Maybe it’s that, when we don’t quite have our heads wrapped around the big picture of what’s wrong—or if the big picture is simply too overwhelming or too depressing—we want to control what we can. Fastening a bow tie is a simple action that could feel like a temporary salve when it comes to the pain experienced by black men in this country. I can understand why someone might take comfort in this approach, can’t you?
But the problem is that it’s an approach fueled by a belief that’s disturbing and, I’d argue, wrong: that is, the reason for racism is that black people—men in particular—don’t look right or carry themselves properly. We know this isn’t true.
Should you call a meeting with the principal and debate him on his mentoring strategy? I don’t think so. You’re unlikely to change his mind. Plus, you’re right to consider that you, a nonblack person, might not be the ideal candidate to deliver a message about what black boys need.
But what you can do, hopefully, is supplement or maybe de-emphasize the principal’s “Secure success by dressing like a dandy” perspective. In fact, maybe your semioutsider perspective means you are more free to operate unencumbered by racial shame and anxiety about how these boys are perceived, and instead can focus on their actual development: What are their individual talents and goals? What do they want to do (no, not “be successful” or “stay out of jail,” but actually do—in the affirmative)? What do they understand about social justice, community involvement, and spiritual and emotional growth? Do they know what they’re passionate about? (You know, all the things that kids in communities that aren’t preoccupied with appearance-based discrimination get to do when they’re that age.)
To deliver these messages, maybe you could start a new club. Maybe ask to contribute to the curriculum that already exists. Or maybe just focus on these things in your own individual interactions with the black male students, as well as in your conversations about their gifts, talents and individual personalities with the principal and other staff members.
Bottom line: Treat these students like people with potential, not problems that need to be repackaged. They can choose to keep the bow ties or take them off when they graduate—it really won’t matter—but they’ll take with them an all-too-rare message about their humanity.
The Root’s associate editor of features, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
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Previously in Race Manners: “Help! My Boss Things All Black Hairstyles Are Unprofessional”