The Challenges of Reducing Misogynoir in Young Black Men
Julia Martin. The headlines say another victim of intimate partner violence, a Black woman in Chicago killed because she returned her engagement ring. The onus is on her. Actually, Julia was killed because of the guy who stabbed her. The onus is on him. Because he was evil? Perhaps. Or because he was sick? That’s more useful to me, we can do something with that. Julia’s problem wasn’t fatherlessness, residential security or provocative dress. There was no prior history. But this didn’t happen out of nowhere, something always causes something else. The killer’s family said he suffered from mental illness, he probably didn’t have a therapist. If the goal is prevention then how do we create men that despite rejection, depression and oppression would never hurt a woman? (And why yall let me call him “the killer”? Is he not more than one terrible thing he did? We lost him too. His teenage daughter is now without a father.)
Domestic violence and rape culture are man problems. Self defense classes, candlelight vigils, 2k awareness walks, and sister circles are valuable but won’t fix the problem. We have to raise men that know and do better. I wrote a book that teaches men to value women as a function of authentic manhood, but that didn’t stop Rodney from stabbing Julia to death. I get invited often to talk to boys about healthy masculinity and the conversations always attempt to remove some of the poisons patriarchy puts in our brains about how to relate to women in ways that encourages disrespect and violence. The book is called Lady’s Man, which means I belong to my mother. I am that lady’s man. I owe her my everything, and those obligations extend to my blood sisters and then to Black women and women in general. Further, I teach that honoring women is about valuing the very principle of life itself. It real deep, but it’s not enough.
I can tell when I’m not getting through to a boy. I pay a lot of attention to the resistance, the counter arguments and justifications. Sure lots of boys come up to me after I speak with gratitude and new perspectives and it’s important to plant seeds for someone else to water. Adults usually love my messages. But being correct isn’t enough. I always want to challenge myself to be more effective. Because those boys that walk away thinking “that was some bullshit” are more likely to do harm to women later.
Here are some of the specific challenges I’ve come across in doing this work. I wanted to do some thinking out loud about them, and invite others that care to share ideas about best practices or additional tools and perspectives to help us all be more effective:
Boys think girls like it
It’s their first line of defense. “But they like when I talk to them like that.” They see aggression as equal to manliness. “Don’t no girl want no soft nigga.” Before you start casting him out, before calling him all kinds of sexist patriarchal hotep misogynists, remember that he is a kid. Picture him 12. A student in a world where YOU don’t know when someone introduced the idea of a “love tap”. You can’t remember the moment you learned that concept, you just somehow know that sometimes on a playground when a boy hits a girl it means that he likes her.
Those girls that supposedly like it aren’t usually in the room, so it’s an impossible argument. Instead I try to explore the concept of “like”. How to distinguish between what someone likes and what they’re accustomed to? It’s natural to desire intimacy. What girls really like is closeness, attention, interaction, same stuff we all like. We need these things so much that we can convince ourselves that some mild mistreatment is worth enduring.
Corporate hip-hop has been abusing women for decades. On occasion quite literally like Dr. Dre, but otherwise through lyrics. For women fans it raises the question of liking it or being accustomed to it. Women’s praise of the problematic artists make my work really hard. After spending an hour breaking down the misogynoir in the lyrics to a Future and The Weekend song I look like an idiot when a boy says “but that’s my big sister’s favorite song.”
2. "Some women deserve it"
Men aren’t good at accountability. I’ve spent some time working in men and women’s prisons. From my experiences the women had an easier time talking about what they did that led to imprisonment. All the men were innocent. Another way to say it is men aren’t good at owning up to our own stuff. Hmm Black men aren’t good at ownership. Perhaps one of the gendered symptoms of Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome is an adaptive avoidance of accepting responsibility in a society structured to keep us from success opportunities that cultivate the capacity to do what we’re simultaneously taught a man is supposed to do: protect and provide for his family. (I almost deleted this paragraph for fear or “mansplaining”, but that’s part of the challenge too, discerning understanding vs. explaining).
“The women that act like bitches and hoes deserve to be treated as such.” Then what does that look like? What are those specific behaviors? The adults that facilitate usually go right to exposing the obvious double standards behind what qualifies a man/woman to be considered a ho. There are lots of clever ways to do that, I don’t feel like they make much a difference. For what it’s worth, I get the most aha’s when paralleling the treatment they think they deserve from the police based on their language or dress. All boys agree then that every individual deserves to be treated like a human.
The other response I hear adults lean on for this conversation is “you don’t know what a girl has been through”. The underlying message is that promiscuous girl must have been molested or neglected. Boys can enjoy lots of sex on its own merit, but for girls to enjoy it they must’ve experienced harm. Some of that is shifting with an increasing embrace of the power of women’s sexuality and centering her pleasure. Sometimes it happens by proudly claiming “slut walks” and denouncing “slut shaming”. But we’re still calling them sluts. I guess it’s like repurposing the word “nigger”. The challenges with that, that I don’t have solutions for are: 1) there is yet clear developmental analysis applied to the women’s sexual freedom movement –at what age do we begin to encourage a girl to embrace her inner slut? (that was difficult to type), 2) how do we counterbalance a media propaganda machine that produces an oversaturation of sexual images that risk reinforcing the idea for some women that their bodies are their most valuable asset – how do we teach them they are better than that but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex in the right context?
