Altering black male stereotypes

Altering black male stereotypes

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 07/20/06

David Wall Rice started teaching at Morehouse College a year ago and students seem excited about hearing what the 33-year-old educator had to say.

Recently, a group of sophomores and juniors from Morehouse and Spelman College talked with Rice about how black males view themselves in light of negative statistics and stereotypes.

Frank Niemeir/Staff
In a Morehouse College lab, Ian Harrell (left) and Bryant Berry research the self-images of black males in light of societyÕs negative portrayals of them.

Frank Niemeir/Staff
Notations on a whiteboard are from a Morehouse professor's research on how young black men view themselves.

"People in other countries, they see [rapper] 50 Cent, and they think that's how we are," one student said.

Referring to rappers, another student said, "When it pertains to videos, most people don't look at what they're saying. What they're saying isn't as important [as] what they're showing. They stereotype us based on those images."

The athlete. The entertainer. The hustler. Rice said young black males are popularly viewed in these categories.

But Rice doesn't look at statistics or hip-hop icons to define who black males are. He's asking the young men what they think of themselves.

"It becomes very important to have individuals participate in defining themselves instead of having these templates that are placed on top of them, saying this is who you are and this is the role that you fit in," Rice said.

Rice recalled an interview he did with a Louisiana rapper, Lil' Wayne, who said "I got me $40,000 worth of platinum in my mouth so I can have an expensive conversation." Rice said Lil' Wayne was raised in a poor area of Louisiana and the celebrity sees having money as the way to live life to the fullest. That reflects the rapper's personal experience, even though it isn't every black male's outlook, Rice said.

Studies by experts at Columbia, Princeton and Harvard universities show that finishing high school is the exception for black males, unemployment is common and prison is almost routine. Studies showed that in 2004, 21 percent of black men in their 20s without a college education were in jail. More than half in inner cities don't complete high school, according to The New York Times.

"Well, that doesn't tell me who black males are," Rice said, in response to the studies.

Rice began his research four years ago after reading a number of scholarly articles that, he said, primarily focused on the negative aspects of black males. He said he doesn't dispute the negative statistics but feels research must be expanded to include positive aspects, giving a fuller picture of black males.

Rice did case studies two years ago during a two-month span. Six black males, ages 14 to 18, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, gave personal accounts of how they saw themselves despite statistics, negative media coverage and even the comments of comedian Bill Cosby. Each of those interviewed were given code names of jazz musicians.

For instance, 14-year-old "Wynton Marsalis" came from a low-income inner-city home with parents who didn't attend college. He also wore cornrows. But he is proud of his grade-point average, which is over 3.0, and he plans to attend college. The teen had a positive self-image but said he was aware of the thug image cornrows and a poor background can convey. "John Coltrane," a 16-year-old, came from a middle-class family, attended private school and excelled as a track star. He was also on the school rowing team, an atypical sport for black male athletes. His self-image was also healthy, Rice said.

"They have a very sophisticated understanding of who they are and how they fit into the constellation of American success," he said.

Rice's ongoing research involves a few Morehouse students who are Ronald E. McNair Scholars. The McNair program prepares promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds for doctoral studies.

Bryant Berry, a 20-year-old junior psychology major who works in the lab, said he believes statistics focus more on the problems of black males than their successes.

"We're coming from an approach that's positive," Berry said. He said he has read more than 130 articles on black males but found few that did not focus on negative aspects of African-Americans.

The students started working with Rice this year on a volunteer basis. They spend long hours in his lab in Morehouse's Wheeler Hall and are compiling the narratives of those in the case studies in electronic form.

Patrick Bentley, 21, is studying this summer in a lab at Howard University, where Rice got his doctorate. Bentley is learning how to analyze verbal and body language of individuals in the studies.

Bentley said he finds it unsettling that black males who do succeed are considered exceptions. "How many exceptions do we have to have before it becomes the rule?" he asked.

Rice, a former journalist for the Washington Post and Vibe magazine, said the idea for his research stemmed from his own experiences in high school.

"I got in fights a lot of times and I experienced racism on a very personal level from teachers," he said. "In kindergarten, I actually had a teacher tell my mother I was mentally retarded." However, he said he knew he was somebody.

Rice said not all black males share the same story. "The bigger picture suggests we have infinite potential like everyone else."

Dr. Jann Adams, chair of the psychology department, describes Rice as a "rising star" in the department who is bringing a new perspective to the school. "I think at Morehouse he's the first person to do work of this nature ..." she said. "He doesn't focus on the deficit of black men but on the strength of black men and the success of black men."

Rice received his bachelor's degree in psychology from Morehouse in 1995, a master's from Columbia in journalism and a doctorate from Howard in personality psychology. He is working on a book about his studies that he hopes will be published next year, he said.
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