Q: You wrote this book because you struggled as a teenager. You describe a turning point when you asked a friend to buy a gun for you, as a way to make your gangster fantasies real. Then you came home from school and cried, knowing you were about to cross a line. You never got the gun. Can you speak a bit about your personal journey?
A: By the time I finished high school, I was in a hole that I had helped dig for myself. I’d chosen the wrong friends. I’d had the wrong influences. I accepted the wrong morals. I was reading propaganda most of the time, journalism that wasn’t based on any pursuit of truth or facts. A lot of it was stuff that extremist or ideological groups would put out to advance their own agendas. And I didn’t have the understanding to distinguish what might be an actual, credible news report from propaganda you could find on YouTube.
Q: Your father was absent for most of your upbringing, and you describe fatherlessness as an important risk factor for youth. How so?
A: When learning the different ways that a man can live in the world, you gain much more insight from having a man at home. You can actually see what it looks like if a man is emotional or upset or has challenges. But when that example doesn’t exist at home, you’re getting a far less complete picture of masculinity. You’re only getting the tough guys on TV or in your neighbourhood. There’s an entire multi-billion-dollar industry, the Hollywood gangster subculture, built on stereotypes and simplistic representations of masculinity, and it influenced people like me growing up. Fatherlessness can also make for far less stability at home, less money, which adds to the challenge.
Q: Race is another major challenge for young men.
A: Growing up, you get stronger, your voice gets deeper. But becoming mature draws suspicion, because now you’re starting to look like people who the police might single out for extra scrutiny. If you start to learn masculinity as something that is inextricably linked to crime, then you’re going to have a frustrating and conflict-prone orientation to the world.
The other thing race does, and I think we are culturally getting deeper into this problem, is it becomes a way for people to divide us. Many extremist groups across the spectrum will tell young men that they know what it means to be authentically part of a race.
Q: What can parents do to help their sons navigate these challenges?
A: You have to be talking to your kid about what’s happening in the world, about what he’s reading on the internet. These are complex issues, and it’s easy to not talk about things like race and equality and politics and immigration. Don’t assume that your kid isn’t old or mature enough to be asking the right questions. You’re probably missing the chance to have an influence on him.
Q: How else can people support a young man in difficulty?
A: Create open channels of communication with the person you’re concerned about. Understand that it might take a really long time for him to be open to what you have to say, and you have to be patient. He might argue with you and call you an idiot for a year, but the minute he needs somebody to talk to, you’re going to want to be there for him.
There are emerging experts in this field, supporting young people who are dealing with extremist groups. There is the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal. They have fantastic tools available online.
Lastly, understand that you as an individual might not have everything you need to support a young person. Keep a diverse community around you and know where to find other role models who could talk to a young person in a different way.
Q: How can the wider community, such as churches, help?
A: There’s a huge need for religious institutions to become more youth-oriented. The success of extremist groups in reaching young people shows that there is a large number of youth who do want a strong moral message, the kind of strength in morality and faith that I think religious communities uniquely can offer.
Q: Thinking back on your own life, from lost teenager to a successful lawyer, professor and author, how do you feel you’ve changed?
A: One of the big differences is that I have a much more complex sense of what it means to be a man. Ten years ago, I had a narrow set of possibilities in my head. I thought there was a very small number of things I could do; there were certain ways that I had to be perceived, certain feelings I couldn’t have. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a better sense of the diversity of masculinity. Sometimes you’re going to be able to be there, as the rock, for your family, and other times, they’re going to need to be that for you.
Q: What would you like your book to do?
A: I thought if I wrote a book that would help me and my mom have better conversations about my life and childhood, it could also help other children and their parents do the same. So my biggest hope is that this book would help parents, teachers, police officers — adults who have young men in their lives — not only to better understand the young men they know, but also to have more empathy for young men in a broader sense.
Q: You were diagnosed this year with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. What new perspective has dealing with this illness given you on your life and your book?
A: My book is partly a look at how young men can find individuality in a world that often trains them to think of life as a competition between identity groups. The importance of finding this individuality and resisting divisive, extremist politics has become even more important to me since I was diagnosed with cancer. I spent a lot of time growing up parroting others’ ideas and being swayed by people who convinced me they knew how to authentically be a man or a black person. I consider myself fortunate to have found my own voice and speak the truth as I see it. I also write in the book about the importance of positive influences and role models and having a strong community around young men. This has become especially important to me since I’ve been sick. My faith community has become vital to my recovery process.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story first appeared in the July/August 2018 of The Observer with the title “Race becomes a way for people to divide us.”