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Black Men on Campus: What the Media Do Not Show Us

Black male college students feel pressured to fulfill media-spun social expectations to be overly sexual, aggressive and athletic in college.

In an ongoing study I’m conducting on Black manhood in college, Black male students across 12 different colleges unearthed hidden pressures to fulfill social expectations to be overly sexual, overly aggressive and athletic in college. Most study participants claimed or suggested that the stereotypical yet dominant images of Black men in media, particularly in television and movies, are linked to these pressures. A key question emerges: When Black college men are represented in media, how do these characterizations fail to represent a fuller, truer depiction about this group?

White men in college receive multiple representations in television and movies as White men’s interests still remain standard in American society. One need only visit a neighborhood video store to locate media in which the following models of White men in college are clear: the “everyman” and “common-man” in movies like “Animal House” and “Rudy”; the heroic and virtuous men in movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “With Honors”; the privileged men of “The Skulls”; and the exaggerated intellect of characters in the “Revenge of the Nerds” series, “Real Genius” and even “Soul Man” in which actor C. Thomas Howell portrays a White man who masquerades as a Black man to receive a scholarship earmarked for Black students.

These, and other “mainstream” films like them, entitle White men to a range of characters that manage to be “White,” “collegiate,” and “men” simultaneously. However, Black college men characters are absent in the media unless they follow a storyline formula of manipulating women and forcefully overpowering other men. For example, consider films like “School Daze,” “Higher Learning,” “Drumline,” and “Stomp the Yard” in which Black men in college are consistently portrayed as angry, overly sexual and domineering. Recently, reality television is doing much to further the prominence of these stereotypes.

Black Entertainment Television’s most recent installment of its “reality” series, “College Hill Atlanta,” plays out stereotypes described in my ongoing study of Black college men’s manhood and masculinities. In its most recent season, Drew, a dreadlocked, tattooed rapper, spent night after night engaging in sexually promiscuous and risky behavior with different women or writing misogynistic and sexually explicit rap lyrics. Also in the house was Dorion who, unashamed of being nonintimidating and intellectual, assumed key roles in the cast’s creative and community service projects.

Drew appears focused on his “coolness” (i.e., player-of-women status, defiant posture and aloofness), which almost instantly appears to earn admiration from the other Black college men in the house. However, Dorion is forced to clarify his sexuality to this group of men and, after doing so, is still largely unaccepted in that group. Dorion’s story symbolizes the suspicion that some nonstereotypical Black college men are found to endure generally and in the media. As “College Hill” showed, these suspicions include perceptions as asexual or gay and/or perceptions as acting White or otherwise racially inauthentic. Why does being anti-intellectual, belligerent and disrespectful seem to afford Black college men social privilege and popularity? Black men in college, particularly those in groups, report that college enrollment does little to push against stereotypical ways of thinking about Black men.

Black men in Black Greek-letter fraternities, for example, have described being perceived as “educated gangs” or “collegiate thugs.” Even more troubling is that Black Greek-letter fraternities are stereotyped in reality the way that television and movies largely portray. For instance, one Black Greekletter fraternity is stigmatized as overly sexual and shallow. Though one other fraternity is stereotyped as scholarly, gentlemanly and replete with leaders, this fraternity is also stereotyped as less masculine and “gay.”

In addition, Black male athletes in college, particularly in large, predominantly White, Division I athletic universities, are widely perceived as campus heroes for their athletic prowess, virile appearances and attractiveness to women. Meanwhile, nonathletic Black college men on those same campuses are pressured to conform to similar masculinities. Why do images of Black men in college still disproportionately reflect an all-body-and-nomind aesthetic?

Media must expand how Black men in college are portrayed in movies, television and other broadcasts. In concert, colleges must also aid to disrupt pressures Black college men may feel to conform to stereotypes. Moving toward a quality collegiate experience for Black men involves developing strategies for inclusion where all Black men may feel supported and engaged. This will require colleges to identify spaces and places to eradicate stereotypes, sexism, and homophobia. Men’s groups (i.e., friendships, fraternities), men’s sessions, and other initiatives and interventions must account for the diversities that Black men bring to college. Colleges, families, communities and other societal institutions must join together, teaching lessons and providing opportunities to enlarge Black men’s understanding of who they can be, become and, ultimately, do.

Dr. T. Elon Dancy II is an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.

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