African Americans have long been plagued by the debilitating pain of racial stereotypes. They hang over us our entire lives, distracting us, affecting our decisions even when we don’t want them to. But recent research into the education of African-American students has come up with this surprise: black boys in the suburbs appear to have a much easier time assimilating and being accepted because the stereotypes about African-American male children help them in social situations, while the stereotypes for black girls harm them.
A recent report published in the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Education journal by Megan M. Holland, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a recent Harvard Ph.D., found that black boys, because of stereotypes about their supposed athleticism and “coolness,” fit in better than black girls in suburban schools.
Holland studied black students who were bussed to a predominantly white high school in suburban Boston. She found that black boys participated in sports and non-academic activities at much higher rates and that racial narratives about black males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls.
Another study conducted by Simone Ispa-Landa at Northwestern University, looking at a program called Diversify, found that “as a group, the Diversify boys were welcomed in suburban social cliques, even as they were constrained to enacting race and gender in narrow ways.” On the other hand, Diversify girls “were stereotyped as ‘ghetto’ and ‘loud’”—behavior that, when exhibited by the boys in the program, was socially rewarded.
Ispa-Landa also found that because of the gender dynamics present at the school—the need to conform to prevalent male dominance—“neither the white suburban boys nor the black Diversify boys were interested in dating” the black girls, who were seen by boys at their schools as “aggressive” and not having the “Barbie doll” look.
The boys felt that dating the white girls was “easier” because they “can’t handle the black girls.”
The black boys also would play into stereotypes of black males as being cool or athletic by seeming “street-smart.” Many of the boys said they felt safer and freer at the suburban school because they would not be considered “tough” at their own schools—and to maintain that social dominance, the boys engaged in racial performance, getting into show fights with each other to appear tough and using rough, street language around their friends.
But the urban signifiers that gave the boys so much social acceptance were held against the girls—while the boys could wear hip-hop clothing, the girls were seen as “ghetto” for doing the same. The boys could display a certain amount of aggression, but the girls felt they were penalized for doing so.
This conforms with behavior many middle-class black families have been seeing for years among their male sons, who have no problem trying to embody stereotypes that appear negative and harmful in the eyes of their parents—but clearly seem to be working for the boys, according to the research.
But with black girls, it’s another matter entirely. Fitting in, being seen as desirable, is extremely difficult.
These are issues black parents need to keep in mind when their children attend schools with large white populations. It might be hard to stop these dynamics from occurring, but with a whole lot of talking to our boys and girls we can at least make them aware of the tangled web they are stepping into.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.
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Interesting topic. As a black woman who was placed in predominantly white schools for most of my life, I can tell you a bit of realism about this: Where it is true, and where it is false.
Growing up, I remember being immediately placed in a school filled with more white students than black. Naturally, I was approached first by students of my own race, but soon that began to fade away as I was always very shy and introverted, and I didn’t usually speak out or do things that some other kids in my own racial group might do. I eventually made more friends who were white than anything else. This carried on with me all the way into my middle school years, where I was suddenly thrust into a predominantly black school, where I was frequently mocked, made fun of, and teased for things I considered silly and irrelevant that suddenly mattered. At that stage in life, I was confused. One thing I thought was particularly strange was being made fun of because of my choice in shoes. Normally not name brand, I wore them for how they looked and not what brand they were. In fact, I didn’t learn about brand UNTIL I got in Middle School. After that first year of confusion, my parents quickly removed me, and my 7th grade year, I was put into a middle school that had once been primarily white, but was quickly changing. A few peers from my last school followed me to the new one and struck up the teasing there, as if to make sure not only did they secure their place among their new peers, but also to make sure my label as a nerd or loser followed me. That didn’t last too long, and most of the students, who were mostly white, didn’t really pay it any attention. Again (coincidentally) I found myself making friends with more white students, to which many of them I STILL talk to today!
As I went through high school, I had become more bold and assertive, which deflected some of the new, but far and few between onslaughts of bullying and harassment I experienced. I found activities I enjoyed and actively found groups where I belonged. I made a LOT of friends and had an overall enjoyable high school experience. Just as they say above however, stereotypes prevailed, but black boys seemed to have it harder than black girls. Black girls could easily assimilate into the predominantly white school, while black boys HAD to rely on their stereotypes, which made it cute to make fun of themselves and for teachers to laugh with them as they marked down a few D’s and F’s on their progress reports. Whenever stereotypes began to rear their ugly head with me, I used the opportunities to educate. It ALWAYS worked. I didn’t get many date requests, but the reasons many people told me when I did inquire was that they thought I was very innocent and didn’t want to ruin that. This came from themselves, and others who had no gain from whether I was hurt or not due to the reason. Very odd…but I believed it and still do because out of many of my friends, I was not very assertive or loud, or attention hungry. I met my husband at this school however, during my senior year. We are married, with one child and another on the way, and he is white. No one was particularly awed by our relationship. Some people in our own circle teased us, but it was usually all in good fun and expected from those that did. Our friends, acquaintances, and prior peers are all very proud of us, and happy to hear about our successful relationship. We live in Tennessee. While I know this is not always the outcome for many girls or boys, there is a degree of blame on how you choose to carry yourself. Black girls may have to face stereotypes, but when other girls around you actively behave this way, it is hard for others to think otherwise. Either way, my story may help shed light on a few things, and offer a different perspective. Harvard’s study obviously didn’t make my life hard in school…
I did make a mistake towards the end of my post! I now realize that the person who completed the study was a Harvard PHD recipient and the study was completed at a different university. I just wanted to correct my mistake!