When Black is ‘Crazy’

I have two sons. One is a young adult who has taken the scenic route to college, while carving out a career in art. In this way, he has taken an unconventional path unconventionally. I am not being repetitive here. Not only is he taking a unconventional path- the artist’s path. He has even shaken the few conventions of this path and turned them on their heads.  He has a perspective of the world that is expansive, complicated, and utterly uncomfortable. Fortunately for him and for us (by “us” I mean the world as a whole), he is able to relieve some of the overcrowding in his head by allowing it to spill out onto paper. As his mother, I believe him to be brilliant and gifted and totally beyond me intellectually.

My youngest son is a wonder as well. He is a man-child in that he has lived in a household of adults and teenagers most of his life.  He is all boy — big and heavy boned for his age and a whirlwind of testosterone.  But he has a sensitive core, handed down from his father, filtered through by his older brother, who is 14 years his senior. He too is artistic…and athletic…and insightful…and to our chagrin, hard-headed. He has the maturity of a 10-year-old, the body of a 13-year-old with the vocabulary of a 16-year-old. He has the sensibility of a baby-boy prince with the heavy burden of a family history of achievement bearing down on him. He, too, is a complicated mix of a boy. Both of my sons like to express their opinions strongly like their mother, and they like to push the envelope (every envelope) like their father.
I have seen through the years how society in general, and my community in particular, treat these African-American boys of mine. They look like “regular” black boys (they work at this), but their middle-class affluence shows through. I have seen whole rooms shift when my sons open their mouths and speak. Not because any particularly brilliant words come out. Just because of the ways they come out—the tone and inflection. I have watched my sons change the enunciation and tone of their voices depending on who they are speaking to—black folks or white, hispanic or asian, for that matter. This is not a struggle for them– just what they do.  Yet, I have seen them not quite master the total blend-in anywhere. And I have spent many a sleepless night worrying about how this is affecting their psyches.
Truthfully, I am scared to death that the world will make my boys crazy! I do not mean that the world will drive them crazy. My fear is that others will perceive them as such… and then act on that perception. I just know the chances are very high that instead of being viewed as the wonders that they are—the renaissance men that they should be– my sons may be perceived and treated as if they are suffering from some kind of mental pathology.  Leslie Madsen Brooks talks about this mental illness perception imposed on black men in her post, Psychiatry, Social Unrest and Misdiagnosis.  The central context of her post is a new study  finding that black men are misdiagnosed with schizophrenia five times more than any other group. They are not just misdiagnosed. They are over-diagnosed with the mental disorder with five times the frequency of any other group. Jonathan Metzl, associate professor of Psychiatry and Women’s Studies and Director of University of Michigan’s Culture, Health and Medicine Program has written a book which traces racial-based misdiagnosis back to the civil rights era of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. He notes how the diagnosis of schizophrenia changed during this period to be characterized by violence, anger and aggression as a way to label and justify the sedation, institutionalization and incarceration of black men. Interestingly, according to Metzl, from the 1920s to 1940s, schizophrenia was a common diagnosis for non-violent white individuals – mainly women.  The shift from a benign condition to the disease that schizophrenia is now is a big one, and apparently, all in the name of social control.
As Madsen-Brooks points out in her post, the history of using mental health to categorize and institutionalize black men is far from new. Here’s a mind boggler:

In the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed enslaved blacks who ran away from white enslavers were suffering from a mental illness called drapetomania. This illness, psychiatrists maintained, could be cured by excessive whipping. (here Madsen-Brooks quotes Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s article, Who You calling crazy?.)

We have to admit that a goodly chunk of mental illness is not so much based on physiological or medical conditions, but on social norms and expectations. This realization is not new. But it’s just plain scary in the context of little black boys’ lives. How about in the realm of the current ADD/ADHD phenomenon? It is well established that ADD and ADHD are grossly over-diagnosed and the accompanying medication hugely over-prescribed. Fifty percent of the kids in special education are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Ritalyn is the fifth leading drug in America, after nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. For black boys, the ADHD/ADD conundrum is profoundly alarming. Black children make up 15 percent of the school population and yet they constitute over 30 percent of the children placed in special education. Black boys represent nearly 80 percent of the black kids placed. (Jawanza Kunjufu, 2010)

Surely, these statistics only apply to the inner-city child, right? Surely, we are only talking about schools that are predominantly black and where economic indices are low and parent involvement is nil. Why would my mostly private-schooled, affluent-neighborhood-raised kids be affected?
Yes, it’s true that low-income black boys suffer the most from misdiagnosis.
Yes, it’s true that poor black boys are among the least likely to receive mental health services even though they are the most likely to be referred for mental health services. But black boys as a whole, across the socio-economic spectrum, are suffering at the hands of school and mental health professionals. According to Catherine Tucker of Indiana State University and Andrea L. Dixon of University of Florida, in their Journal of Mental Health Counseling article, Low-Income African American Male Youth with ADHD symptoms in the United States: Recommendations for Clinical Mental Health Counselors:

African American males are overrepresented in most categories of learning, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. They are most severely overrepresented in areas of disability that are descriptive of disruptive and inappropriate behavior at school compared to categories of disability that describe specific learning problems (Colpe, 2000). Although they comprised only 15% of the U.S. population in 2001, African American children were overrepresented in specific learning disabilities (18%), mental retardation(34%) and emotional disturbancecategories (28%) (Office of Special Education Programs, 2005). African American males also make up a majority of the students identified as emotionally disturbed in the U.S. (Colpe) and are far more likely than their Euro American or female peers to be suspended, expelled, or subjected to corporal punishment (National Center for Education Statistics,2001)

