Young + Black + Male: Breaking Down the Phrase

The word ‘young’ is defined as someone who has lived for a short amount of time. Anyone from newborn babies to 22-year-old adults can be young. However, the true meaning of youth stems from experience opposed to age or appearance. Being young is being stupid and annoying; talking back; getting in trouble while learning from mistakes and acquiring enough knowledge to become ‘older.’ Youth gives individuals the chance to find out who they are and who they want to become. Young people are loved, hated and accepted for these reasons but there are unarguable discrepancies between the ways that the love, hate and acceptance are rationed. Race is one of the factors that create the discrepancies.

The black male is often represented as the antagonist to the ‘ideal’ white American and always has been since arriving in North America. As bold as it sounds, this portrayal stems from history. Since the 17th Century arrival in North America, black men have been labeled as savage, hypersexual, mentally defective, criminal, derelict and lazy- just to name a few. Scientists and academics along with various media such as the early press; television and film have slandered and misconstrued the black image by reinforcing such stereotypes since the 1800s.

Explaining the ‘Young Black Male’

The black male experiences youth differently from the ‘ideal’ American. He has less flexibility to make the same mistakes as quintessential youth, for he is already marked by society as “different.” He is perceived as ill mannered, short-tempered, a “thug” and potential threat to the public. He is someone that is expected to automatically be aware of his actions as well as the consequences that follow. If not, he is more vulnerable to facing harsher punishment than his “more American” peers.

Growing up as a black youth in a town that is known for its diversity and open-mindedness has surprisingly exposed me to some of these experiences very early on. I can recall the first time I encountered racism; I was seven years old. I remember when I was wrongfully accused of stealing from a local convenience store, twice. I remember one of my middle school teachers yelling at me to get out of the class after she saw me smiling because she was angry with another kid. Was I the only one smiling? No. Some were even laughing. My most recent and perhaps my favorite memory was the woman who shielded her daughter as I was walking past her car to go into a store- thanks for the laughs.

My experiences are exemplified by the Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode, “Mistaken Identity.” It accurately portrays the modern state of young, black males. The characters Will and Carlton were pulled over by police while driving the Benz of a family friend and were instantly assumed to be car thieves. Then, they were arrested and thrown in jail, where Uncle Phil had to go and bail them out. The episode was significant because it exposed the viewers to the nature of racial-profiling and how vulnerable young, black males are to being wrongfully accused, just because of the color of their skin. The episode contrasts the reactions of Will and Carlton. Carlton, born into wealth and naïve of how the world views him, was oblivious to how young, black males are marked by outsiders because of their race. Will’s character, born in urban Philadelphia, was made out to be more honest, street smart, socially aware. I believe that more content like this episode could potentially change the perspectives of those that consistently consume the media’s misinterpreted character of the young, black male.

Montclair State | Millennial Identities

William Thomas

Will is a senior Montclair State University, majoring in Communication and Media Arts. He seeks to satisfy his creative itch by producing material that evokes fascination and challenges the perspectives of his audience.