On Being ‘Soft.’

I pretty much only read The Root for one reason these days: my buddy’s Michael Arceneaux’s writing. Today he posted his thoughts on the lives of the two young boys who killed themselves after being bullied with homophobic taunts.


I know all too well about kids going after anyone they suspect as gay or “soft.” Whether I was stepping onto a school bus, into a classroom or inside the cafeteria, I felt like a target. I was that kid who went through school listening as other students—and in some cases teachers—made jokes about the way I walked and talked.

I worried constantly about whether or not I was going to have to get into a fight on any given day because someone mistakenly made me out to be an easy target. Everyone around me wanted to be considered “hard,” and since I never felt compelled to put on airs that way, some thought they could test me.

And I lived with the fear that it would never end.

I understand the sadness each boy probably endured, and though I did often fight back, I still contemplated killing myself just so I wouldn’t have to fight ever again. I wasn’t sure if I could take it, constantly being attacked for something I had no control over. I thought I was strong, but dealing with people’s hatred started to drain me. After a while, I felt like giving up.

It took me a long time to come to grips with who I was, and even now, at 25, at my most secure, I still have to contend with the fact that more times than not, people hate anything and anyone that is different.

As a gay black man, I find myself at the top of the list of people to hate. That’s a hard fact to contend with at 25, let alone at 11. The accepted notions of how a black man should look and act are confining and dangerous, whether you are gay or not. As a grown man, I still hear other black men say things like all gay men should be sent to a women’s prison to be raped and killed. I had to endure this most recently while sitting in the chair at the barbershop. None of the people so casually spewing hate knew I was gay, so all of their smiles and gestures toward me did nothing but make me feel more unwelcomed.

‘Suspect,’ and ‘sus,’ and ‘soft,’ and ‘sweet,’ and ‘has some sugar in his tank.’ These are all terms I’ve heard used to describe black men who don’t exhibit certain predefined hypermasculine qualities that ‘real’ black men have. I think that the insidiousness of an ‘acceptable’ black male identity is that it doesn’t just elicit teases and taunts, it wears our boys down slowly by telling them they’re not what they should be and probably never will be. It doesn’t matter if these boys were gay or not, they should have been able to just be who they were, and have the time to figure themselves out, just like the rest of us.

Update: I’m going to highlight Grump’s comment, because I’m seeing variations on it in a number of places.

Yeah, the behavior should be stymied and checked by the teachers in a school envitronment and the community shoulda/woulda/coulda. However, I disagree that a kid should go through childhood without being challenged on multiple levels. Especially in regards to “who they are”. In the long run, I think that will hurt more than help. When and where will a child learn responsibility and accountability for their actions and thoughts? Especially if they have not seen the day somebody challenges them on it.

There’s a huge difference between making fun of a kid for having out-of-date clothes and harassing them because they don’t fit your group’s idea of what a black male should be. The former can always be fixed or explained away; the latter can’t be changed so easily and has much larger social repercussions.

Now. I was teased as much as most kids are. In school, I was often obnoxious and nerdy (and still am) and I was teased for it. I was never cool, but I was smart, and I knew how to give as good as I got and then some. I think basic, playful, teasing is a part of growing up, and it’s up to us to do with it what we will. I think kids should be teased and questioned, and they should learn to tease and question; those are both huge parts of how humans interact.

However, the acceptable black male identity is a harmful construct that it engenders more than just ‘teasing.’ Boys’ identities are tied up in how ‘hard’ or ‘manly’ they are, and there are little boys who aren’t ‘hard’ or ‘manly,’ and possibly never will be. These ‘soft’ ones become targets for more than just teasing — they become targets for taunting. The distinction between teasing and taunting is this: taunting is purposely hurtful, and it’s a way for one person to become the arbiter of another person’s worth within their social circle. There’s no ‘giving as good as you get’ in taunting. It’s about power, and aggression, and humiliation. Kids don’t kill themselves because they’re weak and they can’t take all the ‘teasing.’ They do it because they feel defeated and worn down.

20 thoughts on “On Being ‘Soft.’

  1. Grump May 4, 2009 at 3:58 pm Reply

    A kid is going to get teased regardless while growing up. Be it for their perceived sexuality, obesity or hair texture, kids are going to come after you for SOMETHING that sticks out. Yeah, the behavior should be stymied and checked by the teachers in a school envitronment and the community shoulda/woulda/coulda. However, I disagree that a kid should go through childhood without being challenged on multiple levels. Especially in regards to “who they are”. In the long run, I think that will hurt more than help. When and where will a child learn responsibility and accountability for their actions and thoughts? Especially if they have not seen the day somebody challenges them on it.

