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The Persistence of False and Harmful Narratives About Boys and Men of Color

January 17, 2019

The following essay is adapted from His Story: Shifting Narratives for Boys of Men of Color: A Guide for Philanthropy (66 pages, PDF), which was developed by the Perception Institute for the Executives' Alliance for Boys and Men of Color. The guide is based on discussions and learnings from the 2015-2017 Narrative Change Collective Action Table hosted by the Executives' Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and was largely written by the Perception Institute's Alexis McGill Johnson and Rachel Godsil.

Toolkit_singlePages-pdf-v2-640x822The tragic, brutal, and untimely deaths of boys and men of color in the last few years reinforce an all-too-familiar feeling:  being a male of color in the United States is perilous. What boys and men of color are experiencing in the real world, we also know, does not veer too far from what's happening in the narratives that have come to shape the lived experience for many boys and men of color. Stories that "dehumanize" young men of color and question their value to society abound. And stories that "super-humanize" the physical characteristics of boys and men of color create fear and distrust. The common denominators in these stories are dominant narratives — stories about boys and men of color that are distorted, repeated, and amplified through media platforms, both traditional media and social media, which fuel negative and vilifying perceptions and bring them to scale. In our work, we've come to define these dominant narratives as the "dragon" we are trying to "slay."

In order to slay the dragon, we first need to understand what a narrative is, how it becomes dominant, and then how current narratives cause harm to our boys and men of color. A narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events. In other words, it is a story we tell to make meaning. Narratives become dominant through repetition, particularly when told about a minority culture through the lens of the ruling culture.

Dominant narratives inform how a majority of people in society perceive and interact with one another. They are comprised of stories and archetypes that portray people of different races and ethnicities — black, Latino, Asian, or Native American — as caricatures rather than as distinct and unique human beings. For boys and men of color, the stereotypes may differ depending upon the particular race or ethnicity and historical context, but for each group, these stereotypes are distorted and limiting. Think, for example, of Black and Latino men and how stereotypes depict them as dangerous, threatening, and poor. In contrast, the dominant narratives of white men portray them as hardworking, industrious, innovative, and successful.

Dominant narratives, while constantly evolving, are rooted in the racial history of the United States, specifically the parts of that history that we do not often discuss, such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other times of racial bias. As we describe in more detail in the toolkit, the effects of being defined by a dominant narrative infuse every aspect of life for boys and men of color, from housing and education to health care and career opportunities, making them more vulnerable to violence and more likely to end up in jail.

Dominant narratives about boys and men of color can also trigger or be reinforced by internalized negative self-perceptions among community members. The stories we tell about each other influence the stories we see in ourselves, making our narrative challenges both interrelated and mutually reinforcing — the external reinforcing the internal and vice versa. But it is often the dominant narrative that does the most work in driving how others see boys and men of color and how they see themselves. While the toolkit focuses on boys and men of color, these same processes are also applicable to narratives about other populations, including women and girls of color.

The Impact of Dominant Narratives

Dominant narratives of boys and men of color constrain how we perceive their potential and limit our expectations of them. In a sense, narratives become reality as boys and young men of color have their opportunities for advancement truncated throughout their lives. As boys, they are irrationally perceived as threatening rather than innocent; as students, they are labeled as disruptive rather than recognized for their academic potential; as job applicants, they are disproportionately passed over, sometimes for less-qualified candidates.

At the same time, boys of color are more likely than their peers to attend schools that have fewer experienced educators and lack resources. They are less likely to emerge from high school prepared for college and less able to compete for good jobs or access startup capital for business ventures. Most unjustifiably — and shamefully for the broader culture around them — they experience extremely high levels of contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In moments of crisis, dominant narratives lead to the assumption that the behavior of boys of color must be harmful and deadly, which in turn precipitates unjust and dangerously false interpretations of this behavior. When held as a society, dominant narratives both mirror and, perversely, provide justification for the scant allocation of institutional resources for boys and men of color, limiting their opportunities and providing system-wide barriers to their success.

