A Call to Men
Some years ago, a Black woman approached me after I finished giving a speech. In the speech, I said women don’t need protection; they just need men to behave and protection will take care of itself. This was a catchy phrase I had heard over the years and it made sense to me. What I was not aware of was that it was a phrase that worked best for White women. It was a phrase rooted in White feminist perspectives. The Black woman shared how she felt that women like her did need protecting — that there were too many dynamics working against them, too many threats to their very existence. That woman made a lasting impression on me and has influenced my work at A CALL TO MEN a violence prevention organization and respected leader on issues of manhood, male socialization and its intersection with violence, and preventing violence against all women and girls.
I see now what the woman was communicating. In everyday interactions — in communities, in systems, in health care, in society and in social movements like #MeToo — issues of race, class and other forms of group oppression are always at play.
The Pew Research Center found that between October 2017 and October 2018, the #MeToo hashtag was used more than 19 million times on Twitter. That’s an average of 55,319 times each day. It was used 609,000 times immediately after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tell their stories. The day with the most mentions was Sept. 9, 2018, when Les Moonves resigned as CBS president. And according to a report by Bloomberg News, the campaign received another significant uptick during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. These spikes in our collective discourse have one thing in common: They were driven by news about White women who had been victimized.
Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement more than a decade ago to draw attention to the sexual abuse experiences of women and girls of color. Were we listening? Where was our collective outrage? Were we dismissive of the abuse that Black women have endured? The outcry that followed the groundbreaking Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which shed light on the decades-long rumors of the R&B singer’s alleged sexual, mental and physical abuse of underage girls and Black women, tells me that we have been dismissive. It is apparent that while we acknowledged their trauma, our desire to protect Black men from yet another injustice continues to put Black women and girls tragically at risk. We live in a society that places very little value on the experience of Black women and girls — a society where Black women have never had dominion over their own bodies. To put it simply: Where our value lessens, the violence increases.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black women disproportionately experience violence at home, school, at work and in their communities. They face higher rates of domestic violence, rape and homicide. Institutionalized racism compounds their experience. They are punished more often in school, have more contact with the criminal justice system, and are subjected to higher rates of racial profiling and police brutality than their White counterparts.
If we try to rationalize that we are not dismissive of the experiences of Black women and girls, we must also ask: Are we equally outraged over the abuse of Black women and girls as we are over the abuse of other women and girls, particularly White women and girls?
It’s easy to justify that dominant culture has usurped the #MeToo movement and that our collective outrage is bigger, bolder and louder when victims look a certain way.
The women who accused R. Kelly of abuse were invisible and unheard. Until now.
How can we make sure that Black women and girls are seen, heard, honored and respected? My invitation is to men — and specifically Black men — to shift the burden from Black women and be intentional in creating a culture of respect, equity and value for ALL women and girls. What would it look like for men, specifically Black men, to say, “This is our burden to bear; the work is on us”? Understand Your Socialization Men, we have been socialized to view women as less than. The messages that media and culture bombard us with tell us that women have less value than men, that they are the property of men and they are sexual objects for men. Some of us may not believe this, but it’s what we have been taught and it’s likely what we have unintentionally taught others by laughing at a sexist joke or remaining silent when a friend or co-worker commented on a woman’s body. We need to raise our consciousness about our collective socialization so that we can think critically about how we might be reinforcing or passing on these harmful beliefs and so we can challenge them in other men. Break Out of the Man Box Man Box teachings still prevail. Recent research found that boys still feel that the Man Box dictates how they should think, act and feel. The New York Times pointed to a survey commissioned by Plan International USA, an organization for children’s rights and girls’ equality. The survey researchers asked boys what does society expect of them when they feel angry. The boys said “they were supposed to be aggressive or be quiet and suck it up. When they felt sad or scared, they felt pressure to hide those feelings.” This is a trap. The Man Box polices men, demanding adherence to its teachings, and condemning anyone who falls short. The teachings of the Man Box not only lay the foundation for violence and discrimination against women and girls to persist, but it shortens men’s life spans and increases our suicide rate. The American Psychological Association recently released first-ever guidelines for addressing toxic masculinity. The guidelines were based on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly. Develop an Intersectional Lens If the Man Box teaches that women have less value than men, the inescapable social constructs that we live in compound that equation for women who face multiple forms of oppression, leaving them valued even less. We should intentionally look to those “at the margins of the margins” to articulate their own lived experience and help define solutions that will be effective in their lives. When we center our attention and efforts on women “at the margins of the margins,” it’s our belief that all women will benefit. This philosophy holds true for any anti-oppression work, whether it be sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism or ageism. But before we can center the experiences of women, we have to listen to them and believe them. This takes effort and practice. The voices of women are so frequently dismissed that often, we don’t even notice. Embrace and Promote a Healthy Manhood Embracing and promoting a healthy manhood will prevent all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls, and improve the physical health and emotional well-being for men and boys. As men, we must commit to live by the principles of healthy manhood — show emotions other than anger, don’t feel like you always have to be in control, ask for help if you need it, and invest in the lives of young boys and girls.
Until we men intentionally confront our historic and complicated relationship with privilege and race, we cannot create a community — and culture — that equally values Black women and girls. — Tony Porter is the CEO of A CALL TO MEN, which works with professional sports leagues, the United States military, the Department of Justice, the United Nations, corporations and colleges across the nation. Follow us @acalltomen.