By: Sadiqa Reynolds, CEO at Perception Institute
Boys and men of color are creative, loving and generous. They laugh, cry and play. They fall in love and have their hearts broken. Yet, they exist in a world that rarely shows their humanity. We will all benefit when we start to tell those truths that paint them as whole. We must replace empty stories repeated in the echo chambers of our minds and the media. Stories of life and love and skateboarding photographers like Tyre Nichols must be at the forefront. We should truthfully frame boys and men of color as they are: people who are open to trying the things the world tells them were not created for their joy. We need to amplify their laughter to stop our tears.
We live in a society that has created deep-rooted negative narratives that depict boys and men of color in ways that are harmful to their psyche and safety. We must tell the stories of the Black men we know — like my Uncle Barry in the Bronx, N.Y., who grills for every family cookout and makes the best cornish hen for Sunday dinner. He gives tight hugs, smiles brighter than a light bulb and says “I love you” before ending every phone call with his family. He cried at my mother’s funeral and at my law school graduation.
The Perception Institute has spent years raising this issue. More than four years ago, we partnered with the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color on “His Story: Shifting Narratives for Boys and Men of Color.” In this document, we created a toolkit to help reimagine the lived experiences and possibilities of boys and men of color. With input and feedback from experts across the field, it was our hope that the toolkit would increase awareness of the power and importance of transforming narratives and serve as a critical resource guide for grant-makers seeking to invest in narrative change work because the stories we tell ourselves have always mattered. Sadly, we haven’t seen the needed investments in this meaningful work and so the tragedies continue. It doesn’t seem sexy to fund storytelling, and yet each of us knows the power of our own minds to make us feel insecure, unworthy and unlovable, even as we rise to high heights and achieve great wins. So, imagine fighting those demons while the media, politicians and the powerful constantly promulgate the perceived and often contrived deficiencies of you and everyone who looks like you. They pat you on the head and tell you it is the story of your plight that moves our donors. Please lower your head once more.
In our society, there is an almost universal fear of sharks. Why? That fear is heavily rooted in the narrative of the lone rogue shark, seeking out human blood. The classic film “Jaws” catapulted to prominence the notion of a killer shark that can’t wait to chomp on our legs in the water. That has become entrenched in our social unconscious. And yet, the reality is that we each have a 1 in 3.7 million chance of shark killing us. But here’s the thing — you’re probably more likely to remember the plot of “Jaws” than to remember that statistic about the likelihood of a deadly shark attack. When we try to counter the barrage of stories depicting boys and men of color as criminals with accounts of structural racism, it is the neurological equivalent of using statistics to override the fear of sharks. (Toolkit Pg. 21)
“His Story” offers recommendations for philanthropy and society as a whole to shift the narrative and perception about boys and men of color. We must disrupt that embedded thinking and the stereotype and be intentional about shifting them. The toolkit counteracts narratives that portray people of different races and ethnicities — Black, Latino, Asian or Native American — as caricatures rather than distinct and unique human beings. For boys and men of color, the stereotypes may differ depending on the particular race or ethnicity and historical context, but for each group, the stereotypes are distorted and limiting. Think, for example, of Black and Latino men and how stereotypes depict them as dangerous, threatening and poor. In contrast, the dominant narratives of white men portray them as hardworking, industrious, innovative and successful.
To be clear, narrative change in and of itself will not dismantle structural racism, but narrative change is a necessary strategy that undergirds the dismantling of structural racism. These pervasive narratives limit expectations. Consequently, racial bias and racist societal systems truncate opportunities of advancement in every aspect of the lives of boys and men of color, including education and economic stability. As children, boys of color are perceived as threatening rather than innocent; as students, they are labeled as disruptive rather than recognized for their academic potential; as job applicants, they are disproportionately passed over, sometimes for less-qualified candidates. (Toolkit Pg. 13)
With strategic interventions by a coalition of the willing, it is possible to create narratives about boys and men of color that reflect the full spectrum of their lived experiences and contributions. For me as a Black mother of two teenage girls, I want to note that we can use the same processes for other populations, including girls and women of color.
Narrative change is not fast or easy, but it is needed, and the Perception Institute and our partners know how to do that. Philanthropy can play a major role in ensuring that this shift takes place by investing in the work. In my previous role, leading a civil rights organization, my experience with philanthropy has been one of growth by and with our funders. Here, again, is another opportunity for philanthropy to align with action-oriented leaders on the right side of hope and justice.