What's the Place of Women in the Boys and Men of Color Conversation?

10/20/2015 05:46 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2016

This post is co-authored with J. Luke Wood @jlukewood - Associate Professor, Community College Leadership at San Diego State University

Too often despite good manners, academic accomplishments, and solid upbringings, many young males of color are experienced as problematic of what is wrong in society and have not been a national priority. Unlike their white male counterparts, the media portrays our sons and brothers as grim, dark characters that are prone to violence and underachievement. However, we know the counterstory of scores of black and brown males is one of persistence, resilience, and triumph. Unfortunately, this double standard is one from the cradle to the grave. We need to move from gentle nudging to proactive pushing for understanding the etiology of the nation's struggles with males of color.

The movement to advance the success of boys and men of color in education has gained steam in recent years. Across the nation, there has been a proliferation of programs, initiatives, and efforts designed to improve their success in education, from preschool to college. Bolstered by the accountability movement, conversations about disparate achievement and graduation outcomes for males of color have become increasingly commonplace among educational administrators in both K-12 and postsecondary education. Scholars have written prolifically (if not obsessively) about these males, even spawning the creation of academic journals dedicated solely to exploring their experiences and outcomes. Moreover, the Obama administration has also taken notice, the advent of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) initiative last year has brought national attention, fostered collaborative partnerships, and even resulted in monies to support interventions focused on boys and men of color. Despite the overwhelming attention to the educational success of these males, efforts aimed at improving the lives of boys and men of color cautiously approach the role that women scholars and practitioners should play.

In scholarly circles, research on boys and men of color by numerous male scholars (e.g., Fred Bonner II, M. Christopher Brown II, James Earl Davis, Shaun Harper, Frank Harris III, Adriel Hilton, Tyrone Howard, Jerlando Jackson, James Moore III, Pedro Noguera, Robert Palmer, Luis Ponjuan, Victor Saenz, etc.) has dominated the field. That being said, research by female academics on boys and men of color has been essential to current understanding of their educational realities. The critical contributions of emerging and seasoned scholars such as Sharon Fries-Britt, Tiffany Fountaine, Marybeth Gasman, Kimberly Griffin, Mary Howard-Hamilton, Rebecca Neal, Lori Patton Davis, Marissa Vasquez Urias, and countless others have been foundational to the literature base. Yet, the authenticity of budding female scholars' passion for research on boys and men of color is at times questioned. In response, sometimes emerging scholars apologetically occupy this scholarly space as if the research and discourse on boys and men of color was not theirs to advance.

Possibly more acute, are these same concerns among practitioners. As those who often work with educational administrators who support programs and initiatives for boys and men of color, we are often asked what role (if any) women should have in conversations and interventions. Countless times, dialogue with practitioners has followed the following path. "We don't have enough male faculty members to mentor our guys, should we allow our women faculty to serve as mentors? I mean, our women faculty members really want to help, but will they have the same benefit as men?" Similarly, "We have an incredible female leader who has been committed to advancing men of color for years. We were thinking about having her run our program, but should we find and hire a man instead? Is it appropriate for a female to run a program for men?"

In line with this thinking, we have heard some practitioners criticize the efficacy of programs serving men should "Too many women be involved" and have had female programs heads tell us "I'm only doing this until we can find a man to take over." This also holds true with courses specifically focused on males of color or masculinity. On occasion female faculty with publication records that demonstrate scholarly expertise on men's issues or more specifically males of color, are not continually considered to deliver curriculum that is male-centric. Hence, their male counterparts, who may not specialize on boys and men of color, are approached. On the surface, it may seem logical or organic for these men to teach. Does this mean that they are a better fit?

In effect, the above sentiments and concerns allude to one core question, what is the place of women in the conversation on boys and men of color? We intentionally use the word 'place' to conjure reflections on the historical malignment and subjugation of women. As critical scholars and avowed womanists, we hope that by 'laying the cards on the table', the educational community can more readily engage this question. Our perspective is one of collectivity and inclusion. We believe in an all hands on deck approach that levies the strengths of all competent and compassionate individuals who are committed to males of color.

We have certainly heard many individuals suggest that this is a conversation about men, and therefore, it is a man's conversation, a man's responsibility, and must be fixed by men. This perspective sets a narrative that devalues the voices and efforts of women. It is critical to recognize the role that women of color have long played in the support of our boys and men of color, despite the ubiquitous war on men and families of color. Many young boys of color have been raised by grandmothers, nanas, mothers, tías, aunties, near kin, and other mothers who ardently and rigorously advocate for their well-being. How do we then say to women of color (and other women) that their contributions are valued, but their voice and position in the conversation on males of color is not? A number of social movements would have been inhibited by this perspective. For instance, what if Martin Luther King Jr. had refused support from the Jewish community, simply because they were not Black?

With respect to programs serving boys and men of color, our perspective of collective inclusion does not negate the importance of exposing our youth to mentors, tutors, and role models who are males of color or men in general. However, doing so should not inhibit women from leading and being directly involved in interventions for males as sisters we too are our brother's keeper. We must guide efforts for males of color first prioritizing relationships that are healthy followed by representing an optimal gender balance second. Powerful boys and men of color are a byproduct of high expectations, support, challenge, and authentic care from both men and women across the spectrum. The perennial question remains, "What is the woman's place in the conversation on boys and men of color?" Our answer: UNAPOLOGETICALLY FRONT AND CENTER.