Some of us know what it’s like for people to clutch their valuables as we pass them in the streets. Or for our humanity to be questioned in places for the sheer act of existing in the space. Some of us know what it’s like to be stopped by the police simply for walking.  Some of us know what it’s like to feel endangered by those who are meant to protect and serve. Some of us are Black and brown in America.

In a recently released ‘Op-Doc’ (opinionated documentary), The New York Times features young Black men talking about their experiences growing up in America. The video includes a discussion of what racism is and individuals’ experiences facing racism from their peers, teachers, cops and strangers as children and young adults. Each of the personal narratives shared responds to deeply ingrained structural problems.

Near the end of the video, the framing shifts from addressing day-to-day stories of systemic racism and becomes a message to parents about how they will be sure to ‘act right’ and be articulate and appropriate. This message implies that the young boys were previously behaving poorly, which is in direct contrast to what they were saying earlier in the video. In fact, these Black boys explained how they were just being themselves, walking to and from school, sitting in their classrooms, and yet they were still being stopped by the police, questioned by their teachers or feared by strangers.

The narratives of Black and brown boys growing up in the face of racism in America are important ones, but it is also necessary to question the way in which mainstream culture influences the delivery of these narratives. Is the purpose of this video to shed light on what it’s like growing up as a Black man facing racism at every level in daily life? Or is it about being raised right, so that, despite our skin color, we can avoid being stopped, or questioned or shot when we walk down the street?



One of the interviewed subjects named Bisa, 17, spoke to a common misconception that he once held and many others still believe: “I walk tall, I keep my head up… [I] try to be very articulate. So, of course, I was like, okay, I’m gonna be fine because I act a certain way. And, of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with it. The way people perceive you is not up to you.”

Still, the closing of the video includes thank yous to the boys’ parents and is framed in a way that presents upbringing, honorability and goodness as racism-proof vests.

“Mom and dad,” said Marvin, 25, “I’ll be fine because you did a good job raising me.”

The quick switch away from the structural nature of racism raises a question about respectability politics. In his article, Maurice Dolberry defines respectability politics as “an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture.

Although respectability is determined by its compatibility to mainstream culture, it is policed by the members of its own marginalized groups. It fails to place responsibility on the systems that deem us as not worthy of respect because of the color of our skin. Respectability politics enables Black people to question the decency of each other as individuals in the face of oppression rather than naming racism for what it is: structural, powerful, and oftentimes white.

Given that the majority of this ‘Op-Doc’ centers around each young man sharing personal reactions to and understandings of larger networks of discrimination, it seems inappropriate and dishonest to conclude the video by emphasizing methods of parenting or the quality of one’s character. To do so suggests that being honorable or having resources ensures one’s safety or survival and neglects the entire point of the conversation — growing up Black in America means growing up within the context of institutionalized racism.


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