Reading Time: 3 minutes
"On Boyhood" originally appeared in Issue 13 of Tahoma Literary Review.
What struck me about this essay were its questions and how much they matter. Wabuke reaches out from her quest to raise a family in the wake of these times, in which violence along cultural, racial, and gender lines is so pronounced. This essay was written well before Covid-19 brought further turmoil into the equation. Wabuke's questions, and the answers she seeks, are more important than ever.
How do we move past this? Share your thoughts over at our Facebook page, or reach out to us on Twitter. Look for Wabuke's memoir Please Don't Kill My Black Son, Please, which recently sold to Vantage.
Last winter, when my four-year-old baby boy and his classmates were making castles at his preschool, my son was asked by his preschool teacher if he wanted to be a prince or a knight. I remember how my son looked down at his favorite pink socks, and shook his head silently—his opening prelude to tears; how I rephrased the question to him: “Do you want to be a princess, a prince, or a knight?” How he brightened, seized a dress, and shouted “Princess!”
What do you do when other people who interact with your child enforce gender norms and gender binaries that your child does not believe in?
How would you reinforce your child’s belief in his choices to remain true to himself and explore his identity while he is being taught he must choose to be a boy and only like stereotypical boy things—and your child is quite sad about it and cries that he is not supposed to like pink because he has learned it is a “girl color?” and various other things in that vein?
These are the things of language and identity; these things matter.
The dangers here are the assumptions and gender stereotypes that give the young boy child only those two aggressively masculine choices the preschool teacher offered, and put it on the young boy child to be assertive—to articulate that there are other choices all by himself; at the same time the young boy child is also learning that the other options he may want are not seen as a “natural” option for him.
So my little boy has begun to think he can’t be the princess, that he can’t like pink, which he never thought before starting preschool. It makes him sad.
And there are other things too: how, when the teachers do identity charts—there is a chart for everyone’s height, or how many languages everyone knows, for example—the gender chart is still divided up into just “boy” or “girl.” A row of blue stick figures in pants; a row of pink stick figure girls in pink dresses.
I thought we were past this.
My son does not identify as trans at this time, but he always says, “I am a boy and a girl.” That everyone is both boy and girl; that girls can do everything boys can, and vice versa. He sees people, equal and able to express themselves however they see fit; not gender, unequal. There are no preconceived notions that limit his expression of self.
I am stunned that there are no other options in the preschool’s mind; still only two gender binaries. Still, only, those two colors.
I wonder at the usefulness of stressing this gender difference and opposition as a learning or identity-building tool at this age, in our society. I am concerned at the continual repetition of gender stereotypes in play, activity, learning, attitude, and environment. I am concerned how this creates unequal gender hierarchies and lays the way for future intolerance, disrespect, and violence against the gender(s) that are erased or deemed less than. I am concerned that I do not see other parents being concerned about this.
I am concerned that there is no space for non-binary and gender-fluid children, or for children who are just naturally, organically, doing the work we adults so desperately need to do and trip so disastrously over: creating space to redefine gender and gender roles beyond toxic stereotypes to make a safer space for all genders.
We all know and say that we need to teach and empower our sons, not just our daughters, to speak up and be feminists.We all say we want to end toxic masculinity, rape, and coercive cultures. But then we see little boys being pushed into boxes. Starting in preschool, they are shamed for liking pink. Or they’re given the limited choice to be a prince or a knight with a weapon—not a dancing princess in a dress, which the little boy really wants to be that day. Around me is the constant roar of the grown men, shooting and harassing and assaulting, and I am thinking it begins here now with the cutting away, the shaming, of something precious and lovely in the little boy. In its place? The reinforcement, over and over, of accepted stereotypes of masculinity as something violent and aggressive.
Let’s move past this. Let’s allow young boys their full range of humanity so they can exhibit healthy rather than toxic masculinity; so they can be the boys they want to be; so they can become the kind of men they want to be.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Wabuke had this to say about "On Boyhood":
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, in order to change the world and create gender equality, it begins with teaching children to be more fluid and open about gender roles. Part of being the parent of a Black child is modeling for that child how to stand up for themselves when they experience racism. But when the school continued to allow another student to repeatedly bully my son and the staff threw away his needed inhaler, I withdrew my son from the Ruth Staples preschool. I saw that racism and fossilized ideas towards gender—a disregard for the humanity of the child in those areas—developed into a disregard for the safety and humanity of the child in all areas of life. I wrote this short essay about the gender aspect, as I continue to think through the larger questions of racism and child endangerment in a separate, longer essay.
Hope Wabuke, the author of the poetry collections Movement No.1: Trains and The Leaving, is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Poetry and an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.