Sunday, June 5, 2011

Retaining black male students? Not without a dash of homophobia.

I got back last night from my very first trip away from my daughter. I was a little sad, but I was at a conference that kept me pretty busy and things went more smoothly than I anticipated (though she did get a fever from teething practically the moment I got on the plane).

The conference was about how to reach disconnected student populations, and one of the sessions I attended was about African American male recruitment/retention initiatives. This was something I was interested in because I work with a program that provides educational opportunities for underrepresented groups, and we struggle (nationwide) to recruit and retain black men. I went into the session looking for strategies and insight. I didn't get what I was looking for.

A vast majority of the session became an audience-led gripe-fest. Everyone had a theory on why black boys weren't graduating from high school, why black men weren't going to college at the rate of black women (and those that do are less likely to graduate), why black men were being incarcerated at rates six times higher than white men.

Oh, we ran the gamut. Though all of these theories were familiar to me, it was impressive (in a disturbing way) to hear them all expressed in such quick succession.

Black mothers are to blame. They "raise their daughters, but love their sons"--creating spoiled men who do not know how to function in society but successful women who do. They do not know how to raise "men," and they are hurting black culture and society.

But that really means it's black fathers' fault for leaving black women to raise children on their own. A black woman cannot be expected to know how to raise a "man." She needs a man to do that.

But that really means it's black women's fault for being too aggressive and not letting black men be the heads of their own households. No one wants to stay emasculated in a household that doesn't appreciate him. 

But that really means it's the war on drugs fault that black fathers are absent. They shouldn't be incarcerated for minor possession charges. And the crack/powder cocaine disparity is snatching black fathers away from the children they should be raising.

But we're wasting our time focusing on the parents. It's education that's failing these children. Schools don't hold black children to the same high standards as their white classmates, creating an education gap that is too hard to overcome.

I'm not disputing truth in all of these theories (except the gender-role based ones, which just seem sexist and anachronistic to me), but we didn't need people to identify the fact that black men were facing more obstacles: that's why we were in the session to begin with! At this point, one woman who had been sitting silent for forty-five minutes raised her hand and asked if we could please move on to some more positive rhetoric that gave suggestions for moving forward, suggestions for a solution.

You could see the disappointment in a few faces that would have loved nothing more than to throw the blame around a while longer, but the speaker obliged by giving some concrete tips on how to motivate young black men.

The speaker was not a very organized orator. His stories meandered around quotes and personal anecdotes, circling around the theme he started with but touching upon six others. It's a style I've heard used effectively, but it's risky. On one of these detours, he touched upon the issue of sagging.

Image from Malingering

I'm not going to rehash the sagging debate for you here. I am more interested in the way that this speaker used his suggested guidance for young black youth. He started on a small rant (especially in comparison to the larger one we'd just had) about how young black men have no respect for themselves or others, as evidenced by their sagging pants. (Though he obviously hasn't been around the teens I see daily, who are much more likely to show up in some tight-fitting skinny jeans, but you know, there's no reason to be contemporary in our youth-bashing). He then went on to sarcastically explain that sagging originated in prisons as a homosexual symbol of availability (which isn't even true).

Then he makes a look of disgust and says incredulously "and that's the message you want to send?!" He mumbles his inaudible frustration with these ne'er-do-wells, and then talks about a discussion he once heard, ending with the loud proclamation of "If you sag, you're a fag!" Maybe he saw the shocked faces in the audience (mine included) because he followed it up with a half-hearted, "Now I'll probably have to apologize for that, like Kobe did."

Yeah, that'd be a start. You might also want to apologize for creating a pecking order of minorities. You might want to apologize for participating in a rhetoric of oppression in an instructional session designed to alleviate oppression. You might want to apologize for denigrating LGBTQI youth while a concurrent session on supporting and retaining LGBTQI youth is going on in the next room! I probably should have gone to that one. I would have left a lot less angry, I'm sure.

We can play as many blame games as we want (well-meaning or not, none of them are moving us forward). Until we recognize that actively participating in one system of oppression creates stronger avenues for all systems of oppression, we're not going to get very far. I think this speaker would have been better served attending the other session instead of leading ours.

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