In addition, this study says that once a black boy is enrolled in mental health services, their assessments can be greatly affected by bias. According to Miller, Nigg, and Miller (2009) the race of a child affects symptom scores in all of the most popular teacher rating scales for ADHD. (For a discussion of how cultural differences color ADHD assessment, see Race Matters: Disparities in African-American Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
This is not a class issue, it’s a race issue. All black boys are at risk. In a 2006 article, The Truth About Boys and Girls, Sara Mead seeks to dispel the widespread and media-popular myth that all boys are doing poorly in school.  Her focus is really on the comparison between boys and girls, and the misleading notion that schools now prefer girls to boys. She makes a distinction early in her article that boys are doing just fine in their classes, unless they happen to be hispanic, black or poor.
I am sure a lot of middle-class white families were happy about the outcome of the studies showing that their boys are not at all at risk. But we others (the hispanic community, black community and poor folks of every race) are left to wonder, what about us?  What is important about this article is that, for the truly at-risk group of boys, it seeks to put the focus in the proper place—away from gender and on race and class. Mead attempts to dispel the notion that schools prefer girls and their complacent, cooperative, quiet feminine energy. This notion is embraced by many, including me, I must admit. It does feel like teachers and administrators expect that everyone should be behaving like a stereotypic white female child. This is part of the reason, many believe, that Ritalyn, Adderall, et al are prescribed so liberally among all boys.  But as Mead points out, we really can take gender out of the debate and still acknowledge that there is a passive-student preference across the board. In the context of the private-school arena, this is a greater challenge for black boys because there are so few of them in the independent schools, and because  preconceived notions that black boys are bad, violent, belligerent and dangerous sets them up in the school setting even before they utter a word. This is far beyond gender and class.
Just yesterday I had lunch with my younger son’s group of friends at school. He is in the fifth grade and attends a very racially diverse public school which is a magnet for “gifted” kids. I was surrounded by this lively bunch, who represent an even mix of black, white and hispanic boys. I love these lunches! Ten-year-old boys are marvels. They are approaching that dicey middle school age, but they have not yet reached the I’m-too-cool-to-eat-with-my-mother age. They are still very open and very talkative. We spent half of our time talking about girls. Every single boy had a crush on a “female” school mate. The other half of the time we talked about how unfair the teacher treated boys versus girls.
“When Cindy is texting on her phone, Mr. Smith gives her a warning,” said one boy.”But when I am texting or any of us boys, he takes our phones away!” (I changed names to protect the innocent and the not so innocent)
I was so amused by this because I knew it was true. Girls are just better at meeting the passive-student model, and they are given the opportunity and the training. But mostly, they have expectations on their side. They are given the presumption of innocence. But when boys are “bad”, their badness just seems more dangerous, more threatening and less under control. Despite Meads assertions, the collective philosophy among adults in our school seems to be girls that can be warned, but boys must be shut down.  As they talked, I realized that these boys are the very at-risk group we need to worry about. So I told them all, “You are not crazy. I believe you.  Girls often get the benefit of the doubt and you don’t”. We all shake our heads is agreement. They seem to appreciate the validation of their feelings. Then I said, “So put the freaking phones away and pay attention in class!” We all laughed. I had to make this statement lest they forget that I am, after all, a parent! And they have to be reminded they really must continue to try to do their best.
But this was all I could think to say. I don’t have an answer for these little inequities or the big ones or the huge ones. I know I must go to war for them. I must be at school often, advocate for them, get to know the administrators and teachers, and connect with the kids—mine and others. But what do I say to them? All I can think to say to those earnest and budding young men-children is, “You’re not crazy. I believe you. You are right and smart. You are perfect– perfect works in progress. But these presumptions and biases–this unfairness is really how it is. So have a seat and get to work!”

For now, that seems to be enough.



  1. Wow! What a powerful and though-provoking post. As a woman with three younger brothers, a lot of what you said resonated with me. They definitely got the “crazy” school of thought hurled at them from teachers and other adults alike. Your last paragraph is on point! “…get to work” is all we can remind them, because in the end, that's something no one can take away from them. Thanks for the post!

  2. This is amazing. I am the a mother of two boys myself. And I've recently been questioning why I have to repeat directions to my oldest son. “Does he have ADD?” I ask myself. But this article has made me realize that I have been comparing my free spirited, artistic, unconventional son to my mild mannered, unassuming, sit down in class and do her work daughter. I have definately been putting my oldest son in a box. I am not allowing him to flourish. I have been suppressing his beautiful carefree spirit- all because I want him to be obedient. So, for me, I don't have to worry about society making him crazy, because I think I'm to blame. Thank you so much for giving me a new perspective on my parenting. I have some real work to do.

  3. Gina Carroll says:

    You hit on a big parenting challenge. We know what the world demands and we want to prepare our children. We want them to be strong and ready. Sometimes we push them into a box because we want them to have an easier way of it. And we know that their being cooperative and compliant is just easier for everyone. But that is not everyone's way– sitting quietly, being non-questioning and eager to please. And that go-with-the-flow way does not serve everybody well, especially later on.

    My oldest son is old enough for me to look back and be so happy that I did not totally squelch his fire in an effort to just get him through! My younger kids will benefit from this longitudinal prespective of mine, I hope!

    My oldest son read this post and he told me that I left something important out. He said the only way a person can continue to make the personal sacrifices necessary to “get to work” and be successful in a hostile environment is to do what he or she loves. Only then are the risks and the struggles worth it.

    He is so right. So the next time I have lunch with my little one's friends, I will ask them what they love to do and encourage them to cultivate and move towards that thing or those things with purpose. And I am reminded to do the same for all of my children, too– tell them to find what they are in love with and do it, get good at it and let it move them forward.

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