The words we use to describe people influence our — and others’ — perceptions of them.
That’s a fact I wish writer John Eligon had kept in mind as he was writing his New York Times profile of Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed in Ferguson.
Brown, Eligon tells us, “was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.”
He tells us that:
As a boy, Michael was a handful. When his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it. When they left out pens and pencils, he would use them to write on the wall. He used to tap on the ground, so his parents got him a drum set; his father played the drums. He grew into a reserved young man around people he did not know, but joking and outgoing with those close to him.
Rewind. Why “handful?” Why not “creative,” “innovative,” “adventurous” or “spirited?”
Yet words such as “handful” and “disruptive” are often used to describe boys and their behavior, especially when the boys in question also have dark skin.
This is wrong. This is so wrong!
A young boy who tries to climb over a security gate as a toddler is completely normal. A young boy who uses pens and pencils to scrawl on walls in completely normal. A young boy who taps on the ground is completely normal. And it is completely normal for human beings to demonstrate both “problems and promise” in their lives!
The writer of the Times piece somehow attempts to support his “no angel” conclusion by letting readers know that Michael “showed a rebellious streak…would talk back…occasionally hinted at frustration with his family…was not the best student…was an avid video game player…occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol.”
Guess what? All of those things are completely normal for an American teenager.
Yet all too often, our boys — especially, our dark-skinned boys — are judged harshly for behavior that is completely normal and developmentally appropriate. Boys are suspended from school for an inability to sit still for long periods of time. For talking about, writing about or drawing pictures of weapons. For finally fighting back.
We as a culture as constantly penalizing our boys for being boys.
Letting boys be boys does not mean condoning rape or sexual assault or abusive or disruptive behavior with a knowing wink. Letting boys be boys means accepting and embracing boys for who and what they are, instead of expecting them — and then punishing them when they fail — to sit quietly and shut up. It means recognizing as reality the fact the most boys would rather learn by doing…that risk-taking is perfectly normal….and that an interest in weapons does not necessarily mean that one will become a killer.
It means opening our hearts and eyes to the gifts, treasures and talents of the human boys before us. It means building up and supporting our boys, not demonizing them, in either thought or word, before or after their deaths.
Michael Brown, Eligon tell us, was “no angel.” But neither is he, and neither am I. We are all a combination of “problems and promise.” I firmly believe that we can do our boys — and our world — more good by focusing more on the promise than on the problems.
Teachers, I urge you to look for and encourage the promise in each and every one of our students. Instead of focusing on the problematic behavior of your young male students, look for their creative sparks. Find and encourage their passions. Challenge your cultural preconceptions. When negative words leap to your brain, consciously try replacing them with more positive descriptors. You might be surprised by how well some of them fit, and by how well your students respond to positive expectations rather than negative messages.
Parents, stand up for your sons. Educate your community, your schools and your family about developmentally appropriate behavior. Let your sons take risks and try things. At the same time, teach your sons respect for others. Question your beliefs about boys and masculinity. Make your home a safe place for your son, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Learn about the limitations of the “man box,” and help your son become a whole human being.
Journalists, writers and community members, remember that boys are human too. One boy’s propensity to climb, to talk back and to play video games does not make him a bad person. It makes him a boy.