There is more than one way to kill a person.
You can physically kill them, or you can flatten their sense of identity and self-esteem until they are shells of their former selves, and at the mercy of any predatory opinion. Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Every day of our lives, we are engaged in a continuous tug of war between who we truly are and what everyone else expects us to be. We face either physical violence, or a violence of the mind and soul.
Black boys in this country often face both. The nexus of racism and patriarchy dictates a masculinity for us that is neither sustainable nor realistic. Society tells us we must always be the brute, the thug, the player, the savior, the fighter, the threat—never ourselves. We forever oscillate inside of boxes that were never created with our feelings or joys in mind.
The consequences of these boxes are dire. Black men and boys in this country have been killed for just being, for literally existing. Both Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were walking down a street. Eric Garner was standing outside of a store. And 12 year-old Tamir Rice was shot playing in a park because he was “deemed” a threat.
Of course, It is not hard for black men and boys to appear threatening in this country. There are several studies that show whites view black boys as less innocent and older due to unconscious bias and stereotypes. Strangely a study found, in the imagination of white people, black people are more closely associated with being superhuman. This idea aligns with police officer Darren Wilson’s, designation of Mike Brown as a “demon”, and the officer who killed Tamir Rice’s erroneous belief that Tamir was much older than he actually was.
Accordingly, now is the time to foster a sense of self-creative capacity within black boys and men. To create a world where they are free to be themselves and express themselves as freely and creatively as white boys are allowed. The point is to stop policing, literally and figuratively, the expression of black boys.
Sadly, the opposite is happening in the case of Giants player Odell Beckham Jr., who continues to be the target of homophobic slurs. To date, Beckham has been called gay, or ironically, “suspect” because of the most innocuous reasons. 1) Dancing with his best friend, 2) his hairstyle, 3) his presumed gender non-conforming stunts after scoring touchdowns, and 4) dubious photos of him looking at another man’s body. This is ridiculous and should be a non-issue. Any reasonable person should agree that dancing and hairstyles should not connote gayness. It only connotes personality.
Calling Beckham gay simply because of how he chooses to express himself only further exacerbates the extent to which black boys feel limited in this country. Mocking Beckham only teaches young boys, and black boys in particular, that unless they conform to a certain idea of masculinity, they deserve to be ridiculed.
This idea perpetuates an environment which results in real physical harm to boys who actually identify as gender non-conforming. According to a study out of UCLA, 46% of transgender men had attempted suicide, and more broadly, gender non-conforming youth are disproportionately impacted by bullying from peers, and harassment from law-enforcement. Calling Beckham gay tacitly condones the harassment of boys who do not fit into rigid ideals of masculinity.
And trust, if you find fault with the unjust murders of black men, but find it funny or interesting to question Beckham’s sexuality, than you are no different than the police who gun down black boys in the street on no legitimate basis.
By virtue of nothing else but our bodies and presence, police officers erroneously perceive black youth as threatening and potentially violent. We can be killed for how we dress, act, and play Essentially, we can be killed for how we express ourselves.
In a world where little black boys are being killed for their expression, it is imperative that we affirm black boys by empowering them to express themselves in the ways that make sense to them. If the state kills black boys for their creativity, then our role, as people who believe in a just world, should be to tell black boys to relentlessly hold onto their uniqueness and selfhood at all costs.
Aaron is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and educator. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, the Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked