On a typical New York City subway commute, I hear incessant chatter, cacophonous voices from a sea of passengers. When I tune into this mixture of sounds I have this pressing need to match the succinct voices with their corresponding faces and bodies. Speech, voice, and paraphernalia possess a racialized component which is undeniable. It calls upon stereotypical images of certain racial groups. My reactions to specific racial groups are reflexive for the sole purpose of self-preservation and conflict-aversion. However, these split-second reactions and dangerous assumptions (dangerous in both making these assumptions and not making them [in order to be politically correct]), as illustrated in Paul Haggis’s Crash, a film about heated racial tension in L.A.), have crippling effects. These assumptions are insidious mental schemas that generalize a certain group of people and leave hardly any leeway for open-mindedness. I realize that the connections that I inevitably make are driven by microaggressions “indoctrinated” (Samoran, Interviewed Subject #1) by proliferate images (commercialization of gangster culture) in the media and repetitive reporting by news stations which all play a role in socializing me. In calling up various stereotypes, I am asserting an assumed, expected identity upon certain racial groups and I am believing that their deviant behaviors (opposed to good behaviors in a dichotomous model of good v. bad model minority) or threat levels are primordial or inherent, that it is “just who they are,” or “that’s how they are” and how they act across the board. In this blog post, I will trace the preconceptions of young black men in urban spaces and shed light on the underlying stereotypes and images that spawn these preconceptions.

Picture this subway experience and try to comprehend my accompanying behavior: I am sitting in a nearly empty train. Suddenly, a noticeable group of ghetto black teenagers (I use the term “ghetto” to refer to loud, rowdy black teens who subscribe to a hip hop representation of life, who live in the projects and probably have grown up in urban slums and impoverished neighborhoods) swarm the train and converge on the empty seats. Their loud, quarrelsome voices permeate the once-still subway atmosphere. I hear their loud chortles, exaggerated speech and the rampant use of the N word. I sense the mounting antagonism in their voices, I hear particular black slang words which are part of their vernacular, I see the frantic, frenzied gestures such as stomping of their feet and shaking of their lanky bodies in tune with their blaring rap song. Immediately I clutch my personal belongings and tuck my iPod and earphones into my jacket and conceal them forever. I stealthily look left and right to find a few passengers in my company, but they are feigning sleep or peering into their newspapers with intense focus. I steal a surreptitious glance at these young men because I want to know that they are not staring at me. A few minutes later I can tell from the corner of my eye that they are staring me down and sizing me up from across the subway car. Do I move to another car or do I get off at the next stop? Failure to take any action will result in being jumped, robbed, mugged, or even worse. So I wait it out and prepare for either defending myself or running toward the door. This entire scene recalls a scene from The Brave One with Jodie Foster, where two thugs try to rob her on board a NYC subway train (0:50).

Now picture this second scenario: a bunch of private school white kids, just as tall, just as lanky, just as loud (decibels), swarm the train car and interrupt the train ride by cursing and using slang words like it is part of their diet. Roberta and Marcus (Interviewed Subject #2 and #3) tell me that they react to this differently because they do not associate a “buncha white kids” with stealing or assault, especially if they are dressed in school uniform which designates a spoiled, privileged, lavish lifestyle. They go on to tell me that this [the private school kids’ lifestyle] is in stark contrast to the “ghetto” lifestyle which is associated with stealing from the in-group and brazen assaults for self-preservation and protection of turf. My subjects’ immediate difference in reaction or mental perception indicate that there are truly different associations with white males than there are for urban black teens despite rather similar paraphernalia, except the sagging jeans and exposed underwear. These markers of difference such as the do-rag (originally used for keeping hair disciplined) and the sagging jeans have been altered in its meanings. The associations between prison life and sagging jeans (unavailability of belts in prison) made this style of clothing a deviant culture, and this deviant culture becomes marked in opposition to a rather desired culture of the model minority (working hard and studying hard and dressing “properly”). This is similar with the do-rag which has been embraced by the media (public schools prohibit it and view it as gang symbol as well) as gang paraphernalia and associations with the “boys in the hood” and thugs roaming the projects. A controversial Nivea shaving cream commercial sparked outrage for creating a dichotomy between a civilized and “uncivilized” black male:

