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Shaping Public Perception of Our Young Men

Updated on July 18, 2013

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, black men across the country have once again been given a stark reminder that there is often less value placed on their lives, than on the lives of pit bulls. Maybe I shouldn’t refer to the trial as the George Zimmerman trial, because clearly it was Trayvon Martin who was on trial. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin was not there to speak for himself. Zimmerman supporters (mostly white) were from all walks of life and they drew their conclusions about what happened on that night based on some unflattering images of Travon that were made public. The images of the shirtless Travon with his middle finger in the air gave a lot of people all the reason they needed to come to the defense of the man who had senselessly taken his life. In their eyes, Trayvon exemplified the same criminal element which affects their own communities, and Zimmerman was only a concerned citizen hoping to rid his community of crime. These people conveniently disregarded the fact that this young man was doing nothing wrong on that night and that he was only trying to go home to his family. The fact that he had never been prone to violence at any point during his life was simply ignored. In death, this innocent young black man had become the personification of crime in so many eyes.

Unfortunately, this narrative is nothing new in this country. Throughout history the deaths of black men have been met with a blatant disregard by society. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fact that much of the disregard for black life is manifest in the form of black on black murders. I also realize that the fear and disdain for the “thug” image comes from all races and that there are many black men who give some credence to that fear; but what I am not willing to concede is that a person’s public persona is an indication of the value that society should place on their life. The use of the “thugged out” Trayvon images was a clear example of fear mongering and it proved to be very effective; but these images were in no way an indication of the type of person that Trayvon was. Those images were merely a reflection of the image that Trayvon and millions of other young men from good families choose to emulate. And while I understand that those images should have no bearing on society’s perception of this young man---they did. Every day people’s perception of black men is shaped by everything from the complexion of our black skin to the clothes on our back. The question that we have to answer is; in a society full of trigger happy police, and gun wielding “concerned citizens”, should we work to manage society’s perception of us? Should our young men be taught how to present themselves in the least threatening manner? I realize that this is a conundrum for most black men because we don’t want to be seen as “selling out” but we are also fed up with this sense of “not belonging” in the only country that we have ever known.

I don’t have a son but if I did I would be very cognizant of his appearance when he leaves my house. I remember an incident that occurred when I was around 16 years old. My car broke down one night on a dark rural road. This was before cell phones so I had to go to the nearest house and ask to use a phone to call my father. I rang the door bell and this older white woman peered through the curtain and asked how she could help me. I told her that my car had broken down and that I needed to call my dad to come pick me up. She told me to wait there so I assumed that she was going to get a phone; but instead, her husband opened the door brandishing a large shinny handgun. I didn’t give him a chance to say anything before I turned around and quickly walked back to my car. I’ve often thought about that night and wondered why he felt compelled to come to the door with his firearm. Did he dislike all black people? Would he have come to the door like that if I had been a white teenager? Or did my “thug” persona really make him think that I was there to harm their family? In hindsight I guess I did look pretty intimating with my cornrows and sagging jeans. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by their reaction to me, especially considering the fact that intimidating and threatening was the look that I had worked so hard to perfect. As a 16 year old I was completely oblivious to the fact that society already perceived me as a threat just by virtue of the color of my skin. I was not a thug or a tough guy but that is exactly what I wanted my image to convey to society. From the days of afros and black shades, to the days of baggy clothes and gold grills, the eccentric fashion trends of young black men have made us the object of increased unwarranted suspicion. If parents knew how often people clutch their firearms at the mere sight of their black sons, I think they would do more to manage the way their children present themselves to the world.

I am not so naïve as to believe that a change in clothing alone is enough to rid society of their bias against black men; but I do understand that my persona today, along with my ability to communicate with people makes it much more difficult for anyone to justify their suspicion of me. Maybe it’s unfair to expect teenagers to emulate the persona of a 36 year old man as opposed to that of their favorite rapper; but I am sick and tired of society treating the lives of young men with such a blatant indifference. In the words of the great Marvin Gaye; it “makes me wanna holler?”

Should we be concerned with society's perception of our young men?

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