When I say I lost my best friend, the censoring, judgmental part of my brain wants to jump – He couldn’t have been your best friend; he was just a … – before I cut it off. I don’t want to hear those words. I can’t hear those words.
I’m what society labels an introvert (I only play an extrovert at work!) and with that, I take pleasure – a great deal of pleasure, in fact! – in just being. Not the art of talking and finding the right set of words, to go along with another right set of words, to encapsulate that thought or feeling; yet, only rarely truly describing that thought or feeling.
That I can just be, without the requisite of conversation, is more than simply content; it is bliss. How I would prefer to spend each moment of this experience called life. Taking in the canary yellow, emerald green, and fiery auburn hues of the leaves painted across the landscape of my suburban world. Or the chill of autumn that attaches itself to your bones, leaving you wishing you had worn a heavier jacket on the morning commute, when the weather has begun its descent from summer to fall. Or the oddly-refreshing sound of lawnmowers and blowers, trimming blades of grass, whisking leaves into never-neat-enough piles. By nature, I prefer to just be…and let the conversation, if we must or ought to have one, come later; well after my senses have absorbed my surroundings. That is where I find my boy.
He looked at me with his eyes, and I could not – still I cannot – decipher or detect what he wanted to convey. Was it, oh geez…I’m embarrassed. Or, was it, simply, fuuuuck. Was it, help. Me. Or, was it, it’s time.
It could not have been the latter; I’ll never accept that it was the latter. He wasn’t one to give up.
During home renovation projects, I remember contractors joking that he would bark from the time they arrived, until the time they left. No, he did not simply give up. And I, as his leader, failed him because I did not keep that same promise. I gave up on him, like just another animal here to sooth my time, or my ego, or my sense of doing something noble in the world. Not once did I consider, what if he beats this? What would 3 more months of life mean to him? What would it mean to me? How much is 3 more months of life even worth?
Instead, I agonized over the pain he would suffer. Middle of the night trips to the bathroom. Diarrhea we could only hope to have cleaned well enough. Vomiting. Inability to climb stairs. His back legs going. No appetite, no bark, no tail wagging. All pouring into the pot of my stew brain, until the raunchy aroma forced me to consider: Was it time? No, it couldn’t have been time. I do not, cannot accept that it was time.
He liked to nap by our rear slider, when sun rays beamed through the glass door, filling the family room with warmth. Sometimes I would lay next to him, and just when he finished repositioning himself, I would snuggle my nose in the thick fur of his neck while trying not to disturb him, but selfishly knowing I already had. I would kiss his floppy ear, and whisper, you will always be the boy.
What is time? Our humanly way of measuring when we ought to stop, then go. In what instance is one thing just; when, in another instance, it is not. Time only has the meaning we place on it.
Surely, I would have slept on the couch, just to be near him, spent one more moment of time to be with him, until he could not move. Would not move. Did not move. I would have cleaned my house, and then cleaned it once more, if it meant picking up after him; for, at least he’d still be here.
And here is what he ought be. Next to me; rather, me next to him. Not giving up. For, he didn’t give up on me.
There was no pressure. The decision was mine to make. And I made the wrong one. For my boy. Who is at peace now. But peace from what? A bad day? A flare up? A stress-induced car ride, followed by a stress-induced visit inside a brick building where he got poked and prodded and taken away; brought back after being poked and prodded? I made that decision. Me. I decided it was his time as though I was bestowed Godly powers. But how can one play God, with an already-perfect companion? So, it hurts that I was the one who got to decide it was time. And now time is the one thing I cannot get back. Get enough of. Wish I had again. To be with him. My boy.
You don’t get to tell me he was just a dog. His love was uncompromised and unabashed and unparalleled and un, yes, unconventional at times – like that one time, that is funny now, when he climbed his paws on the kitchen table and ate part of my son’s birthday cake, which my wife spent hours baking for our son’s upcoming birthday party; or the time he ate the sweet potato pie my mother baked for me, my one semblance of Thanksgiving during the year we had dinner at my in-law’s. Hysterical now. blasphemous then! =)
More than anything, his love was unconditional. A state to which I will spend the rest of my life aspiring. That, bad day or not, I will great you with the love and enthusiasm and affection as if you were gone for a lifetime. That thing I did the night before that had you irate was a lifetime ago. The only moment that matters is the one we are in, now. That day we spent hiking was perfect and we ought to have more just like it. And I sit here, wanting for time, wishing I could be a little less like me, and a little more like him.
