A hug is a universal symbol of affection from one person to another. They provide both emotional and chemical benefits not likely provided via other activities. Sam McNair never knew how much a simple hug could change his life. McNair, a well-spoken high school senior in Duluth, Georgia was suspended for a full year after an embrace he gave to a teacher was captured on his school's surveillance video. The hug, labeled as sexual harassment, resulted in a possibly life altering consequence and is fueling a nationwide debate.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the federal courts began to recognize the need for protection against sexual harassment for both students and employees inside schools. Although most cases have involved students as victims, recent years have seen more and more cases of teachers filing suit for sexual harassment and/or hostile work environments (HWE) created by students.
A 2010 report indicated that teachers across the world are experiencing unambiguous sexual harassment from students. In this report, teachers say that they have been followed into restrooms, that they have been fondled, licked— and one student even announced to his class that he was going to “rape” his teacher.
Sexual harassment is most simply defined as unwanted contact or communication of a sexual nature. Although the operational definition of sexual harassment is consistent from place to place, the minimum criteria qualifying actions for a harassment designation remains pretty ambiguous. In some cases, a compliment can meet the threshold and in other settings much more is required.
McNair’s teacher claims that, in addition to the hug, his lips and cheek touched her during the embrace. She also contends that she had warned him against hugging her in the past. McNair and his mother deny both those claims, instead, embracing their family values, which include hugging as a sign of care and support. This is not to say that an unsolicited hug was not inappropriate, or even that McNair should not have been punished, but to suspend him for an entire year? Who would say the punishment fits the crime? And just what sort of student receives such a hefty consequence in the first place?
Sexual harassment comes along with a very strong message, a hefty price and a label that has the capacity to follow one for years, if not a lifetime. Given circumstances similar to McNair’s, one wonders: would an academic system shatter a female student's college dreams as a result of an alleged gesture of kindness? Would an Asian American male student have been suspended for a full year, even if the teachers’ allegations of the kiss and warnings were validated?
In a 2011 case, Emanyea Lockett, a nine-year-old African American elementary school student in North Carolina, was suspended for calling a substitute teacher "cute". The school principal qualified Lockett’s remarks as sexual harassment and suspended him from school. Lockett’s mother, like McNair’s was enraged, and rightfully so.
All of our behaviors are defined through the lens of our personhood and the stereotypes that accompany them. When second-string point guard Jeremy Lin led the New York Knicks to a regular season game victory in 2012 and moved to the starting line-up, “Linsanity” ensued. Lin is clearly not the most amazing basketball player to play the game, he actually spent several of his early NBA years in their developmental league (D-League) where second tier players go to improve their game.
Lin became a household name, not because he was amazing, but because all the messages about his personhood countered the image of what we understand about NBA stars. Asian American men are most often portrayed in the media as asexual, emasculated scientists and doctors who are always available for consultation, but never for sports and sex. Our lens and expectations of a person determine what we see.
On the opposite end of the continuum, Black men and boys are seen as over-sexualized, virile beasts, always prepared to take down their prey and conquer. Both Emanyea Lockett and Sam McNair’s actions were viewed through the lens of their Black maleness—a lens that makes certain determinations about ambiguous behaviors.
Whether we are talking about Emmit Till, Amadou Diallo, Marcus Dixon or Trayvon Martin, there is a history on this soil where the stereotypes associated with Black maleness dictate how behaviors are perceived. One may argue that a year-long school suspension pales in comparison to the fate of the aforementioned men. Men who lost their lives and/or freedom because their Black maleness said that they were mannish and not precocious, that they were criminal and not scared. A rapist and not a teen sex partner and a burglar, not a neighbor.
Although McNair remains alive and was never incarcerated, the disparate outcomes for Black men with college degrees compared to those without is significantly staggering. If this year-long suspension nullifies scholarship opportunities, on-time graduation or sports participation, this young man could be displaced into the statistical abyss that awaits millions of Black men without college educations every year. In situations where college matriculation hangs on an uncertain foundation, a single nuance can ruin it all.
In Lockett’s case, the principal, with 44 years of experience was forced into retirement after acknowledging his “mistake," a mistake he denies warranted the loss of his job. McNair’s case remains undetermined, much like his future. Do we continue to allow our Black boys to be unfairly judged through the stereotypic lens of Black maleness or do we challenge it at every juncture? It is clear that McNair’s punishment did not fit the crime, yet the punishment stands. How do we ensure that Black boys are judged by the content of their character and not the components of their caricature?
Dr. Donald E. Grant, Jr. is a socio-cultural analyst, professor of Psychology and the Executive Director of Mindful Training Solutions, LLC. FIollow him on Twitter: @DrGrantJr