My high school feminism class has touched on many reasons as to why feminism is so necessary for our future. From watching and critiquing films such as India’s Daughter, which taught me about the Delhi gang rape in India, to reading about the exclusion of black women in police brutality cases in the article “Black Girls Matter,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw, this class has taught me how broad the definition of feminism really is. One topic we covered that has really stuck with me is the pressures of masculinity and the surprisingly large role it plays in female oppression.
My high school feminism teacher, Ileana Jiménez, highly recommended that we go to one of the bell hooks talks taking place at The New School during her residency earlier this fall. The day I went, the topic was on black masculinity. As a white female from a privileged background, I was very interested in exploring a topic that was different from my own experience.
bell hooks began by stating that American media has made the black man a figure of danger. She declared at one point, “In our white, supremacist world we do not care about the black man.”
Kevin Powell, who was in conversation with hooks that night, said that in our world, men in general are detached from the “unspoken contributions of women,” and that “men have become unaware of their patriarchy.” Most gang activity, shootings, and murders are perpetrated by men. “What has happened to our men to create this rage?” Powell asked.
In his personal story, Powell continued to describe his mother, asking, “Who can blame a black woman who grew up in the south during the 1940’s?” He went on to say, “I don’t think there is anything more abusive than the world she grew up in.” A cycle of anger and resentment started in a racist world that we are still trying to heal.
hooks nodded her head in agreement, adding that there is a lack of love in the households of black boys. She said that they are pushed into a system that oppresses them. They are given the message that they are not to be loved or give love because that is against “the toxic messages of power” that are fed to boys of color. “We have created a culture that doesn’t care about black boys,” hooks said.
This lack of love has hardened and violated the minds of boys and men of color, making their reality hostile and fragile all at once. Growing up with a lack of fathers creates rage and a lack of positive male role models in each new generation. We have raised men of color to be so tough, we destroy their sense of self. “Self-worth is not a privilege given to these men,” as they have to be “hard and emotionless or they are not a man,” hooks observed. This is what creates rage and violence as young men of color grow up with no other options or ways out. They learn how to survive through the violence that surrounds them.
“Nothing prepared black boys to love themselves,” hooks concluded, saying the only way to calm the rage is to redefine what manhood means.
I was shocked after hearing this talk. This had me thinking of other talks we have had in our feminism class about masculinity and how it contributes to female oppression, not just toxic masculinity.
My mind went to when we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk in class when she speaks about her journey to feminism against the “Nigerian man’s” mentality. Her most powerful set of lines is:
“We do boys a great disservice in how we raise them. We define masculinity in a very narrow way, making it a hard small cage that we put boys into. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, we make them have to be so hard they develop very fragile egos. But we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink to be small; if a girl is more successful than a man she will intimidate him, she will emasculate him.”
Hearing Adichie’s words again put all the pieces together for me: we correlate masculinity with money, power, success, danger, anger, etc. We put an unreasonable pressure on boys to be hard and to fear their emotions, creating the “rage” hooks discussed with Powell. Because of the pressure to be powerfully masculine, men inherently see women as weaker. Girls and women are then raised to “shrink” under boys and men, step out of their way, fear being too successful, and in some cases, fear men.
This realization really made an impact on me because I started to notice many similar behaviors in my everyday life as well. I started to think about why I get scared to walk alone at night, refrain from wearing certain clothes, or why I get nervous to speak up in class at times. I have forced myself to not let these little details go, to really pay attention. I have come to the conclusion that these types of behaviors are ingrained in us without us really even noticing. Sexism is such an easy place to go to because it has become almost a part of our psyche to do so. We are raised into these toxic gender roles from the second we are born.
We need to change what masculinity means to change the opportunities both boys and girls, men and women are given. The destruction of girls’ schools in India and the Middle East are fueled by the belief that women aren’t the ones meant to be powerful or successful. This hyper-masculine mentality is a problem the whole world is facing. Just as both hooks and Adichie said, it starts from the root, and that’s why we need to change the way we raise our children. Only then can we calm the rage.