Saturday, March 27, 2004

Black teen girls don’t get much respect, not even from each other. That’s just one of the startling findings of a recent study of the sex and gender attitudes of low-income black teenagers. It offers new evidence, as if we needed it, to me and to other parents of black teenagers that the standards of “black authenticity” promulgated in hip-hop culture are not only too narrow but downright dangerous.

With funding from the Ford Foundation and the California Endowment, MEE (Motivational Educational Entertainment) Productions Inc., a marketing firm that specializes in the buying patterns of urban youths, conducted a 10-city research study of teens aged 16 to 20 years old.

The study found black urban youth from households earning under $25,000 a year to be remarkably untouched by positive messages from schools, parents, the media and health-care providers about responsible sexual behavior.

But the teens did display attitudes consistent with the cool macho pose of hip-hop rappers. Their mottoes: “Use or be used,” among others, and “Get it while you can.”

And, consistent with a culture that uses “bitches” and “ho’s” as labels for every woman but one’s mama, the study reveals, “Black females are dissed by almost everyone,” including other black females.

Compare, for example the half-dozen slang nouns in the study’s glossary that are used to describe males (“Dog… homeboy… playa… lame… sugar daddy… payload”) with some of the words used by both teen boys and teen girls in the survey to describe women: “skeezer… ‘hood rat… ‘ho… trick… freak… bitch… gold digger… hoochie mama.”

The study of the “hip-hop generation” fails to pin down the big question: Does rap music and other hip-hop culture influence teens or merely mirror the culture that teens already have created? The answer is probably both.

Born since the mid-1980s, today’s teens grew up awash in hip-hop and so did their parents. The sad consequences have been a narrow and distorted view among many black youngsters, among others, of what it means to be black.

It was back in the 1960s, I painfully recall, that “authenticity” began to replace the more generalized “cool” as the standard for acceptable tastes and behavior among black youths. It was a period marked by big Afros, dashikis, bib overalls, jungle combat boots and a propensity for greeting each other with defiantly raised fists. Ah, youth.

Such was the “authentic” look among black college students, of which I was fortunate enough to be one in the late ‘60s. The “authentic black” came to define a person who did not “sell out” to bourgeois middle-class standards, the same values that enabled our families to prepare us for college in the first place.

Even if we aging black Baby Boomers no longer buy that narrow notion of blackness, a lot of our kids and grandkids do. In 1986, Signithia Fordham and the late John Ogbu shocked many with a landmark study of “oppositional cultural identity” in black teens who derogate academic achievement by their peers as “acting white.”

Still, there are signs of hope. Among those who expressed some pretty raunchy attitudes in the MEE study, some also praised certain hip-hop artists as more “positive” and called for more “message” in pop music.

And in another section headlined, “Wish I woulda waited: The secret allure of virgins,” many sexually active youths said sex wasn’t all they had hoped and that they wish they had waited until they were married or at least older.

And many of the young men, in a reflection of times past, in the study still showed significant respect for virginity they would not express outside the group. Girls who don’t “give it up” are males’ top choices for long-term partners.

What is to be done? Pardon my dangling prepositions, but like other generations, today’s youths probably are just looking for someone to look up to and something to believe in.

We, their elders need to provide it. We need not only to reach out and show the world a broader vision of what black culture is all about, but also to reach back and mentor our least-privileged youngsters. They’re not going to learn life’s valuable lessons from CDs alone.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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