What Black Adolescents Say about Stereotypes

I-LABSPublication, Research

Onnie JAR

What does it mean to be young, Black and male? In what ways do Black male youths accommodate and resist the social stereotypes of their demographic? And how does this shape Black boys’ development of their own identity, and who they become?

These are among the questions Onnie Rogers explored with Black urban teenagers in a recently published paper in the Journal of Adolescent Research.

Rogers, a research assistant professor at I-LABS, studies how cultural stereotypes shape adolescents’ understanding of themselves and what they can achieve in their lives.

By examining youths’ understanding of racial and gender stereotypes Rogers aims to discover ways to help children make sense of the inequalities they see around them.

Her work is giving insights on how to foster healthy identity development in children, to enable them to achieve their fullest potential.

She discussed her research and gave insights on how parents can talk to kids about race in an interview with KUOW, an NPR-affiliate in Seatte.

“Children are constantly taking in information from people around them, and the things we say and don’t say make an impact on how they figure out where they fit in the world,” Rogers said. “When we make assumptions – ‘He’s so smart kid for a Black kid’ or ‘He’s so emotional for a boy’ – this makes an impact, it shapes how kids figure out who they are.”

In her study, which she did as part of her dissertation work with Niobe Way at New York University, Rogers conducted 300 hours’ worth of interviews with 21 teens attending an all-black, all-male public charter school in the Midwest. She met with the boys three times over the course of two years, gauging how their feelings and beliefs changed as they went from incoming high school freshmen to finishing tenth grade.

Some questions she explored:
– What do you think other people think about Black people/boys?
– Are there certain things you’re supposed to do just because you’re Black/a boy?

The semi-structured interviews lasted about an hour apiece. Some examples of what the boys said about racial stereotypes:

Everybody thinkl[s] you're like the other Black person they see. They think if one Black person is bad they think every Black person is bad, no matter who you are, what you say or what you do ... And I'm like .... let me at least show how you what I'm about before you judge me because you never know.
society says that we are illiterate and that's not true.
I don't want to say I really don't care about stuff but I really
don't let stuff bother me ... It used to kind of offend me but
since I've got this personality l'm like I don't care,· that's what
you think and I'm about to prove you wrong .....So that's how I
became· me, you know, Mr. Don't Care.

“The Exceptions”

Analyzing the teens’ responses, Rogers and her collaborators discovered that most of the boys – 12 out of the 21 in the study – expressed variations on a theme the researchers called “the exceptions.”

This meant the boys sought to challenge racial stereotypes by being an “exception” to the stereotype and separating themselves from other Black people, for example:

I love the fact that people· think of me to be a more complex
individual and more intelligent individual. Because there's
no 14-year-old -- lets' be real, no 14-year~old African
American male that can use different words in different
situations and give his opinion about Barack Obama or the
state· the economy is in, the Iraq war...
...as long as I know I'm not adding on to those stereotypes
or adding: a number to the statistics it doesn't bother me
[be]cause I know I'm doin' my part.

“One of the big surprises for me was the extent to which this group of boys thought they were exceptions,” Rogers said, “because on the surface, these sound like positive responses but on a deeper level they reinforce stereotypes. It’s as if boys were saying: – ‘sure, those other black boys are dumb, but I’m not.'”

” The trend was troubling to Rogers, too. It fits in with society’s tendency to “glorify individual stories of success,” she said, “but individual success does not mean that racism is over and that just anyone can overcome challenges.”

To move forward and address underlying inequalities, educators and parents should put more emphasis on the collective success of the larger community.

“We can’t just send the message that ‘you are the exception,’ Rogers said. “We have to be better about conveying to children that anyone can succeed and addressing the stereotypes and inequalities that often interfere with success.”

“The Resisters”

“The resisters” in the study stood out from their peers as being more likely to see stereotypes as a system of oppression that undermines an entire group, that is, Black people, rather than individuals.

[S]ociety has its boxes for everybody, and they don't like it
when you like jump outside of it.. .. The welll-you're-never-going-
to-be-anything 'cause you're in the "Black box" ....
Like Black kids are always doing the drugs ....and or always the one that's just trying to shoot somebody up.
My plan in life is to be as unique and extraordinary as
possible .....I have· goals to prove all those people wrong
and not fit into any one of those boxes.

“The Accommodators”

Finally, 5 of the 21 boys in the study voiced views of the researchers called “the accommodators” theme, where they showed little resistance to and even seemed to perpetuate stereotypes such as the “tough Black male.”

The accommodators didn’t necessarily believe the stereotypes, but rather than rejecting them they tried to repurpose them in order to survive, wrote Rogers and Way in their Journal of Adolescent Research study.

The Power of Conversation

One of the implications from Rogers’ study is that adolescents need more outlets for talking about race and gender stereotypes.

“Youths are thinking about these things, even if they aren’t saying anything. They see inequalities all the time – but where do they have a chance to process that?” Rogers said. “Educators and parents have a role in helping them respond to stereotypes. Kids are willing and want to resist negative stereotypes, but they often don’t have the space or support to do so.”

Read the full study online »

Listen to Rogers discuss her research in a KUOW interview »