Before leaving for work each day, I would give him with a treat, and as he chomped the doggie biscuit, I would scratch his neck and kiss him on the head. I’d tell him, bye boy, assured that his tail-wagging greeting would be waiting for me, just after a day’s work.
Damn, what I wouldn’t give for just one more of those run-of-the-mill, ordinary goodbyes.
Ahmaud Arbery could have been me. A Black man, simply going out for a run.
Jacob Blake could have also been me. A Black man attempting to intervene in a domestic violence incident.
Any number of Black men killed by police or law-abiding, gun-carrying citizens, could have been me. It’s by sheer coincidence that I am still alive.
So I listened to your advice. I purposely avoid running near, or alongside, White people that I don’t know. Which is every White person in my neighborhood. I am obliged, if not required, to go out of my way to not make them feel threatened or fearful.
Luckily, I have not had an interaction with police officers because of a criminal or motor vehicle offense; but if I did, I would sure as hell be compliant. Looking straight ahead. Mechanical movements. Yes sir. No sir. All that overly-polite bullshit. But this wouldn’t help. My sister had a recent interaction with a cop, who told her she was making him nervous because she was in fear. Parenthetically, my wife likes to joke that I drive like a grandma because I won’t accelerate more than 2 miles beyond the speed limit. I don’t want cops to have a reason to pull me over in the first place. I look at that as being compliant even before the need for compliance.
And I watch how I interact with my White wife in public. Affection that is gentle. Discourse, but never disagreements. We are active in public during the day; but I like to be home when the sun goes down.
So, yeah, I listened to your advice on how to behave as a Black man – even though so many of you are neither Black nor male – on how I ought to approach and traverse this country we called the United States. And I will probably continue to do all of those things until the racial climate is improved. Teaching them to my sons, and his son(s), as well as the sons of my friends who are Black and Brown; and also teaching them to my daughter and her friends who are Black and Brown, as well.
But if Jacob Black could have been me or my son, Kyle Rittenhouse could be you or your son. Inflicting harm on folks simply protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake. So many people on my social media feed shared memes condemning violent protests. Where’s your condemnation for Rittenhouse?
Dylann Roof could also be your son. Remember him? Roof entered a church (indeed, he was welcomed by human-loving Christians!) in South Carolina and opened fired on parishioners during bible study. He murdered them simply because they were Black.
We can also go back to George Zimmerman, who could very easily be your son. You know how many times I’ve heard people speak about not wanting a certain type of people in their communities? Sounds eerily similar to George Zimmerman.
Further back still, damnit if the men who brutally murdered Emmett Till couldn’t have also been your sons. So overcome with rage that a Black boy would allegedly whistle at a White woman, that they brutally murdered him to the point that his face was deformed. Your son may find whistling and catcalling, looking suspicious, praying, and peaceful protesting wrong. Abhorrent even. But tell your son to stop fucking killing people over it.
Not all you, but some of you. Because male-identified members of the LGBTQ community, for instance, are not inflicting harm; not this type of harm. So maybe it’s about time some of you had a conversation with your son; the way I have with mine. The police shooting of Jacob Blake was both separate from, and an agitator of, the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting spree. A boy, seventeen-years-old. Not yet old enough to vote. But conscious enough to inflict harm against people protesting equal treatment of Black folks. It’s like we don’t even get to raise our collective voices about mistreatment. I still can’t get that image out of my head: police officer may as well have wrapped him in their arms, dried his eyes, told him everything was going to be already, and rocked him back to sleep, they way they let him approach the cruisers with a gun strapped to his chest. Black men don’t even get to run for jogs without making White people fearful. Yet White people can inflict violence and will be comforted like heroes.
