Am I a Black Male Feminist?

Before the summer of 2014, when I was about to enter the eighth grade, I’d never heard of the word “feminism.” It was a topic that was foreign to me. I had been familiar with ideas associated with feminism, yet I had never heard the word for it at all.

A teacher I had that summer and who I wound up having again in high school, was a woman named Ileana Jiménez, who first introduced the term “feminism” to me that summer. She had recently come back from a trip to India and had a lot to share regarding her time there. We got to hear about feminism on a global scale. She also showed us a video that had gone viral that was made by a group of boys who had taken her feminism class the previous year in 2013-14. In the video, they are talking about what it means to be feminist boys:

As a Black, soon to be eighth grade boy, seeing a group of mainly young men of color, both Black and Latino, speak about feminism confused me. I didn’t understand what the correlation was between them and the class. I thought, “Why did they think this had anything to do with them? Feminism is obviously for women.” As they all shared their stories, I felt uncomfortable and wished that the session she was leading would end faster. I felt as though this was all irrelevant to me.

Then, several years later, I found myself in Ileana’s feminism class as a high school senior. Recently, our class had a guest speaker, Tracey Walters, who is a Black feminist professor at Stony Brook and is also a parent of a student in our class. She spoke about the idea of how being silent makes you an agent of the patriarchy. This was one of my most important turning points this fall since it allowed me to understand why feminism is relevant to me. It allowed me to understand when I’m an “agent of the patriarchy” even if I’m not saying anything.

After her visit, I reflected on things I have actually said that would definitely make me an “agent of the patriarchy.” We as men and boys have normalized oppressive language.  Our conversations have become a large part of the violence against women and girls. Many of us don’t realize the toxicity that is attached to our everyday actions, whether that be in our conversations or gestures. Some of the normalized toxic language that I have either said or heard includes:  

  • “I killed”
  • “Her ass is fat”
  • “I murdered her shits”
  • “Pussy don’t got a face”
  • “Pussy is pussy”
  • “I don’t even like her”
  • “I like a little chase”                 
  • “She’s playing hard to get”        

Since the time that we were very young, we have been bathed in the polluted water of this kind of language. This toxic language is something that has been normalized and passed on from generation to generation. Older men speak about women and girls in this way, allowing for younger men and boys to do this as well. 

Evident in the conversations we guys have and the language we use, women and girls have definitely been sexualized and objectified. Phrases such as “her ass is fat” and “pussy is pussy,” strip women and girls of their identity. They show how men have set expectations on what women should look like and be like, regardless of the situation. Men often say things like this out of pure selfishness and disrespect. These phrases are obviously about men and boys receiving pleasure from women and girls. These phrases all deal with the dehumanizing women’s bodies and making it about men’s pleasure. It also makes our interactions with them violent, both on a verbal and physical and even emotional level. We make it seem as though women are only made up of body parts and that their bodies are separated from their minds.

For example, using violent words like “killed” aren’t necessary when talking about sex. This word simply serves the violent purpose of showing dominance. Saying “she’s playing hard to get” implies men’s feelings of entitlement towards women. It also implies that boys and men are supposed to have some kind of superiority complex to which girls and women are expected to willingly accept so that boys’ and men’s desires achieve that dominance. Even if you feel as though you have no direct part in saying words and lines such as these, or if you feel as though your language isn’t toxic, just your silence, as well as your absence in conversations such as these, are also part of the problem.

For a long time, I thought of feminism as just being about women. In any context that I thought about feminism, I thought it was about women’s issues, like equal pay, problems within the workplace, and hating men. I had the privilege to never think about it because I am not a woman, and I was passive in the way that I interacted with feminism. In fact, I didn’t even consider myself as part of the problem. It took me a while to realize that I was a large part of the problem. Many of the things that you may have thought before being exposed to feminist genealogy are similar to my thoughts before starting Ileana’s class.

My thoughts were truly changed when reading an article in class titled “Change Among the Gatekeepers: Men Masculinities and Gender Equality in the Global Arena.” The day that we discussed this reading in class, we had a guest speaker, Joe Samalin, about his opinion on this article. It was at that point in the class when I was truly able to understand what feminism and toxic masculinity were. Samalin helped me understand what being “an agent of the patriarchy” meant before even being introduced to the term a few weeks later by Walters. We spoke about how our everyday language has become a part of the oppression of women. For me to sit and listen to the problematic language I addressed earlier, it makes me “an agent of the patriarchy.” Samalin provided the opportunity for me to be more aware of my wrongdoings, as well as what the next step is. I learned what feminism looks like for a man.

These are some of the boys in my 2018 high school feminism class, including me (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez).

After reading bell hooks’s definition of feminism in class, I felt like I had a lot of self-reflective work to do. She says, “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires,” in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Our sexist and racist patriarchy makes it it so that women, especially women of color, are made to seem less than everyone else. They receive criticism and unfair treatment in all aspects of their identities. hooks’s idea means that you are fighting for the rights of all women, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc. You are not just trying to help one group of women, and you’re not trying to solve one issue, as they are all related. You are trying to work to create a society where there is true justice for liberation for all identities, for ALL women as well as all men.

This feminism class not only taught me about what it means to be a feminist; it taught me how to look into the ways in which I am an “agent of the patriarchy.” I started with not even understanding what feminism meant, but as time went on, I started to examine my use of sexist language. I had to realize that these large problems, such as inequality, start as small situations like normalizing toxic masculinity and sexism amongst men and boys. I’ve been able to start doing the internal work, while also trying to understand the many aspects of feminism, yet the road to being a feminist is far from the end.

 

 

 

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