Minority young men are considered by their white peers to be cool and tough; minority young women, on the other hand, are stereotyped as “ghetto” and “loud.”
But recent research published in the American Sociological Association’sSociology of Educationjournal shows that my gender (male) was one of the determinative factors in the relative ease of my social integration. Inan articlepublished last year, Megan M. Holland, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a recent Harvard Ph.D., studied the social impact of a desegregation program on the minority students who were being bussed to a predominantly white high school in suburban Boston. She found that minority boys, because of stereotypes about their supposed athleticism and “coolness,” fit in better than minority girls because the school gave the boys better opportunities to interact with white students. Minority boys participated in sports and non-academic activities at much higher rates. Over the course of her study, she concluded that structural factors in the school as well as racial narratives about minority males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls in the diversity program.
Another study looked at a similar program, called Diversify. Conducted by Simone Ispa-Landa at Northwestern University,it showedhow gender politics and gender performance impacted the way the minority students were seen at the school. The study shows 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.” Diversify girls, on the other hand, “were stereotyped as ‘ghetto’ and ‘loud’”—behavior that, when exhibited by the boys in the program, was socially rewarded. Another finding from her study was that because of the gender dynamics present at the school—the need to conform to prevalent male dominance in the school—“neither the white suburban boys nor the black Diversify boys were interested in dating” the minority girls. The girls reported being 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 in Ispa-Landa’s study found themselves in peculiar situations in which they would play into stereotypes of black males as being cool or athletic by seeming “street-smart.” At the same time, though, they would work to subvert those racial expectations by code-switching both their speech and mannerisms to put their white classmates at ease. Many of the boys reported feeling safer and freer at the suburban school, as they would not be considered “tough” at their own schools. It was only in the context of the suburban school that their blackness conferred social power. In order 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.
In the case of the girls, the urban signifiers that gave the boys so much social acceptance, were held against them. While the boys could wear hip-hop clothing, the girls were seen as “ghetto” for doing the same. While the boys could display a certain amount of aggression, the girls felt they were penalized for doing so. Ispa-Landa, in an interview, expressed surprise at “how much of a consensus there was among the girls about their place in the school.” She also found that overall, the girls who participated in diversity programs paid a social cost because they “failed to embody characteristics of femininity” that would have valorized them in the school hierarchy. They also felt excluded from the sports and activities that gave girls in those high schools a higher social status, such as cheerleading and Model U.N., because most activities ended too late for the parents of minority girls. Holland notes that minority parents were much more protective of the girls; they expressed no worries about the boys staying late, or over at friend’s houses.
Once minority women leave high school and college, they are shown to continue to struggle with social integration, even as they achieve higher educational outcomes and, in certain locales, higher incomes than minority men. Though, as presaged by high-school sexual politics, they were stillthree times less likelythan black men to marry outside of their race.
This is exactly why discussions about intersectionality are so incredibly important, and I can also attest to this personally. My little sister (1 grade below me) and I attended the same 90% white elementary school. I was, at first, the only black boy in my class and she was the only black girl (and black person period) in her class. Despite being shy and bookish at the time, I still benefited from being tokenized as a black male in my class. My sister, who was much more strong-minded and outspoken than I was, was summarily tortured by her classmates (white girls especially) and her teachers for years. Eventually it was so bad that she was forced to transfer out, even as I continued on at the school without many problems.
The year after she transferred out, another black boy transferred into my class. This boy was athletic and his manner of speech, mannerisms, etc. instantly endeared him to all of the white people in the class. He performed blackness in a way that our white peers wanted to see, and he was immediately one of the most popular kids in the class, in a way that I never was.
There is a performance of blackness that occurs before white audiences, as per white supremacist tropes which constrain and define “blackness” in narrow ways, and this is a performance which many black people can feel compelled to engage in, inhabiting the associated stereotypes for social capital from their white peers. But this is also a performance that black males can benefit disproportionately from socially in white spaces even as black women get criticized and demonized (including, paradoxically, by black men!!!) for the same behavior.
Great article, click through the link for the full piece by ABOUBACAR NDIAYE.
This was enlightening. Shocked when reading the title but I can agree