Social settings can breed some of the most awkward of statements between those familiar and newly introduced. In these settings, people may find themselves utilizing cliché conversation starters like, “How’s the weather?” "How are you doing?" or even "What’s new?” However, the most jarring statement ever made towards me in the midst of conversation was, “Are you/Have you been staying out of trouble?”
As a teenage youth growing up in an urban area of South Dallas, there were times I knew I would be guilty until proven innocent by virtue of simply being a black boy. It was not until I got older that I started to see this sentiment continuously and covertly play out through my interactions with friends, co-workers and colleagues. Over the past couple of years, particularly the last four, I have found myself becoming more aware of the ways in which race, class and gender play out in subtle aspects of society. Casual conversations with a variety of individuals have proven to be the most enlightening in terms of unconscious discrimination. Simply by listening to others, I have been able to detect unconscious biases and perceptions that, for some, may seem light-hearted with no negative intent; however, for me it further smashes already fragmented pieces of my humanity.
Today’s media consistently depicts negative portrayals of the black male. In a variety of ways, he is portrayed as the core of “trouble." Whether it is through the criminalization and demonization of black men in the school-to-prison pipeline, the breakdown of the black family, the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of those who are supposedly sworn to "protect and serve," the blackballing of pro-athletes for taking a peaceful kneel in refusal of a tradition that does not stand for them or the confusion between being a black man of anger rather than passion, it is clear to see why society would expect black men to be in “trouble.” We have been conditioned, consciously and unconsciously, to think that black men were or are always in some sort of “trouble.” Irrefutably, the aforementioned are systematic “troubles” that have slowly damaged psychosocial development of black men.
Usually, when this question has been presented to me, it has come from a white individual who was either an authority figure, or someone in a position of power in relation to myself. As a black male, when I am asked if I am “staying out of trouble,” I can't help but to wonder if this person is assuming that I am always in some sort of trouble. Did they hear that I am in trouble? Is this their expectation of me and what is their definition of “trouble?" I wonder, “why are they asking me such a misplaced question,” and how do they expect me to respond? Despite my feelings, I always seem to muster up a forced and resentful affirmation with a smile. This may come off as me being hyper-vigilant, however I believe society has bred this anxiety associated to such a loaded question. Is this anxiety a delayed symptom of trauma seen in our larger society? In a study conducted by Smith and Patton (2016) that looked at trauma response to violence, black men characterized hyper-vigilance as being a point in which black men are constantly aware of any looming and unpredictable danger. Hyper-vigilance is symptomatic of black men trying to remain free of “trouble,” even though it may be to no fault of their own. This reality further emphasizes that we must make a change for the sake of the humanity and psyche of black males.
Let me acknowledge that I have been asked this question by other people, some of who are black, themselves. Yet and still, each time it was an uneasy feeling. While I do not use this statement in any of my day-to-day conversations, I know I have asked this question at least once in my lifetime, probably not thinking as I am speaking, or thinking that being on the other side of this verbal trigger would diminish the sting. Alas, I am still left with the same feelings and the damage is still done.
My assertion is not that everyone who asks this question to black men is doing so with malice and ill intent. However, that does not erase the psychological impact that is left behind. The black male psyche is one that has been chipped away at for generations, and repairing it will take time. I pose that we start by acknowledging problematic rhetoric, both conscious and unconscious, and ceasing its use altogether. This calls for a consistent critique of language that infringes upon the mental well-being and purports the marginalization and disenfranchisement of minority groups.
Reference: Smith, J. R., & Patton, D. U. (2016). Posttraumatic stress symptoms in context: Examining trauma responses to violent exposures and homicide death among black males in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86(2), 212-223. doi: http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/10.1037/ort0000101