    As for the sexuality component, “What Would Omar Little Do?”…

    • shani-o May 4, 2009 at 5:45 pm Reply

      I responded to your comment in the post.

    • G.D. May 4, 2009 at 5:45 pm Reply

      wow. somebody wanna tackle this? i’m on deadline over here.

    • universeexpanding May 4, 2009 at 6:02 pm Reply

      “Challenged” and “ostracized” are two different things. I agree that forming your ideals and personality comes partially due to exposure to people who contradict you or oppose your ideas, but to the degree of physical confrontation and relentless taunting? I think there are some diminishing returns to scale there.

      Also different children have different amounts of resilience and resources that they can draw upon to deal with that level of taunting. Where I live “sodomy” is illegal. To be openly gay is to invite violence and calling someone any species of batty man/fassy/buller is consider the insult to end all insults. I have a friend here who is 18, bisexual and very effeminate – as in he shaves his legs and wears foundation, eyeliner and mascara on a daily basis. He goes to a high school in town and deals with a lot of ridicule and threats. He answers his attackers by being very “in your face”, dramatic and extra. However, he’s over 6 feet tall and heavily muscled. He can afford to be aggressive because he can back it up if necessary. That’s all well and good for him, but what about the little kid who can’t defend himself? Is there a grander lesson to be learned by getting your face kicked in?

    • ladyfresshh May 4, 2009 at 8:22 pm Reply

      When and where will a child learn responsibility and accountability for their actions and thoughts? Especially if they have not seen the day somebody challenges them on it.

      This would be an ideal scenario if most of society did not use these confrontations for forcing their peers to conform. I would that this question better posed to bullies and their parents as opposed to a general statement to all children.

  2. Grump May 4, 2009 at 6:39 pm Reply

    I’m still not sure how I should address your statements about Black Male identity. You say its “hypermasculine” and is “a harmful construct”. I disagree strongly because even if you get enough Black males together, they will tell you that there is more than one way “to be a man”!!!!

    Hell, there was even a book about the various ways….

    So I need to know, through what lens are YOU defining the Black Male identity?

    • G.D. May 4, 2009 at 8:00 pm Reply

      fam. what?

  3. young_ May 5, 2009 at 8:31 am Reply

    Is this about harmful constructs of black male identity or harmful constructs of male identity in general?

    • shani-o May 5, 2009 at 9:13 am Reply

      As I was writing this, I thought about that question. I think that the constructs of male identity are harmful in general, but I think that in a group that’s generally more socially conservative — black Americans — the dangers are more pronounced.

      • G.D. May 5, 2009 at 9:17 am Reply

        ‘male identity’ is fundamentally harmful?

        in what ways?

        • shani-o May 5, 2009 at 9:22 am Reply

          I said the ‘the constructs of male identity are harmful,’ not ‘male identity is fundamentally harmful.’

          By that, I meant the false ideals of what men should and shouldn’t be: men should be strong, men should be providers, men should sow their wild oats but not respect women who have multiple partners, men shouldn’t cry, etc. Do you disagree?

          • G.D. May 5, 2009 at 9:27 am Reply

            i don’t disagree with the idea that the things you listed are harmful, but i don’t know that i buy that those are part and parcel to ‘male identity,’ either. i mean, what is ‘male identity,’ anyway?

            • shani-o May 5, 2009 at 9:56 am Reply

              No idea. I’m not a man, and even if I were, I wouldn’t know all the ways in which it’s possible to be a man.

              I don’t think I said any of those things were part and parcel to male identity. However, those things are part and parcel to some acceptable social inventions about what being a man is.

    • universeexpanding May 5, 2009 at 9:40 am Reply

      Right. I think we need to clarify what we’re talking about here.
      Do we mean male identity, do we mean male sexuality and sexuality as it relates to identity, do we mean gender and gender performance…?

      • shani-o May 5, 2009 at 9:54 am Reply

        This has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality, and I would never seek to define black male identity (or male identity).

        This is about accepted and expected gender performance.

  4. Coward May 5, 2009 at 8:35 am Reply

    You seem to imply that black male identity is harmful only for those who don’t conform to it. Are there, in addition, ways in which the emphasis on being ‘hard’ is harmful to those who are able to conform to it?

