'Cool pose' insulates young blacks from reality, study finds Social scientists say aloof swagger shows control, masks internal rage.

April 22, 1992|By New York News Service

The aloof swagger and studied unflappability projected by young black men from inner-city urban areas is a "cool pose," a bit of posturing that insulates them from an otherwise overwhelming social reality, a new report holds.

While the cool pose is often misread by teachers, principals and police officers as an attitude of defiance, psychologists who have studied it say it is a way for black youths to maintain a sense of integrity and suppress rage at being blocked from usual routes to esteem and success.

Indeed, black inner-city youths are so besieged that they seem "an endangered species," in the words of Dr. Richard Majors, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, who has written on the cool pose.

Mr. Majors is at the forefront of a movement of black social scientists who are seeking ways to understand inner-city youths better and to marshal the strengths of the black middle class to help these troubled young people survive.

Mr. Majors' book "Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America," written with Dr. Janet Mancini Billson, an executive officer at the American Sociological Association in Washington, is part of the most recent wave of research on black urban youth.

The book, published this month by Lexington Press, is based largely on intensive interviews by Mr. Majors and on a six-year study of 60 black teen-agers in Boston, conducted by researchers, including Ms. Billson, at the Harvard School of Education.

The cool pose is a set of language, mannerisms, gestures and movements that "exaggerate or ritualize masculinity," Mr. Majors zTC said. "The essence of cool is to appear in control, whether through a fearless style of walking, an aloof facial expression, the clothes you wear, a haircut, your gestures or the way you talk. The cool pose shows the dominant culture that you are strong and proud, despite your status in American society."

Flashy or provocative clothes are part of the cool pose. An unbuckled belt, expensive sneakers and thick gold chains, for example, are part of the cool look.

Some elements of the cool pose have been analyzed in terms of kinesics, the subtleties of body movements. One is a distinctive swaggering gait, almost a walking dance, which can include tilting the head to one side while one arm swings to the side with the hand slightly cupped while the other hand hangs to the side or is in the pocket.

Other aspects of cool pose are now widely imitated in white culture, according to Mr. Majors's book. These include rap and the elaborate handshakes, like the high-five popularized by athletes.

The cool pose is by no means found among the majority of black men but is particularly common among inner-city black youths as a tactic for psychological survival to cope with such rejections as storekeepers who refuse to buzz them into a locked shop.

For a young black man whose prospects in life are poor at best, the cool pose is empowering, Mr. Majors said. "He can appear competent and in control in the face of adversity," he said. "It may be his only source of dignity and worth, a mask that hides the sting of failure and frustration."

The cool pose appeals, too, as a sign of manliness. "Lots of inner-city black boys live in a world with few men around," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. "They are struggling to find ways to be a man. Adopting the cool pose is a way to show their maleness."

Dr. Robert Staples, a professor of sociology at the University of California's medical school in San Francisco, said: "Much of cool pose is ritualistic imitation of peers. If you're not seen as cool, you're an outsider. It's a way to be included."

But the cool pose has its negative side. "Though it's a source of pride and identity, the cool pose is dysfunctional in some ways," Ms. Billson said. "It also means you may not be able to back down from a fight or apologize to your girlfriend when you've done something hurtful."

Another drawback of the cool pose is that it is often misread by whites. A 1990 article in the journal Black Issues in Higher Education by Ed Wiley 3rd, its assistant managing editor, described how white teachers and principals interpret the cool pose as aggressive or intimidating.

It suggests that this cultural misinterpretation is one reason black boys are suspended more frequently and for longer periods of time, and are more likely to be assigned to remedial classes.

"What black males see as cool, as being suave and debonair, can be read by whites as signifying irresponsibility, shiftlessness or unconcern," Mr. Majors said.

The unflappable mask donned with the cool pose often becomes a psychological reality, with young black men unable to let down their emotional guard even with those closest to them.

That stance, Mr. Majors said, means "some black males have difficulty disclosing their deepest feelings even to their best friends and girlfriends."

Mr. Majors cautions that the theory is not meant as the whole explanation for the behavior of black men but is just one of many insights needed to understand their problems better.

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