about Black men in our society and what his life was like simply because he was a Black man. Sadly, the stereotypes that plagued my dad’s generation are still prevalent, with some added twists brought on by our celebrity-worshipping culture.
I'd like to talk about misunderstood Black men and what we need as a society to let them be their true selves without limit.
Celebrating my dad's life
My pops was born on January 27th, and as I celebrate his birthday this year in his memory, I lament the lack of progress we’ve made when it comes to stereotypes about Black men. My father wasn’t like most of the Black male characters you see in movies or television today.
He was a mechanical engineer by trade, which took him all over Canada drafting and designing new equipment, technology and energy-efficient homes. But he was also a musician who travelled the world playing in fancy hotels, yet also playing in the subway for passers-by. While he was the black sheep of the family, he was also a free spirit, which let him be himself–rare for that time or for the current times. In some ways, my dad was misunderstood. This wasn’t because he didn’t have a clear sense of self. Rather, it was because he didn’t fit the mould society has made for Black men. Whether sticking out in the small island of St. Lucia where he grew up, being the only one in the vast Canadian north where he immigrated or flourishing overseas on the foreign shores of South Korea, he always said, "I've lived a great life, if I died tomorrow I'd be fine with it."
The problem was I wasn't fine with it. The way he was treated in his dying days by the medical professionals meant to prolong his life was all but criminal. A true testament to unconscious bias and systemic racism built into health services into the great 'white' north.
The quandary of the Black man in today’s society
Black men have always been held to certain stereotypes in North American culture, which has been dominated by white expectations of them. Until the last few decades, Black men in Canada and the United States were usually thought of in pejorative terms: absent, incarcerated, poor, lazy, uneducated, etc.
Often, these characteristics were laid on Black men through no fault of their own. Remnants of slavery and societal oppression kept people of colour indigent and unable to achieve the level of education they desired. Some of the most influential Black people in history became well known because they were able to triumph over these obstacles–a remarkable feat given how daunting the goal was.
Enter the advent of the internet, which brought us social media and the merging of sports and entertainment with Black culture. Black athletes and Black male actors were suddenly celebrities. But instead of influential Black people being recognized for their achievements, they’ve been turned into caricatures and image clones.
Famous black men (actors, sports stars, rappers, etc.) are everywhere in the media but frequently for the wrong reasons. We hear about their swag and Black male aesthetic instead of their journey from poverty to smart business magnate. In place of their charity work or opinions on the world, the focus in interviews is on megarich lifestyles and appearance.
The biggest online searches about Black men in our society aren’t about their achievements or individual personalities. Instead, they’re grouped together (“Who are the top 10 Black actors?”). Or they’re about appearance (“How do Black men line up their beards?”).
Worse yet, the roles many Black actors took to boost their early careers (which were and still are very limited) reinforced the stereotypes mentioned above about Black men. Another common online search: “What’s a good Black gangster movie?”
Why are Black mentors important?
It’s not just white people who are labouring under misapprehensions about Black men. The pervasive stereotyping around them affects Black boys too. When all they see around them is typecasting, standardizing, and compartmentalizing of Black men–usually superficially–the cycle continues.
Rather than wanting to be a classical music conductor like James DePriest, which doesn’t fit the mould of a young Black male, they want to be Drake or Lil Wayne. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with being a popular music performer; it’s just that many young men don’t even know of any other options open to them, like:
John McWorter, linguistics professor at Columbia University
James Andrew Harris, nuclear chemist who was the first African American involved in the discovery of new elements (rutherfordium and dubnium)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times bestselling author and journalist
Stephen Burrows, fashion designer and three-time Coty award winner
Marcus Samuelson, award-winning chef and cookbook author
This is why mentoring young Black youth is so important. Without guidance to envision life beyond media stereotypes and one-in-a-million shots at being an athlete or rapper, young Black men will never be able to pursue their own real interests and break away from cultural pigeonholing. I thank my father for being an example to his nephews, cousins, and school mates so that they too could dream up their own path and not be limited.
The danger of perpetuating stereotypes
Allowing stereotypes to continue doesn’t just create narrow career paths for Black males. It also contributes to violence against people of colour, police brutality, and abuse of the justice system. A 2004 study, for example, proved that even briefly glimpsing a Black face caused both civilians and law enforcement officers to imagine that person holding a weapon, even when there was none.
The erroneous perception of a Black person being a physical threat has led to a spate of recent police shootings and deaths. As of data compiled in 2020, law enforcement shootings of unarmed Black Americans were three times higher than whites over a five-year period.
The first step in eliminating stereotypes is understanding where they show up in everyday exchanges and how to address them in a way that actually changes others' beliefs and behaviours. If your workplace or organization would like to get the best out of your Black employees, see a world beyond preconceived roles for Black men or to start a mentoring program, Tough Convos has proven ideas to get you on your way. We provide training, discussion facilitation, and a range of similar services to ensure your employees limits are strictly their imagination.
Call us at 858-876-8176 to learn more, or reach out online to let us know how we can help your group. Take the first step towards creating a better world for young Black men. My pops would be proud.