Apparently the condemnable, ignorant designers of this ad believe that black men with afros are uncivilized because their style of hairdo are wild and unkempt which somehow says something repulsive and undesirable about the black males themselves. This contrasts a black male with meticulous shave and clean haircut. The implication is that if black men renounce their afros and convert to an entirely new lifestyle (a Nivea lifestyle/assimilated), they will actually “give a damn,” but apparently this is not enough, because they will just “look like they give a damn.” The tagline “Re-civilize yourself” indicates that it is only when black males use Nivea cream do they transform from their original uncivilized state (when not using Nivea cream or stumbling upon this ad) to a tame, civilized state. Otherwise they remain in their afro appearance which marks them as not giving a damn. These markers (including the afro) are truly used against them in efforts to single them out and to oppress them. In this case it is black teens who are perceived to be either studious climbers in the education system or juvenile delinquents who do not pull their pants up and follow the law.

The media plays an integral role in both asserting an identity for black youth (but to their disadvantage) and essentializing black males as gangsters, pimps, dope dealers, hip hop consumers who are perpetrators of a majority of street crimes, abusive pimps, and aggressive deadbeat dads/perpetual child support payers who have failed to rear their children. Black teens are portrayed as uncouth juvenile delinquents who live in the “hood” and subscribe to the hip hop culture. It is important to note that these are impure, biased representations of black youth and their culture. Hip hop is  commercialized culture and it has spread across urban spaces. Other racial groups such as white teens and Asian Pacific American teens have acculturated accordingly by imitating clothing styles and listening to similar hip hop/rap artists. Dave Chappelle and standup comedians are just a few testimonies to the media’s commercialization of this very culture: Consumers of comedy and television readily chuckle at stereotypical images of gangsters and thugs misusing their weapons and tying their do-rags improperly. This reaction only reinforces the presupposed stereotype that there is a correct way for black males to use handguns and to tie their do-rag. It is also assumed that there is a playlist for thugs (Watch 3:10 in above The Brave One video clip) which only includes rap artists. Consumers of television and viral media receive this implantation of patterns. Patterns upon patterns, especially in the news broadcasts: there is airing and re-airing of video where black males are wanted for murder, black males are firing rounds in the streets, and black males are committing brazen acts of assault in broad daylight.

In New York City the motto is self-preservation and minding one’s business. The movie Crash illustrates this concept very well because L.A. is “a second NYC.” When Sandra Bullock’s character walks down the bustling, diverse L.A. street and two black males are approaching her on the same block, she subdues her “racist” tendencies and keeps on walking the same direction. A few seconds later she is assaulted and looking down the barrel of a gun. In the following scene she spills that she tried her hardest not to make eye contact because she did not want to give off the impression that she had preconceptions of the two men, and that she was contemplating on acting on her preconceptions which would be to walk across the street. In trying to protect herself and to mind her own business, she eased the voices in her head and passed the two black men thinking that this tense experience would be over in a few seconds.

It is understandable that subway riders behave a certain way when a group of black teens board the train compared to a group of white or Asian males coming onto the train. There is a certain switch inside individuals that is turned on when black teens enter a certain space. It is seemingly rational that individuals turn to self-preservation on a subway train, but this dire necessity of staying alive has been aroused by the fear of certain black men. Therefore, if the group of black males is dressed in baggy jeans, afros, do-rags, and is speaking in loud volume (compared to a group of clean cut black males who are dressed in suits and slacks, conversing in a “normal” manner), some riders tend to feel fearful and unsafe in their space. This immediate use of the stereotype of deviant young black males is slightly irrational because persons have not met all other black males. Not every black male acts the same way as knife-wielding thugs ready for descent. It is important that society nips these microaggressions and stock-in-trade stereotypes in the bud. In an era of “colorblindness,” society has only conveyed an illusion that race is no longer a cause of tension. Hopefully, one day in the distant future, black men do not have to whistle in order to declare their unthreatening presence to passersby, similar to Brent Staples’s main character in Black Men and Public Space.

-Ken Ruan


One response

  1. tlindor says:

    I felt like some of the points in this article were heavily stereotyped as well as outdated. I feel like being in gangs and going to jail is no longer glamorized and even looked down upon. Kanye West one of the biggest names in music recently came out with a fashion line that had nothing at all to do with sagging jeans, durags, or anything else of that “ghetto” lifestyle. In fact “oversized clothes and chains….we off that” lol