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Raising-Hands While Black (RHWB): An African American Man’s Cautionary Tale

by Fred Bonner - December 05, 2014

Raising Hands While Black(RHWB): An African American Man's Cautionary Tale explores the concept of what raised hands represent for men of color and how this representation is often scripted in schools and society from a deficit perspective.

As an African American man who was born and raised in the South, I have spent much of my professional career working in an array of different institutions in the South, Midwest, and East Coast. What my experiences living in these different geographic regions of the country has taught me is that the old adage “Wherever you go, there you are” has a very profound yet slightly different connotation when applied to the Black male experience in America. The intended meaning of this axiom, at least as it has been explained to me, is that one can never separate the “self” from oneself. Notwithstanding figurative or literal location, all of the self is always present; however, I have discovered that both the intended and perceived meaning of this adage given the emic perspective as a man of color must be problematized based on the nuanced ways in which I am and other Black men are engaged and positioned in U.S. society, particularly within its power structure (Kendall, 2002).

Subsequent to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, I have found intriguing not only the discourse surrounding this tragic event, but also the symbols and symbolism that people have selected as visible representations of their feelings about the case. One symbol in particular that caught my eye was the photograph that my fraternity brother uploaded as his Facebook profile picture. The image was of what appeared to be a male figure with his hands raised above his head. In light of what was going on at the time in Ferguson as well as the numerous cases of a similar hue that had also made national attention, I found his choice of iconic representation fascinating.

According to Josh Harkinson’s article titled 4 Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police in the Last Month in the August 13, 2014 online edition of Mother Jones, four Black men, all unarmed had been killed by police in diverse regions of the country all within the span of one month: Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford in Ohio, Dante Parker in California, and Ezell Ford in California. Thus, when I received the message stating, “Roger has changed his Facebook profile” I immediately clicked on the link that took me to his newly implemented picture. On first glance I thought, “What a powerful image depicting a male, from my perspective a Black male, raising his hands in a posture implying surrender and in this scenario ostensibly to the police.” Also, knowing the politically conscious mindset of my fraternity brother, I knew that this profile change signified his “hat being thrown into the ring” in the conversations that were taking place within discourse communities embroiled in dialogue about the status of Black males in the country. Just as quickly as I settled on what I perceived to be the photo’s intended meaning, I shifted my gaze and retreated from solely focusing on the dyadic relationships that existed between Black men and the police, but also considered some of the other relationships that Black men maintained with entities in other contexts. For instance, as an educator, I thought of the settings across the P-20 education pipeline in which I have over the years practiced my craft.

Thus, the quintessential question is, what does it mean when a Black man raises his hand? In society, particularly in instances like the situations mentioned above involving these men and the police, one would assume the conventional meaning affixed to raised hands denotes “surrender;” however, does it engender this meaning when the raised hands are connected to arms that are affixed to a body that is both Black and male? In school Black men are attempting to command some sense of agency in an enclave that for all intents and purposes has made them feel at best disruptive and at worst unwelcome (Bonner, 2014). In this setting, a raised hand typically signifies both a call for attention as well as compliance with classroom authority and an understanding of the rules of engagement. Yet is this the meaning that is mapped onto this individual? Is it the same experience where the message that we attach to Black men with raised hands in societal settings also gets lost in translation? In the classroom setting does the raised hand elicit perceptions of being compliant, intellectual, and savvy or does it evoke the perception of being corrupted, ignorant, and savage? Unless we are willing to wrestle with these disparities in our perceptions and thoughts, the outcome of our actions will continue to reflect our distorted subconscious views of the raised Black hand, and in turn the response will continue to get these Black men shot instead of arriving at a solution.


Bonner, F. (2014). Building on resilience: Models and frameworks of Black male success across the P-20 pipeline. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Harkinson, J. (2014). 4 Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police in the Last Month. (2014). Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/3-unarmed-black-african-american-men-killed-police

Kendall, D. (2002). The power of good deeds: Privileged women and the social reproduction of class. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17774, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:09:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Fred Bonner
    E-mail Author
    FRED A. BONNER, II is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Chair in Education at Rutgers: The State University of New Jersey. In January 2015 he will assume ta new role as Endowed Chair in Educational Leadership in the Whitlowe R. Green College of Education at Prairie View A&M University. Bonner formerly served as Associate Dean of Faculties and Professor oh Higher Education Administration at Texas A&M University—College Station. He was an ACE Fellow (2005-2006) in the Office of the President at Old Dominion University. His publications include articles and book chapters on academically gifted African American male college students, teaching in the multicultural college classroom, and diversity issues in student affairs. Fred has recently completed an edited volume with Stylus Publishing titled, Building on Resilience: Models and Frameworks of Black Male Success Across the P-20 Pipeline.
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