Nestled among depressing updates about the Trayvon Martin atrocity and the lesser-known racialized police slayings of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., and Ramarley Graham, I stumbled on some promising news on the Black male survival front.
In a new study published in the big-deal American Journal of Public Health, UNC Chapel Hill professor and researcher Wizdom Powell Hammond, Ph.D. found that brothers who openly discuss their everyday struggles with racial discrimination are less likely to suffer depression than those who keep their feelings inside.
This is no small thing given that suicide is the third most common cause of death for Black boys and men ages 15 to 24 and that Black men are five times more likely to kill themselves than Black women. And note that these stats don’t include less dramatic forms of self-destruction like skipping preventative health screenings.
To get into the minds of Black men, Hammond and her team surveyed nearly 700 Black men ages 18 and up, mostly at high-traffic barbershops in four regions throughout the country. To ensure full and attentive participation, survey-takers received a $25 gift certificate toward a free cut. Genius.
Here, Hammond, who is also a White House Fellow, explains why her study deals with everyday racism, how fantasies of the strong silent type can be soul-killing for Black men, and what Black women can do to help our brothers and lovers fend off depression.
In the study you zero in on racial microaggressions—the constant slights men of color face such as being followed in stores because they’re Walking While Black. Why?
Modern discrimination is less often reported but so many of us experience it through the lens of “Is it me or is it them?” rather than the kinds of [overt] racism our grandparents talked about. We’re not looking for discrimination; discrimination finds us, but it has to rise to a certain level for us to report it. We rarely have a public forum.
How do ideas of masculinity complicate how Black men experience this everyday racism?
Well, the world doesn’t react positively to Black folks talking about the discrimination they’ve experienced. [Accusations of pulling] the race card function as a cloak over our collective experience. It’s the elephant in the room and some of us want to [ignore discrimination] as much as others do because we’re tying to negotiate complex interracial experiences. I think this dynamic is more pronounced with Black men than Black women. They’re taught that steel sharpens steel, that they’re supposed to shut down, “man up” and “keep it moving.” They [often] believe that restricted emotionality is essential to being male.
In going through the surveys, did you come across any positive aspects of traditional Black masculinity?
I found two core beliefs about maleness: one was the restrictive emotionality I mentioned. The other is a belief in self-reliance, that a man should be able to make his own way in the world, to “stand on his own two.” In our study, some of the men who [embraced] self-reliance as a masculine norm without restricting their emotionality were less depressed. That tells me that to deal with depression in Black men, we should [focus] on building up their innate sense of self-reliance. It’s an aspect I’m hoping to learn more about.
I have to admit this. There have been times in my life when I’ve had a problem with Black men being “too emotional.” I can hear myself saying to my girlfriends, “Damn, I wish he would stop crying!” And I didn’t mean that literally; I was using “crying” as a euphemism for talking about being in pain. I know I’m not alone…
I think [women] play an important role. I often think about when I saw “Hustle & Flow.” I was sitting behind two girls who were 17 or 18. The main character DJay cries a lot. The first time he did, they were kind of shifting in their seats. The second time, one [called out] “Man, he’s crying again?” The question this raised for me is, “How can we create a context for Black men to share their emotional experience?” We can’t push back on their emotional disclosure.
OK, so how do we avoid doing that? And what action can we take outside of our interpersonal relationships?
We have to keep channels of dialogue open in our homes and workplaces about discrimination. We can’t tell Black men not to express their anger. Anger is a legitimate emotion. To not express it when it’s an appropriate response is, to me, problematic. We also have to be comfortable with the full range of emotions, to [accept that] anger is not the only response Black men have to racism. They feel shame, they feel sad, the feel upset. And, finally, we have to hold both sides accountable. Ultimately, the [goal] isn’t to help Black men cope better with discrimination—it’s to eliminate the discrimination on a policy and legislative level. The message can’t be, “Stop wearing sagging pants and act better.” Black boys and men need too feel free in the world. We have to move beyond the hoodie.