So maybe you can help by telling your son to stop killing folks. Then tell your son this country doesn’t belong to him. This country doesn’t need him to come and save the day like some Clint Eastwood or John Wayne movie. Tell your son he does not have ownership over this county the way one owns a car. They can’t do whatever they want, whenever they want, just because they think it’s theirs. That’s some Christopher Columbus, colonizer type of thinking that leads to so many deaths and so much violence. And we all know Columbus not only did not discover America, but that he also decimated the natives. Or maybe we don’t all know that. Maybe give your son A People’s History of the United States and then tell him this country doesn’t belong to him. He is a part of it; but does not own it.
Let’s take it a step further, tell your son to stop inflicting violence on women. Just because a woman won’t go on a date with them. Or reply graciously to a so-called compliment. Or have sex with them. Or because their partner refuses to wear modest clothes. Tell your son he does not own women, and to stop killing women because of some asinine sense of control and entitlement. Teach your son it’s not in his birthright to have power over women; and that he should not want to kill women for wanting bodily autonomy.
Also tell your son to stop inflicting violence on members of the LGBTQ community. Just because they don’t agree with another person’s lifestyle. (Which, in and of itself, is a twisted way of describing a person. As if straight people chose their lifestyle.) Tell your son he doesn’t get to inflict violence because he feels duped – that someone is not presenting as the sex they were assigned at birth. Or because they asked to be called by a set of pronouns. Your son doesn’t get to control other people’s sexual identities or expressions. So they can just go ahead and put down the guns.
Your son, at any moment, can also stop inflicting violence on the Latinx community. Build the wall. Go back to Mexico. And all that other bullshit. Your son, so beside himself, at people who dare come to this country for a better opportunity (a story, it seems, that has been fabricated to absolve wrongdoing), that they forget your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, too, came here for a better opportunity. So, yeah, teach your son about your family’s migration and then tell them to stop killing Brown folks!
You can also teach your son not to kill classmates simply because he (your son) doesn’t have any friends. All the way back to Columbine.
And then tell your son to stop killing people who pray to a different God, speak a different language, or celebrate different customs.
Again, this applies to some of you, not all of you. In specific areas, this also applies to me and my sons. Just tell your son to stop the fucking killing.
I’m appalled the way Black and Brown folks continue to be treated. And I’m disgusted by the lack of empathy and remorse, by the brutal killings, and by the White supremacy entangling our laws and that with which we accept socially. I can be the ideal negro (educated, middle-class, no police record, white-collar job, even having an in with White people), and still yet, there may come a day none of that will matter. None of that will help spare my life because I continue to be moved every time a Black or Brown person is killed by police officers; or someone on the margins has violence inflicted on them by a person in authority or by someone who thinks they are losing the country.
And I hope you are moved, too. Watching videos of boys – who could very well be your son – inflict violence on other, that is, non-White, communities. Terrorizing. Inflicting fear. Then being saved by law enforcement. Or maybe they could be your brother, nephew, cousin, husband, partner; or simply the guy who lives in your neighborhood. For, if Trayvon Martin could been my son, George Zimmerman could have been your son.
You say you don’t like where this country is headed. That we should all do our parts. Here is yours: Tell your son to stop inflicting harm.
I’ve started this letter about a dozen times; it’s been in the making for over a month. I wrote a draft, ripped it up, and started another – all mentally – because well, what’s that line about perfection being the enemy of good?
So here goes nothing.
I wanted to write a letter to my White friends. To offer information putting the recent, tragic murders of Black folk in historical context; to convey the emotional and the psychological toll that the murders of Black and Brown people (as well as America’s collective response) is taking on me, as your friend; also to dispel some myths – you know, like, the racist idea that George Floyd caused his own death. Can we all agree that Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were all murdered? The same with Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, as well as the likes of Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, and the icon we all love to quote on race relations, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their lives were not merely taken away as some might suggest. There is no nice to way say it — they were all murdered. Some were murdered for working against racism; others murdered for merely existing.
But you already know that. At least, I hope you do. Still, I struggled to write this letter because I acknowledge you, as my White friend, are not in the same place — on the spectrum of working towards anti-racism — as my other White friends. I acknowledge some are working, daily, to acknowledge their privileges, finding ways to denounce racism, and working towards anti-racism. Some are just learning. While others may still be in denial, or, at least, unaware of the impact of devastating impact of racism.