My favorite response to “she deserves it” came to me while walking down the street in New York this summer. I accidentally dropped the plastic wrapper to some banana bread I was eating and my first thought was “leave it, there’s garbage everywhere on these streets”. My second thought was “but that’s not who I am, regardless of where I am or what’s happening around me.” We have to teach boys that to be a man includes having integrity -- who you are is not dictated by your environment or the type of treatment you think people will allow. It doesn’t matter what you think a woman likes and you don’t get to decide what she deserves. Her reputation doesn’t matter, what she offers doesn’t matter. You decide what you’re gonna do, how you engage with her, and that is what determines your character and values.
3. We get distracted by language
I like to ask for a show of hands from boys that really love women. Hands always fly up. Then after going over some stats, decoding some rap lyrics, and listening to them share some of their ideas about women, I introduce the word misogyny. “Women believe yall HATE them, and a lot of what yall been saying does sound more like hate than love.” It’s a good conversation but it’s not completely honest. I’m not sure most men actually hate women. I think some fear women, many desire to use or control women. Race literature has evolved to a place where there’s pretty good consensus that Black people can’t be racist because we don’t have enough institutional power, but we can still discriminate. That understanding hasn’t extended to gender analysis. Black men didn’t create and aren’t in a position to significantly impact American structures that perpetuate hierarchical power dynamics. But I rarely hear anyone say “Black men can be sexist but can’t be patriarchal” or something that acknowledges the power intersection.
More importantly, none of these words mean much to the boys. The millennial and blogger men use all the vogue lingo, it seems more to distinguish themselves rather than to connect with other men who could benefit from their perspectives. I live work and play in the intersection of lots of different types of Black folk. I’ve learned to be savvy enough with my language (and my silence) to not compromise too many of my positions when I engage with either the academics, community scholars, millennials, new activists, old activists, and a variety of different types of African centered communities. My friend circle holds a wide range of views on Nate Parker, polygamy, homosexuality, and gender roles. I am personally committed to working towards a world where women are safe, fairly compensated, honored and free. The race parallel breaks down here because white people still have to cross a barrier to align with Black Lives Matter. But when I say I want women to be well I think of my sisters first, there’s no barrier between us, I want them to be well more than myself. But it can be difficult for a feminist to believe we in the same fight because we don’t use the same language to describe what is mostly shared vision. I appreciate the value of men identifying as feminists, but I also go in lots of rooms where claiming feminist causes distrust and impedes growth. I wonder if we’d be better off focusing on what we all want than fighting over what to call it.
4. Using sisters, daughters or punishment to humanize all women
It works sometimes, but it misses the point more often. We say “what if it was your sister, cousin, auntie, daughter…would you call yo mama a bitch?” But that line of questioning doesn’t really get at the cognitive dissonance men use to sort the values categories of women in our head. It does more to prompt a social performance bravado. Men get angry at someone disrespecting their girlfriend, mother or sister because it’s a shot at the guy’s ego. Defending her then is still about him. He’s still trying to protect his own image of manhood.
Most of the boys I meet have never had a conversation about consent. Some seem to not have ever considered the influence of drugs and alcohol on consent. There’s couple songs I use with lyrics that talk about getting a girl drunk and high then running a train. It’s a very rare boy that hears that and thinks rape. “Um that’s totally rape and you can go to prison for that.” I hate saying it, but it snaps some boys to attention so quick that it’s hard to avoid. The problem is the threat of punishment should not be the reason you treat someone like a human.
5. Conversations too infrequent, not cool enough and don’t make time for grey area
The machinery of toxic masculinity is so much more organized and funded than the few men I come across that do this work. I can have a brilliant conversation for 2 hours, lights bells and whistles, but as soon it’s done he puts his headphones back on, and there’s a 90% chance what he’s listening to swiftly unravels whatever I just said. Healthy messages about masculinity have to come often, from men close and respected, and from sources that are deemed cool. If these conversations aren’t had on a regular basis, worse than me coming off lame, I come off as special.
Many young men avoid the work because we teach too much on the extremes. We still have images of those monster men that violate a woman violently or leave bruises. As long as we don’t do that and show disgust at the men that do, we think it saves us, it lets us claim good guy. But there’s so much more problematic behavior in between Ike Turner and... (oh wow I can’t even think of a popular example of a guy at the other end of this spectrum, someone highly regarded as a champion for women). The work isn’t figuring out the right feminist language to copy paste into our blog, the work is the honest constant self interrogation that happens in our private journals. Patriarchy works like racism, in the same way no white person can be immune, all men have to constantly check in to our brains to look for internalized sexism. Privilege is maintained by obliviousness. The work of men is a constant unlearning, listening and revising. We have to all do it individually and come together to share our processes with others so other young men have a guide. Some of the challenges in this essay get in the way of that work, but we Black folk, in America, we can handle obstacles.
*If you're in Chicago, we're having this conversation live tonight, Thursday, 10/20, at 6:30pm at 10340 S. Western. More here.