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.