So in many ways, offering a single letter to my White friends would never be nuanced enough, without becoming a 300+ page book. And maybe I’ll write that book one day. For now, though, I also struggled writing this letter because I lean on certain teachers to guide me as it relates to understanding racism, and anything I have to offer would pale in comparison to the guidance given by Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the rawness in the autobiography of Frederick Douglas. Or the compelling, poetic brilliance of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Or any of the fictional masterpieces by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison. And more contemporarily, the riveting, informative lectures delivered gives by Tim Wise or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their words are far too insightful. They all convey the devastating impact of racism in far more eloquent words than I can muster. They approach the Black experience in far more nuanced ways than me. They don’t have typos in their blog posts. They speak of anti-racism with such enlightenment, they are catapulted into super heroic stratospheres. Which is why I started to write this piece several times and then stopped. Then I came back to it, embracing perfection should not be the enemy of good. But also realizing I had something inside that needed to get out.
I’m not sure if you know or not, but if I’ve ever come to visit you, I looked at the photos on your walls. I like seeing the memories and moments in time forever captured through still images. Secretly, though, I look to see how many Black faces are in those picture frames and my mind always runs adrift to: am I your only Black friend. On the one hand, pictures from your wedding day, vacations you’ve taken, or family gatherings cannot even begin to answer that question. Intellectually, I get that. On the other hand, though, in my heart, the question remains. If I am your only Black friend, to me, this means you could (probably) go an entire day, maybe a week, hell, perhaps even a month, without interacting with someone (in a meaningful way) who is Black. Damn! That says something. And (for me, at least) it does not say that you necessarily have consciously chosen to insulate yourself from Black folks. Oh no, it’s much bigger than that. To me, it says that America has allowed you to insulate yourself — through policies and policing; education and social services — from Black folk. We’ll come back to this. Just know, I don’t judge you if I am your only Black friend, but it does say something if I am.
If I am your only Black friend, please know it is a ton of weight being Black in America: grounding myself when my mind races, thinking that I could be the next Ahmaud Arbery; finding the strength to continually point out racism; practicing self-care; striving to be a good husband and father; working (at work, and in my personal life) on committees, working groups, and other initiatives to center Black voices; continually measuring myself by my successes of my Black ancestors (see those aforementioned); beating myself up over whether I responded to that not-quite racist, but certainly racial comment. The list goes on.
Also know, my sheer existence is threatening to the large White America. When I was about twelve, I was riding in the backseat of my grandmother’s car, returning from choir rehearsal. It was somewhere around eight or nine o’clock in the evening. In the backseat of my grandmother’s Cadillac, taking in the world around me, my eyes went adrift. Stopped at a red light, another car pulled up alongside us. The driver was a White lady. When her eyes met mine, she locked the door to her car and looked the other way. I guess she thought I would have the gumption to hop out of my grandmother’s car, and rob her. This felt like the biggest irony. Just coming from singing the Lord’s praises, I was the person least likely to inflict harm on another. But she didn’t see that — she only saw my Black skin, my maleness, and, putting those together, treated me like a threat. Did I mention I was only twelve? The day a 12-year-old is a threat is the day we ought to be asking a much different question. But, putting that aside for a minute, fast forward thirty years later, when I laugh too loudly, when I speak too passionately, I am still a threat. Don’t believe me, think about the case of Christian Cooper, who had the police called on him while bird watching. Or Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot to death for playing with a toy gun. I can’t count the number of ways that I try to downplay my Black-maleness so as to not project intimidation. (Brent Staples wrote a wonderful essay on this!) I hate it, and I often hate myself for it. But, in those moments, it feels like all that I can do to simply exist: how to make White people feel comfortable, so as to not be deemed a threat, and thus become the recipient of violence. When I’m quiet in all-White settings, which is often — especially around people I have only recently just met (on the sidelines as my son’s baseball games, for instance) — I am usually, and uncustomary quiet, pondering this very idea — how can I keep White people comfortable. Perhaps you are saying to yourself, it shouldn’t be this way. But it is. Because White supremacy allows it; and on that note…
