I’m not a young black male myself, but it sure seems that there’s a lot of pressure for those who are to embody a particular image. Think about movies, commercials, television shows, even Youtube videos. It seems that African American boys are expected to ooze the rough and tough characteristics of masculinity. Among many other things, they need to be physically intimidating, quick to fight, athletically inclined, self-assured, and always ready with a cutting remark or witty comeback. Doesn’t quite leave room for much diversity, does it?
Let’s say you’re 14 and you’re shy. Maybe you spend more time with Yu-Gi-Oh cards than a basketball, or you’re more interested in getting extra help in Math or Spanish at lunch than macking on the girls in the cafeteria. You might get accused of being a nerd or a weakling. Maybe your friends will assume you think you’re too good for them. Still others might call you out on “acting white,” as if studying, or showing a more intellectual side excludes you from “being a real man” or causes you to betray your race. Stereotypes are narrow by definition, but somehow this type of pigeonholing doesn’t seem productive or fair to a population already lagging far behind in graduation rates, employment opportunities and pay scales.
Enter Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lebron James, and other big name athletes. Steven Dubner reported on American Public Media’s Marketplace that a recent trend has NBA stars (the ideal rough and tough African American males) sporting big, nerdy, non-prescription glasses. Why? Some, like Lebron James, claim it’s purely for fashion, along with bowties and checked shirts. Dubner suggests another plausible theory, ostensibly from conversations with Harvard economist Roland Fryer. Dubner:
Well it may be much more than [fashion] as well…Fryer has also studied the ‘acting white’ phenomenon, right? Which is when black kids who study too much get called out by their peers, as if there’s a stigma in trying to accomplish too much. So now, with all these black NBA and NFL stars wearing their big nerd eyeglasses, it may be that they’re sending a message that the ‘acting white’ stigma is over–or at least that it should be over.
Obviously being smart isn’t just a white thing, but for an African American boy growing up in the inner city, sometimes it might feel that way unless there’s someone explicitly proving otherwise. Having these big-name athletes don a classic symbol of bookworms and the academically inclined may give young African Americans the courage they need to show their nerdier side. Dwyane Wade on Marketplace:
Yeah, it is cool. You try to go out and talk to kids, you try to let them know that it’s cool to be smart, it’s cool to be educated, you know? So it’s a message behind the madness, you know?
This isn’t to say that Dwyane Wade and his nerd glasses are going to single-handedly close the achievement gap (and the employment gap, and lower incarceration rates, etc…). I’m not quite that naive. I have seen the trend catch on among my middle school students, though. Several of them have multiple pairs of big, thick-rimmed glasses that seem to make the rounds among their friends. I told one of them they looked just like Amar’e Stoudemire in their brownish tortoise-shell, 1980s specs the other day, and I got the biggest smile imaginable in return.
Some of them even put tape on the bridge of their glasses (all non-prescription, fully intact) to look even “nerdier.” Not a bad start, I guess. Here’s hoping the bottom line — that being black and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive — endures a little longer than the split-second lifespan that most fashion trends seemed doomed to have.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: ndanger via Flickr