All of these factors can also lead to internalized racism or internalized oppression, causing boys and men of color to see themselves through the lens of the false dominant narratives that limit their opportunity and shape their lives. As Professor Laura Padilla has noted, internalized oppression and racism are insidious forces that cause marginalized groups to turn on themselves, often without even realizing it. The combined effect of internalized oppression and internalized racism is often devastating — it can reinforce self-fulfilling negative stereotypes, resulting in self-destructive behavior.

Donna Bivens has described the phenomenon further:

Because internalized racism is a systemic oppression, it must be distinguished from human wounds like self-hatred or "low self esteem," to which all people are vulnerable. It is important to understand it as systemic because that makes it clear that it is not a problem simply of individuals. It is structural. Thus, even people of color who have "high self-esteem" must wrestle with the internalized racism that infects us, our loved ones, our
institutions, and our communities....

This last point is a crucial reminder that as we pursue our work, we must be mindful that dominant narratives affect communities internally as well as externally. This phenomenon is particularly noteworthy given the far reach and impact of media with the advancement of technology. For this reason, we can no longer have separate messages for an internal and external audience; rather, narrative change work must effectively address both audiences collectively and consistently.

Framing and the Limits of Traditional Responses

Given what we know about how dominant narratives and the damage they can inflict, why can we not seem to do more to address them? The simple answer is that the go-to approaches we have used for decades are either outdated or ineffective to address the scale of the challenge. In fact, they can even backfire on us.

Since the civil rights movement, three major innovations in communications and thinking about race and racism have furthered our understanding about how race functions in our society and provided the basis for our appeals beyond the civil rights community for progressive policies and changes in practice:

Disparity Documentation: data-driven analysis used to demonstrate the lack of full inclusion of people of color in society.

Structural Analysis of Policy and Opportunity: recognition that racial and economic inequalities stem from policies that determine institutional opportunities or create exclusionary barriers for people of color.

Intersectionality: recognition of the complex means by which marginalization and oppression operate in a person's everyday life as a result of embodying multiple interconnected and overlapping stigmatized social identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

While these approaches are critical to analysis and determining policy positions, they can be detrimental to the work of persuading the broader public that the policy position should be adopted. These approaches are not only insufficient to challenge dominant narratives, they may reinforce them. Egalitarian thinking has prevailed, yet our unconscious mind, which determines most of our behavior, remains highly influenced by stereotypes, racial anxiety, and preference for the dominant in-group. Our data, history, and logic are sound; however, social science research over the past two decades tells us that we need to move beyond the rational in order to compel change.

As a result, these approaches — which have helped paint a broad portrait of the experiences of people of color in America — cannot translate data into a sense of moral urgency or empathy. With competing explanations for racial gaps and disparities, they do not inspire those not affected directly by racial bias to create change. They do not help manage racial anxiety or racial tension, which seem to have spiked in recent years. And most importantly, they can create a sense of inevitability or intractability of racial subordination within communities of color that triggers hopelessness and despair.

When emotions and fear are primary drivers of human behavior, "rationality" becomes irrelevant. To be successful in persuading others, we must affirm the centrality of emotions and values in our reactions to race and gender. We need to create a meaningful cultural shift in the conversation about race when ideas about race are entrenched in both our discourse and language (prompting predictable reactions) and also in our unconscious minds.

Advocates should be aware of the missteps, or insufficiencies, in every stage of the narrative-building process so that we can foster open-mindedness and collaboration rather than cause further polarization. Through this work, then, we need to build upon, supplement, critique — and most importantly not be limited to — the frames we have used in the past.

The toolkit includes some often-used frames derived from our policy-driven approaches that have been developed over the years. Each has done valuable and important work in the fight against racism. But each frame also has accompanying challenges or limitations that can impede the narrative expansion we seek.

The frames described are critical components of our work: we must teach more accurate history; "whiteness as a default" is a reality we must address; identifying and building upon our shared values will be part of coalition building; and we must work to prevent the harms that stem from both implicit and explicit biases. However, these frames are inadequate and incomplete. The focus of our shared work is to create opportunities for sustained behavior change. If our current frames haven't been effective in challenging the distorted perceptions and dominant narratives about boys and men of color and people of color overall — and evidence suggests we have not — we need to find new approaches.

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