On a much broader level, your individual Whiteness is not problematic. Let’s get that off the table. Nor are the individual ways in which your privilege manifests itself. (And I’m sure some people will come after me for that point — so bring it.) Teachings from Black ancestors illustrate the real problem — White supremacy. That is the culprit. That is what allows for violence against Black and Brown bodies; against the LGBTQ+ community; and against Jewish, Muslim, and different non-Christian religious communities as well. It’s one thing to have love for your cultural backgrounds (my Italian friends love being Italian, and that is wonderful!). If it simply ended there, we could live harmoniously, celebrating each other’s cultures. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says we have love in the White race AND we are better and superior over other races. If it simply ended there, we could co-exist, at the very least, engaging in conversations about racial differences and similarities, until we debunked the myth of racial superiority. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says that we also harbor hatred for other races. If it simply ended there, perhaps we could not live amongst each other, but in our respective communities, but we would all be able to live, freely and harmoniously. But, White supremacy is more than that; it goes on to say we have hatred for other racial groups, and hatred is so steep that we will enact violence against those racial groups. This is where the problem begins and ends. Violence in the form of slavery and lynchings. But violence also in the form of discriminatory housing policies, denying Black folk of VA loans following wars, as well as Stop and Frisk policing strategies. Violence in the form of White men with guns, looking to intimate, being celebrated and hailed as heroes. Violence also in the form of elected officials, caring very little about the plight of Black folk and putting forth laws to continue the subjugation of Black folk. Violence in the form of assassinations against those working towards anti-racism. Violence in the form of school segregation. Violence also in the form of condoned physical beatings of Black people for wanting to integrate schools, lunch counters, and residential communities. Violence in the form of killing a Black teenager simply because he looked threatening. (If I had been walking home from choir rehearsal that day instead of driving, perhaps my fate would have been different.) Violence in the form of so many other ways, too, because White supremacy is violence that is approved. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Emmitt Till. All murdered because White supremacy allowed for it. So, I need you to know that your individual Whiteness is not the problem. It is White supremacy. And I need you to go after White supremacy and help us tear the shit down.
I also need you to start a GoFundMe page for me, now. Don’t wait until it’s too late. See, I was named: James Abdul Staten. Which means my parents were in the lanes of Christianity as well as Islam. Praying to God and waiting for salvation; but also wearing Blackness with pride and standing up to the aggressors of injustices. So, when (not if) my children face racism, if you’re my friend, and you care about me, you’re going to have to come for me. I’ll write the eloquent letter; but when that doesn’t work, I’m coming for White supremacy and the White supremacists. When the figurative shit hits the fan, which is already is,I’m standing up for my children, my family, and myself. And White supremacy doesn’t like that. White supremacy says N—– stay in your place…accept this violence…our race is better/more valuable/more worthy of life than yours. So when I show up, agitated and ready to stand up for my family, White supremacy will attack me. That’s how it works. You get to be the angry mamma bear, ready to unleash hell if your child is treated unfairly. I will be the angry Black man, threatening and untamable, ready to do anything for my child; but I’m sure I’ll be met with a different response. White supremacy does not like accountability, especially from Black folk. So it will happen, one of these days, and I ask: if you’re my friend, what will your response be?
I’ve heard from so many of my White friends over the past month, which has been uplifting. If you ever wanted to reach out to me because you are moved by the recent deaths, or because you want to show support but don’t know what to say, or because you’re thinking about me, or because (let’s just be real) I am your only Black friend, that’s okay. Moreover, if you’re guilty for another of these same reasons, here is my advice for you (and I hate giving unsolicited advice) — don’t be. Don’t let guilt or shame prevent you from reaching out; whether it is to me or another friend who is Black. In speaking for myself, I’ll let you know if or when, you’ve crossed the line of tokenizing me. I can accept a friend reaching out because they feel compelled or a sense of urgency. What I cannot accept is someone not doing something, simply because they is it far more convenient. White supremacy likes convenience.
