Boys/men of color can unlearn violence by understanding its roots

Recent events involving African American NFL football players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson were a missed opportunity to provide a teachable moment for America. Both men were widely criticized for their individual choices and behaviors, ones that led to a woman being battered and a child being abused. For the most part, however, there was no productive, public dialogue about the underlying issues and stigmas. Using physical abuse to resolve relationship conflicts or punishing children with switches rather than other, more measured forms of discipline are learned behaviors; therefore, they can be ‘unlearned.’

Over the past two decades, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct research directly with hundreds of low-income boys and men of color (BMOCs). I’ve heard their reasons for their behaviors, even as l listened with an ear toward developing shareable counter-arguments to their perceptions and the barriers to healthy behavior change. Men in domestic-abuse or corporal-discipline situations have modeled how others ‘handle their business’ with anger, fists and domination. They see it in popular culture: on TV, at the movies and woven into music. They see it in their families (often passed on from generation to generation). Black men who use violence as a means of control may justify their actions by saying, “that’s how I was raised.” Others have come to believe that it is a cultural artifact among African Americans.

Some men of color have internalized violence based on their interactions (both historical and contemporary) with mainstream society. Enslaved Africans brought to this country as free labor learned quickly that violence by those in charge was a way to control their actions, and even their thoughts of freedom. The seeds sown in this ugly period of American history are paying some disturbing dividends.

We have to think about what kinds of messages boys and men of color receive, at the home, community and society level, about what it means to truly ‘be a man.’ In a nation where they often feel disempowered in the workforce and other venues and have had to face both overt and covert racism, sometimes these men choose negative ways to exert power and control in their ‘castle.’ Harsh discipline of children going back to slavery and into the civil rights movement was seen by some parents as a way of protecting them from the even harsher consequences (including run-ins with the police and even death) of ‘acting out’ in public.

We now need to create reframing strategies that enable prevention and recovery messages to be effective in changing abusive behaviors among some men of color. To do so, messages must be culturally relevant and engage men in a way that is not attacking, shaming or creating more stigmas or negative stereotypes about this population. I have personally witnessed young men internalize and act on messages when they are culturally relevant (and reflect oral communications culture), put in the proper context and provide a clear understanding of the costs-benefits of making a change. Once men are engaged properly (without talking down to or judging them about their current views), they, in turn, will generate the kind of word-of-mouth that creates norms change and stigma reduction within the community at large.

Holding an open and honest dialogue and creating culturally relevant reframing strategies dialogue can encourage males who have exhibited violent behaviors to get treatment. Otherwise, we run the risk of driving domestic violence further underground, as both victims and perpetrators are silenced. Widely disseminating recovery messages at the community level can also serve as prevention for young men who are just starting their own families or engaging in intimate relationships. We can model what healthy parenting behaviors and partner relationships look like.

We must go beyond the hype and understand what men like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson need in their lives in order to react differently in moments of conflict. What’s the recovery or prevention messages men like these could internalize and share with their peers? My goal is to be part of the solution.

We can identify and replicate promising approaches and culturally relevant behavioral-health intervention strategies that can change male behavioral norms in communities of color.