The child was getting his shots. The boy started off so happy and smiling. He was having a wonderful time with his father. Then, he realized that he had been poked. This atrocious doctor tricked him and ruined his moment. You could see tears well up in the child’s eye. You knew he was in pain. His father’s response? “Don’t cry. Be a man.”
I get it. I absolutely get this response from this father whose primary role in this child’s life is to teach him to navigate the world as a Black man. In psychology, we call it “cool pose,” to appear unbothered by the things of this world…calm, unemotional. In our socially constructed definition of masculinity, it demonstrates confidence, leadership, and strength.
This is quite protective when you live in a culture filled with racism of all sorts. In a world in which having an emotional reaction to racism can result in death, or at the very least, criminalization, we teach Black men to hide themselves. There are consequences to authentically expressing yourself as a Black man who should, in the eyes of White supremacy, be invisible. The message is clear, that it is not okay to show pain.
Now, I must admit, the child in this video did an amazing job of sucking back his tears. But, I believe we can do better. Why? Because what happens when this young boy grows to be a young man who is not allowed to show pain? He hides his feelings from his friends, family, romantic partners, and even from himself. We all can guess what this does.
I like to use the reference of “Whack-A-Mole.” You know, it’s the game you play(ed) at Chuck-E-Cheese or Dave & Busters in which a toy mole pops out of a hole. You keep hitting moles as they jump out until the game is over. The more moles you hit, the higher your score. Only one problem. The game of life is not over until death. So, when we tuck away emotions they don’t necessarily disappear. They project.
It is an absolutely amazing skill to hold one’s emotional response. However, as a community and a culture, we need to teach ourselves the nuance of emotional expression. There is a time and a place for everything. However, once in a zone of safety, such as in a loved one’s arms, allow our Black boys to cry. In this, they learn how to reach out for support, ask for help, tolerate challenges in a way that helps them feel good and connected instead of stifled, isolated, and shamed. How many times have we heard, “He just shut down”, “He’s not talking to anyone”, or “I’m worried he’s isolating himself”? He didn’t do this. He is not the problem We all did this. The inadvertent message we send young men is that you must always be okay. Well, that’s simply not life. If you live long enough, you will experience some things that will make you feel like you’re breaking in half. If you can’t reach out for the small stuff like getting a shot, then how can you reach our for the larger things, such as loss of a loved one, a broken friendship, and missed or lost opportunities?
So, my challenge is to do more than provide Black boys with a simple response of “Don’t cry. Be a man.” Offer an alternative. For example, “I know it hurts. I got you.” And when that young boy gets home that night, ask him how he is doing. Listen to him, encourage him, and provide him with the wisdom of managing this crazy world. Because if he cannot cry in front of his father, then what is he doing with those tears?
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These concise blog posts were created to make information about mental health understandable, relatable, and accessible to non-mental health professionals.
Please note: information in these articles are not clinical recommendations. Rather, they are general tools for thinking about your mental health in a different way. They have been written by
Dr. Shatina Williams and should not be reproduced without her permission.
Photo Credit: Pixaby.com