On my Facebook feed, several of my White friends have asked the same question, of varying degrees, What can I do to help? In the wake of all that’s going on in our country, with the general devaluing of Black lives, what can I do to help. While I’m not sure if the question is meant for me, personally, or the broader society in which we live, the question feels as intimidating as it does opportune. Intimidating because I certainly don’t have all of the answers. And our leaders who had the answers, who were guiding us towards viable solutions were (for the most part) gunned down (more about this, later). What’s more, I’m sure any answer I put forth will not be nuanced enough for some; will not be academic enough for others. But also intimidating because no platform will allow me to truly articulate my thoughts to the very complicated question, what can I do to help. (Again with that book idea.) But, ahhhhh, fuck it. I’m from the school where you try something, and if it doesn’t work, you go back and tweak it, and then try it again. And if that doesn’t work, you try something different until you find a solution.
So with that, I take to this figurative pen and pad, and try answering the question.
Allow me to start with the obligatory: There is no one-size-fits-all model. Nor is what I will offer meant to be exhaustive list. This will have to become a journey. Not something that you commit yourself to for the season, or a semester but your commitment will need to be for the remainder of your life. There will be no certificate or participation medal waiting for you on the other end. This will be a constant, continual, cyclical journey — where you’re always learning, aspiring to be better than you were the day before. All that said, let’s go to work.
You start with you. (to be continued)
When was the last time you asked a man in your life – any man that you know well – how he feels? Not what he thinks. Not what he should or should not do. Not even what he expects what will happen, next. But, how he feels.
To hear some people tell it, men lack emotion. And, in some cases, this is absolutely true! In studying perpetrators of violence, I am reminded of this constantly. In other cases, I see that men’s emotions have not been nurtured, going all the way back to boyhood, and therein lies the prevailing issue.
Not in the same way that women’s emotions were nurtured during their adolescent years. Even now, as a parent, I hear parents telling their sons to shake it off. AKA: Don’t allow yourself to feel (insert an emotion here); instead, son, act like it never happened. Or maybe the phrase, act like a man resonates more. Maybe even toughen up. No matter the phrase, though, the end result is typically the same – do not show emotion.
Unless it’s happiness, then, yeah, men can experience those good feelings. Anger, yes. Frustration’s okay.
Anything else is met with shake it off.
So we end up actually having three prevailing issues. First, men are taught to turn off emotions, save for just a few. Men can experience the joy and jubilation of winning a game, match, or landing an internship. Similarly, when men are frustrated by that same game, match, or internship (for any reasons), that’s also okay. Anything else in between is not. It’s not nurtured and not discussed.
Which brings me to the second issue: Because we teach men to not express emotion, we rob men of the language to communicate their emotional states. Language is important. It’s one thing to not feel loneliness, for instance. It’s another thing to feel lonely, and not know how to label it.
Sadly, for many men, given those two dynamics, emotional expressions other than happiness and frustration often expresses as frustration and anger (point #3). If I’m happy, it express as happy. If I am lonely, not only do I not know the language to convey how I feel, that feeling expresses as frustration and anger. So unless I’m happy, I’m angry…even when I’m not.
For many of us, this is not new. So let’s fast forward into adulthood and how this manifests itself. Imagine a husband has a significant other who is unable to conceive. Are we asking how he feels? How he’s coping with things? How he is taking care of himself? Sure, we’ll almost demand that he take care of his significant other – and for good reason! But what about his emotional welfare? When does/should/is that allowed to come into play for him?
When the couple has the baby, we laugh as the man jokes about buying a shotgun, now that he has a daughter. But what are the emotions behind that façade? Are we asking him to identify them? The joy and happiness. The insecurities. The guilt or shame. The overwhelming feeling of parenthood.
Let’s say that men loses his job — in addition to asking how many applications he’s completed on any particular day, are we asking how he’s feeling? Like a failure, unable to do the one thing he’s been working towards for years? Perhaps relieved that he can spend time finding his passion?
When a different joyous moment occurs – a promotion, coming out, buying a car for the first time – are we, as friends and family members, helping him to nurture the myriad of emotions? As confusing as they may be. Untangle the web. Help him to make sense out of it all.
Now, certainly I don’t expect other people to take responsibility for men or men’s actions. When a man expresses anger by throwing a video game controller, that is his issue to sort through. Not yours or the video game’s.
And yet, the phrase Yes, And comes to mind.
Yes, I’m not asking my family and friends to do the work for men. And at the same time, I am asking my family and friends to show the same amount of interest in the emotional welfare of the men in your lives as you show for the women.
