Being a kid who defies gender norms is tough. It can be tougher when you're also contending with pressures — and stereotypes — tied to your race.
This week on Ask Code Switch, we're taking on a question from a couple in Raleigh, North Carolina. They wrote in to ask about how race and gender expression play out in their own family:
"As white parents (of the foster variety) to a 6-year-old black boy, we regularly struggle with maintaining his culture and our liberal gender roles/ideals. One such heated incident arose where we had allowed our 6-year-old to paint his nails. His biological mother became very upset by this and evidently spent much of their supervised visits upset with him. Later, this was brought up to us again by the biological mother's lawyer, who said we were "going against his culture" by allowing him to paint his nails...
Bottom line: Are we damaging our 6-year-old or somehow ill-preparing him for the hyper-masculine culture he may return to one day by allowing him to paint his nails, sing 'Let It Go,' and cry when he's sad? Is this really a racial cultural issue that we should be in tune with?"
To help unpack this question, I talked to Jenn M. Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago who researches gender, sexuality and black politics, and has written about her own experiences parenting her three kids.
"As a queer black woman whose identity transverses gender, race, class and sexuality divides, I find that the parenting choices I make are incredibly political acts," Jackson wrote in The Washington Post last year.
Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What was your initial reaction to this couple's question?
First, I want to start out by saying shout out to the foster parents, who are working against gender essentialism and trying to break down stereotypes about masculinity.
Also, shout out to the biological mother who is trying to prepare her biological son for a world that we still know is burdened with the muck and mire of homophobia, transphobia, and toxic masculinity.
So, to answer the question, "Are we damaging our son?" I think the answer is flat out no. What they're actually doing is giving their son room and space to know who he is, to love himself, and to feel loved and be accepted in the ways that he chooses to show up in the world, even if they're not conforming to certain gender normativity rules and ways that young black boys are told they are "supposed to show up in the world."
Are the parents right that this is a racial or cultural issue?
No. Homophobia is not unique to the black community. The idea that because he's polishing his nails or because he likes the song 'Let It Go,' that that somehow says something about his masculinity, that he's "not tough," — those ideas are not unique to black communities. Black people show up in all sorts of different shapes, sizes, forms, genders, sexes, sexualities and expressions. Blackness is full.
And so I do not think it is a racial cultural phenomenon, but I do think that what his biological family is likely contending with is this structural contention of how will this young man be situated when he grows up?
The foster parents talk about preparing their son for a "world that he may return to one day." What does that phrase say to you?
I want to complicate that a bit, because we're always going to stay black. We're born black, we stay black, and we're gonna be black.
This child is black. He's a black boy. And his gender as a black boy is obviously colored by his race. And so it's not that he's going to return to a form of masculinity at some point in his adulthood or in his adolescence. It's that at some point he will learn the various forms of expression that are maybe expected of him and those that he would like to portray himself. And, with the proper parentage, socialization and a safe environment, he will have options to think about how he wants to show up in the world. And that's not damaging him, that's actually preparing him to figure out who he wants to be.
Is there a myth out there that black people are more required to subscribe to traditional gender roles?
Absolutely. There are long-standing myths about blackness that are rooted in slavery and Jim Crow laws that were used to justify harm against black people. Black men in particular were generalized and mythologized as being closer to animals, or seen as brutish. A lot of what we think about today about black male violence and criminality is rooted in these long term stereotypes about black men's aggression or black men's hyper-masculinity.
And that's why I want to emphasize that this is something we don't want to associate with a black, racial, cultural identity. It's actually coming from outside of the black community. It's actually coming from anti-blackness and white supremacy — from a long cultural narrative about justifying how to oppress black people.
Ida B. Wells' whole work on lynching was about unearthing what she called the "threadbare" lie that black men were just ravenous and raping white women. A lot of that was rooted in this idea that black men were just hyper-aggressive and overly sexualized.
I think the biological mother in this case is contending with that stereotype. But what we shouldn't do as parents and people working in close proximity with children, is reinstantiate or reproduce those systems on young children. We should be working to dismantle and disentangle those systems so that those young kids can figure out who they are for themselves.
What kind of dangers might make someone think it's safer for their black child to adhere to gender roles?
We know about hate crimes and violence against young gay and queer people. We know that that's an issue. And we also know from recent data and statistics that young black Americans are at higher risk of death by suicide associated with not being able to express themselves.
So that's the problem here. It's that parents often are working with the tool sets that they have. We come into this parenting thing and we don't know what we're doing. We just do the best that we can.
So it's clear that this child's biological mother is trying to protect him. It's coming from a place of fear. [She's thinking,] I need him to align with certain norms and standards because when he grows up and he's no longer a black boy, but a black man, what are the risks to him associated with painting nails or with not seeming tough?
And so, that becomes in a lot of cases a pressure on young black men in particular to perform hypermasculinity, toughness, these really toxic behaviors, in a society that tells them, "If you don't do this, we can justify harm against you." And it's not unique to young black boys either.
So it's a matter of parents trying to do their best to protect their children, trying to get them to in some ways assimilate and to become right side up in a crooked world. The idea that if we contort ourselves to fit a certain set of standards, that maybe we'll survive a bit longer.
In this situation, we have white foster parents raising a black child who still has contact with his biological mother — there are obviously some racial tensions around who has the authority, the expertise and the means to raise this child. Do you have any practical advice for these foster parents?
The goal should be raising and growing a free black child.
We know what the world is like. We know that anti-blackness exists, we know that racism exists, we know that white supremacy exists, we know that misogynoir exists, and trans-misogynoir exists. And we have enough data to tell us that far too often young black people are the most at-risk for the negative implications of those systems.
To me the solution would be to take what the foster parents are trying to do which is to teach him that there are other ways of being in your body and in your skin that feel good, free, and liberated. And also take what is coming from the biological birth mother, where she's also saying, "But look, there's a world out there that's not going to be OK with it."
And figuring out how to compromise on those two valences.
We can't tell his child, 'You don't get to be who you are because the system out there says you can't.' But what we can do is say 'who you are is A, B, C or D, and we love you for it. Now, taking that into account, I also what you to be aware, this is what the world is like.'
What do you think? Email us at CodeSwitch@npr.org, with the subject line, "Ask Code Switch," and let us know your thoughts.
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