By Freeden Oeur
One finding animates studies of life in poor urban communities: young men yearn for respect, or the admiration and deference of their peers. Given the threat of violence in their communities, young men learn to defend their bodies. They can gain status through fighting. They can also earn their “stripes” through verbal insults and with the clothes they wear. When mainstream institutions block access to these young men, they invest deeply in these alternative status systems. It’s here where young men can “be known.”
In my recent Socius article, I examined how young black men maintain a sense of self-worth today. I spent one year conducting ethnographic research at Perry High School, an all-boys public school. The student population was all black and mostly class disadvantaged. One of the school’s chief objectives was to steer young men away from the criminal justice system. I found that the young men yearned for a form of masculine respect that was bound up in troubling meanings around incarceration. As C.J. Pascoe has found in her research, many young (white) men denounce a gay identity that they view as powerless. At Perry High, this repudiation had a racialized character. Through their jokes and insults, the young men rejected an identity they viewed as especially shameful and powerless: a victim of prison rape.
But worthiness involves more than status, or attempts to “one-up” their peers. Building on the recent ethnographic work of Victor Rios and others, I observed how the young men at Perry fought for multiple forms of dignity. With the aid of adults, the young men yearned for inherent dignity, which is about human potential. It involves not only protection from abuse, but the right to grow and to take pride in one’s development. As Raymond, a ninth grader at Perry High, said, what the boys desired was “time to bloom.”
Moreover, particularly among the older young men who had had formal contact with the criminal justice system, I observed a yearning for a different kind of dignity. I call this substantive dignity, or a sense of belonging and acceptance in wider communities. In particular, the young men expressed a desire for “be unknown,” as I call it. As these young men imagined their futures, rather than desiring to stand out, they articulated a wish to go unmarked and unseen by others. They yearned for the privilege of anonymity.
Respect matters a great deal for marginalized young men of color. But it’s time we consider fully how, in an age of surveillance, they are in search of multiple dignities.
Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rios, Victor. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press.