This study explores how Black male students at a United States high school understand and react to discourses of Black masculinity that shape their schooling experience. Negative stereotypes of young Black men as hyper-masculine, defiant, and culturally and intellectually deficient influence how teachers and administrators interpret and react to their Black students. The author found that young Black men both resisted and internalized these dominant views. They understood that racial biases influenced how they were treated in the classroom, but they also felt that their own personal and cultural shortcomings were to blame for their educational underachievement. The four students featured in this study strategically manipulated biased views of their masculinity to resist school practices, but this ultimately reinforced negative stereotypes about Black men and subjected them to disciplinary practices that excluded them from educational opportunities. The author calls for revising disciplinary policies at schools to address educational exclusion, as well as broader education in the many different expressions of Black masculinity for teachers–who are often middle-class white women with little experience to counteract dominant negative stereotypes about young Black men.
The author conducted ethnographic observations of classrooms and school interactions in a diverse suburban US high school where almost half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The student population was 29% Black, 28% Asian, 19% Latino, 11% White, and 13% other. The author also conducted semi-structured interviews with Black male students, their parents, and their teachers–though this article is focused on the experiences of four working-class Black men. The interviews with students focused on their educational biographies and their views on opportunity, achievement, and social position. Interviews and observations were analyzed using a qualitative interpretative approach. The author discussed the transcripts and themes generated from the analysis with study participants to check his interpretations.
Findings: Resisting and internalizing stereotypes
In their interviews, the four students noted that Black males were subject to more surveillance and discipline by teachers, who interpreted their behaviour, dress, and attitudes through racial stereotypes. As one student said, “Like, okay, say if I wear saggy jeans, doo-rag, or something like that, they write me off and don’t give me a chance to learn.” The other students also commented on how teachers tended to treat Black boys differently, not offering them help in class and reacting more harshly to their side talk. This was borne out by the school’s records which showed that Black males had lower achievement scores and accounted for nearly half of the school’s suspensions.
Although these young men saw that they were treated differently, they still saw school as an opportunity to better themselves and understood academic achievement as meritocratic. Accordingly, they blamed themselves for their poor grades, though they saw teachers offering them less help. These students also offered cultural explanations for their lack of interest and achievement in school, reinforcing stereotypes about Black Americans’ cultural deficits.
Internalizing these stereotypes led students to downplay the economic and racial barriers to their academic achievement.
The author argues that the contradictory attitudes of Black male students towards dominant discourses about them—both critiquing and internalizing them—show that a school is a place where these ideas are contested. The young men in this study did resist school authority and teachers’ control in the classroom by talking back or resisting the enforcement of rules. Some of the students even manipulated teachers’ biases towards them by acting out when they didn’t want to be in class, knowing they would be sent to in-school suspension.
However, these actions reinforced negative stereotypes of young Black men as undisciplined and deviant. They also deprived students of educational opportunities. Teachers were supposed to provide students work to do during suspensions, but few did, leading Black male students to fall behind in class and making them more likely to engage in off-task behaviour in the future. Though resisting school rules and teacher control gave students’ momentary power and a sense of mastery over the system, it also led them into a cycle of repeated discipline and academic exclusion.
The limited types of Black masculinities that are acknowledged and recognized in schools contribute to the racially-biased treatment of students.
Masculinities of resistance, which fit dominant stereotypes about Black men, are most likely to be recognized and responded to by school authorities and accordingly encounters with school racism and disproportionate discipline was prominent in the interview data.
- Current disciplinary policies are hurting achievement among Black male students – Because suspension, whether in-school or outside, keeps students out of the classroom, those most likely to be disciplined are further denied opportunities to learn. Schools should consider alternative disciplinary strategies that focus on prevention or restoration to keep students engaged in school. The author also suggests avoiding offense categories like “willful defiance” which are highly subjective, since Black male behaviour is more likely to be misinterpreted as defiant.
- Teachers should be exposed to broader types of Black masculinity to counter-hegemonic stereotypes – Most teachers who work with young Black men are white middle-class women who have had little meaningful interaction with students of colour. This makes them more likely to rely on dominant stereotypes to interpret Black male behaviour. Offering educators a more diverse view of Black masculinities and discussing the context of behaviour could give educators alternative frames for interpreting student behaviour that are less likely to lead to disciplinary exclusion.
- Making education more accessible and equitable for young men of colour will improve their economic prospects – Not only will the above changes keep Black men more engaged in the classroom, they will also help shift society’s view of Black masculinity, which can further counter the current bias against Black men in the economy.