    • shani-o May 5, 2009 at 9:17 am Reply

      I don’t think I implied that, but since this post is so murky, I can understand the confusion.

      Conforming to an accepted identity is something almost all of us do, and it’s something that is harmful, both for those of us who are able to do it, and those of us who aren’t.

      I think the emphasis on being ‘hard’ is particularly damaging to those who conform because it strips away sensitivity to others.

      • ladyfresshh May 5, 2009 at 9:35 am Reply

        I’d add it strips away sensitivity to themselves as well

  5. t.o.a n. May 5, 2009 at 10:38 am Reply

    There seems to be an implied question of what, exactly, are the confines of black male identity and how, exactly, is it harmful.

    I do not know what, exactly, are the confines of black male identity, but I do know when I have seen a particular definition of male identity become damaging to males.

    When a 2 or 3 year old:
    – can no longer smile to take a picture, but must now mean mug only
    – can no longer cry for his mother without being disparaged by his mother
    – cannot have a stuffed animal or, heaven forbid, a buddy doll
    – illicit a beating for requesting a blue tutu to match the pink one he saw (true story)

    One major problem with this type of taunting is that a large population of people think that being gay is a choice, which I don’t agree, so that when males seem to be making choices that either are believed will lead to being gay or making the choice to be gay then those that feel it is a choice feel not just justified, but obligated, to let the person exhibiting these behaviors know that making that choice has particular and profound consequences.

    The (black) male identity can be confining for those males that are not gay in that the fear of doing something that he may like, like (who knows) reading poetry, will cause those around him to think that he is gay and illicit the same type of taunting written about above. I have long thought that the only two emotions that are universally acceptable for a male to exhibit are joy and anger. These two points alone is confining.

  6. Winslowalrob May 6, 2009 at 1:32 am Reply

    I sooo wanted to talk about this but have yet to really organize my thoughts on the matter. But now, in another glorious procrastination binge, I think I can throw some stuff out there.

    A) I really disagree with what Grump said because of my own personal experiences: I was teased in school almost all my life and tried to kill myself a few times because of depression (obviously I was not very good at it). Yes, my story is but an anecdote rather than a solid argument, and I should not get all emotional about this, but when I heard this story I FELT this kids pain, I KNOW what its like. Now, I was not totally innocent in all of this, because I was so arrogant and unyielding in my personality that I provoked a lot of kids, but christ somebody should have taught them some freaking manners, rather than having me keep my chin up. Hell, I even disagree with UE, because a kid should be allowed the choice of being different, not the right to be who they are so long as it is some unchanging element of their genetic makeup. Even if being gay WAS a choice, would that give others the right to subject this kid to this sort of abuse? If a kid does not want to change their hairstyle (not that this was the reason why I got crap), that it becomes part of who they are, does that make the taunting any less vile than if it was directed at their race, sexual orientation, or otherwise? While I understand the value of protecting the latter, our arguments should not be made at the expense of the former. It is not that I wanted to be coddled, or that bullies should be suspended (though I would have liked to have had a posse to whup their ass, but I digress), but that part of the lesson of growing up is learning empathy for others, or at least it should be. The betrayal I felt when kids who I thought were my friends failed to protect me… oh man that was devastating. To anyone. It is one thing to have an older authority figure explain their actions away and comfort you, but to go out in the savage jungle of adolescence with the knowledge that people are looking to screw you over the moment they can get away with it means there is no safety, your daily existence is constantly in jeopardy. The only lesson worth learning here is to stick up for people who cannot do so themselves, and the only time I ever (almost) got into fights in college was when a pack of drunk asses ganged up on one dude, verbally or physically. I never learned self-reliance from hating myself.

    B) Shani, so do you advocate modifying acceptable black male identity or eliminating it altogether? I am in the latter camp (and not just black male identity, but all identity, which means I gotta get back to some other people’s posts on this). If black hypermasculine hardness is constructed due to external structural racism and internal ‘black culture’ (however we want to define such a tricky beast), and presuming both this things are entrenched, is this not just howling in the wind? I do not believe so, but something to keep in mind. And, in my experience, a lot of males in the United States are not down with effete males from kindergarten onwards.

    C) Does everything boil down to power? I cannot accept this because it robs individuals and communities of agency and responsibility, but if it does, then this teasing is part of a normative hegemony that might not be combated at the schoolyard level. I do not do ‘power’ though, so whatever :).

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