2013-11-13 18:36:10

Hard truths and no more lies: talking to boys about violence

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This past weekend, I found out what a “THOT” is.

I was invited to speak at Union Baptist Church in Trenton, N.J., for a conference they held to address black youth and violence. Trenton is a city no larger than eight square miles, with a population of around 80,000, and has had more than 30 murders this year. Black children are dying and being exposed to violence at an alarming rate. I’m glad my friend, a youth minister at the church, recognized this and organized this conference.

After I was done with my little spiel on violence, race, and the media, there was a breakout session where the group of teens were separated by gender. I got an uneasy feeling about what was going to happen. I went to sit in on the boys session fully prepared to hear lectures about how it’s not cool to be a thug, and how you can’t get caught up with the wrong crowd, and all of the other well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless lines we run past black boys. I’m sure they’ve learned to tune them out by now, as I once did. I was pleasantly surprised to find something completely different.

Once they finished the finished the “two truths and a lie” icebreaker, the ministers in charge of the session jumped into a discussion about gender based violence. They asked the boys questions that got them to define physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. They were questioned about ways in which they may have been abusive toward girls in their lives without having recognized at the time that it was abuse. They were made to see the ways they themselves had been abused. Their views on women and sexuality were challenged.

And that’s how I found out what a “THOT” is, which apparently stands for “that ho over there.” I don’t understand the necessity of the acronym, on a practical level, but I chalk up to kids being inventive in the ways they’ll denigrate women. They were asked if that was cool to refer to girls that way, and predictably a few chimed in that they can defend doing so because that’s the way the girls present themselves. This is usually the point of agreement, but luckily the minister pushed back, and made a connection to the way black boys are perceived to be criminals, and asked if it was then OK for everyone to treat and refer to them as such based on their clothing and skin color. There, it clicked. I cracked a smile watching their faces shift as they started to understand.

It was heartening to see, not only that violence against women and girls was being taken seriously as a form of violence that needed to be addressed, but also the boys’ engagement with these ideas. They were a bright group, extremely intelligent, but also versed in a notion of manhood that betrays that intelligence. Intuitively, they could recognize abuse and violence for what they were, but they had composed these justifications in their minds for that violence based on a noxious idea of masculinity. At one point, they were asked if unwanted kissing was a form of abuse, and all but one of them raised their hands to affirm that it was. The one who didn’t muttered “man, y’all gay.” I watched him throughout the session, noticing how his swagger diminished the longer it went on and the more his worldview was challenged, hoping that was a sign he was starting to see things differently.

These kids are smart and can be engaged with real ideas, not just platitudes. We don’t give them enough credit. We can and should continue talking about the culture surrounding them and messaging they receive, but we would also do well to, I don’t know, talk to them as well.


Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. He, like Wu-Tang, is for the kids.

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