ARTICLE

Stop Talking in Code: Call Them Black Boys

A Black educator challenges colleagues to consider the school-based and societal implications of calling Black boys “Black males.”

My life’s work in education has been broad. Yet one particular focus has held a priority over others: the education of Black boys. I read, write, research, organize, train, execute and pray, all so that the personal and academic lives of Black boys are improved. I’ve examined the disproportionality in achievement, suspensions, arrests, graduation rates and life outcomes. I no longer need to explore data. 

Either Black boys are genetically and intellectually predisposed to negative outcomes or educators—and society—have failed miserably in engaging them. I know it’s the latter. As a member of the Maryland State Department of Education’s Task Force on Achieving Academic Equity and Excellence for Black Boys, I recognize that there are several recommendations for improvement that can be considered. However, I think the first step could be a simple yet powerful one, filled with intention and focused on change. 

It’s time to create a new code.

In my eyes, language is a problematic part of the way we think about Black boys. Language can bias our thinking, as our brains love to take shortcuts in coming to an “understanding” of something. Indulge me for a moment as I explain further. Fill in the blank: The suspect was a _____. Yes, you know the answer: Black male.

We hear the phrase on the news and have become desensitized to who the suspect really is. We’ve seen his image yet only recognize him as the “receptacle for which we place our fears,” as one writer put it. In order to address the bias against Black boys, we must first acknowledge the bias attached to the term “Black males.” 

Why is this an issue for education? The problem is that educators have become desensitized to who “Black males” are. The words Black and male are two adjectives that are being used to describe a person. By excluding a definitive or proper noun, you remove the humanity. A Black male could be a man or a preschooler. Or it could be a dog or fish or any other species. It’s not an adequate descriptor for any Black boy—or man. 

Framing conversations about instruction, engagement and student discipline using this code is quite concerning. It might look something like this:

“I have concerns about the skill level of my Black males in AP courses.” Is this person expressing collective deficiencies? 

“Why do the Black males all hang in that hallway?” Is there a concern for safety here? 

The phrase brings into our schools a historical stigma and all of the resultant baggage of societal misconceptions that come along with it. The stereotype sets the stage for low expectations and underachievement and the need for highly controlled spaces and zero-tolerance policies. 

As an educator who happens to be a Black man, I cringe every time I hear the term, as I see the personhood being stripped from the child or student described. If one is talking about the opportunity gap, why should educators care about a phrase that doesn’t indicate a real person but merely a descriptor for data? Why would they adjust their pedagogy and practice for a mere statistical term? The same thinking exists for reports, scheduling, articulation, referrals and discussions in conference rooms, teachers’ lounges or school parking lots.

What I’m trying to do here is bring attention to the singular coding of “Black males,” as opposed to the nuanced, varied and real human lives of Black boys. If we humanize language and processes—or reframe the way we teach and engage by using the language of Black male students or Black teenagers or even the more emotionally engaging Black children—we may begin to see a different level of connection to the work. 

All of these clarifying and affirmative nouns sound and feel like more appropriate and caring descriptors for students because we know and see these human beings in our own lives. We know and see white boys, intelligent students or Asian teens in our schools, homes and communities. They have stories and experiences that align with their stages of development, and our interaction and memories of them run parallel in that space. 

If we don’t change this language and create new code, we will continue to bring many of society’s stereotypes about Black boys and men into our schools. The same societal dehumanization, overcriminalization and state violence against Black men are the fruits of the seeds of insubordination, disrespect and threatening dispositions some project onto even our youngest Black boys. The persistence of the term “Black males” in education spaces only highlights the bias and empathy deficit that Black boys face.

The time is now for our society to change this thinking. It will continue to be an uphill climb, as the conditioning is so pervasive that Black teachers, even many Black caregivers, use this code as well. However, if we’re serious about addressing the academic gaps and suspension disproportionality, and improving the multitude of outcomes of this group of students, we must recognize that disrupting generalities and describing our students as fully human is the first major step. 

Quite simply, it’s time for new code. Call them Black boys.

About the Author

1 COMMENTS

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Dr. Howard. I have a question about the term "Black boys." I am a white woman and antiracism educator. As an evaluator/researcher I've previously been discouraged from using the phase because for older readers, it can hearken back to the days when it was very common for full grown Black men to be addressed as "boy." I once had a reviewer refuse to review something I wrote because I referred to "Black boys" ("Black girls" did not face objection.) I wonder if you could common on this historical offense and let us know if it's simply that - historical, and no longer relevant? Thanks very much, Jen Heeg, PhD
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