By Justin Sink
The notion that black men need to act, dress or speak in a certain way to be “authentic” is something that "has to go," President Obama said Monday at an event promoting his initiative to aid young men of color.
"The notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, … that has to go, because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African-American men to be authentic," Obama said.
"You don’t have to act a certain way to be authentic," Obama added. "You just have to be who you are and to go back to the values that you care about. Are you kind? Are you responsible? Do you work hard?"
He pointed to the first lady, noting his wife had grown up on the South Side of Chicago in "a neighborhood where gunshots go off."
"It can be rough where Michelle grew up, but she’ll talk proper when she needs to," Obama said. "You also don’t want to get on her wrong side because she can translate that into a different vernacular."
The president added that, unfortunately, black men were sometimes only presented NBA players and rappers as role models, and he hoped his initiative could show them how they could succeed in careers like graphic design, engineering or law.
"Part of the goal of My Brother’s Keeper is to expose you to more things so that you don’t think that the only thing you can be passionate about is what you’re seeing on TV," Obama said.
And the president said it was important to both know one's own culture and "be a part of this larger world."
"There’s some cultures, frankly, who have done this better than others," Obama said, pointing to Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans, who had retained a sense of their histories but also demonstrated academic accomplishments.
"I think this is something that we have to spend some time thinking about, making sure that we understand there’s a way of knowing your history, knowing your culture, being proud of it, using it as a strength but not thinking that there is just one way of you then having to act," Obama said.
The president made the remarks during a town-hall discussion to promote his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which is designed to provide a boost to young men of color through mentoring programs and academic aid.
On Monday, Obama announced that the NBA, in coordination with its players association, will launch a five-year effort designed to connect 25,000 mentors with young men of color. The league will work with at-risk students to improve attendance and performance at schools, and current and former players will participate in after school workshops designed to help vulnerable children. NBA Players Association President and Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul joined Obama at the event.
Separately, AT&T announced it would pledge $18 million this year to support mentoring programs. And the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit organization founded by the widow of Steve Jobs, has committed $50 million for a competition to find and develop the designs for next-generation high schools.
"I always say that I see myself in the young men who are coming up now," Obama said. "When I was in my teens, I didn’t have a father in the house. It took me a while to realize that I was angry about that.”
The president said he grew up in "a pretty forgiving environment," unlike some young men today.
"Some of the costs of making mistakes, they weren’t deadly," Obama said. "I wasn’t going to end up shot. I wasn’t going to end up in jail."