Two things – seemingly opposite – can both be true, and both have their places in the world. Just as we nurture girl’s emotions – enabling them to grow and become emotionally intelligent and emotionally available beings, so too can we nurture boys’.
We want men to show compassion and empathy and warmth, now, as their adult selves. So the next time you’re speaking with a man in your life, ask how they feel. And don’t stop when they answer what they think. Certainly this isn’t to suggest that we do more for men, or do this for men. Instead, just as we ask women how they feel, so too can we ask men how they feel.
This is an open-letter to my friends and family, about men and emotions. Maybe yours are different. I hope that is the case. I want the lineage of displaced anger to end with me; and not get passed onto my sons.
The music reverberated through her entire body, beating as her heart beat, moving as her arms moved, and singing as her voice sang. The singer shouted through the small speakers on the computer, an enraged voice filled the room like she was giving a one-person concert. Ashleigh sat on her bed – in one hand, she held the teddy bear she had gotten from her mother some years ago, when she was twelve and gotten her tonsils removed. The bear was still in good condition –all of its limbs were intact, and it had even survived a trip through the washer; from the one time Ashleigh’s mom decided the bear’s fur was matted from drool that it needed a deep cleansing.
Ashleigh was angry with her mother for nearly a month afterwards. That was the last time, and the only time, the bear had been cleaned. Now, the bear’s face was stained with tiny drops of blood. The drops were noticeable, but rather indescribable. Who would think drops of blood would ever find their way on a teddy bear? Maybe paint or even spaghetti sauce, but not blood. It seemed too dirty, too guilty. Still, the blood stood out on the bear like freckles on a person with fair-skin. They simply became part of the bear’s appearance, of what made him who he was.
In Ashleigh’s other hand, she held a razorblade. She toyed with the razor, the way she twirled pens with her fingers while teachers reviewed handout of upcoming tests.
The music had become angry. The boom, boom, boom of the drums and loud rips of the guitar spoke to the girl, telling it to let it all out. The part of her that felt like yelling and screaming Fuck you. The part of her that felt like scratching, clawing, and hitting something. The part of her that felt like releasing the misery had been keeping bottled up. She told herself she’d never do it again. But, as she sat on her bed – tears running down her face, while beaming that beautiful smile she was known for – she let the music fill that part of her that was void of feeling.
The singer belted out a high-pitched note, a voice bouncing off the walls of Ashleigh’s bedroom. Ashleigh screamed too – a rather chilling shriek – as tiny drops of blood flung onto the teddy bear’s face.
I sat in a hotel conference room listening to a speaker present on the importance of prevention. Not intervention, mind you, but prevention. The act of preventing a problem before it has even happened. The chairs, with their metal legs and upholstered backing, were stiff. The temperature had a slight chill. The atmosphere felt very familiar, like I had seen it all before. I tried my best to remain engaged in, single, word that was being spoken, and as the facilitator recalled the “River Story”, which I’d heard numerous times, I couldn’t hold on any longer and my mind went adrift.
Do men care about this work, really, I thought. I looked around the room and the scarcity of men felt as tangible as it was telling.
In the time that I have done this work, I have found that, usually, men will not dare say – publicly, at least – that sexual violence is unimportant. (which includes domestic, dating, and stalking violence) I saw this, firsthand, when facilitating workshops on consent, bystander intervention, and healthy relationships in high schools. After an engaging, and often humorous, exercise on consent, I would pose three key questions to the students: First – By a show of hands, who thinks, feels, or agrees that rape is wrong. Everyone’s hand would shoot in the air. There was only one instance where someone did not raise their hand. Even after his classmates challenged him – I remember hearing scuttles of, dude, seriously, raise your hand – this particular guy, in his Army fatigue jacket, did not budge. I made a joke about it, and moved on. (I subscribed to the notion that, professionally, laughter keeps (me) from crying.)
But, by and large, typically, men will agree that sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence are all wrong, hurtful, harmful, or at the very least, not good. (I’ll save those other key questions for another time.)
So as I sat through the prevention session at this conference, I could not help but ponder: Do men really, truly care about sexual violence? And if we do, at what levels do we care? Thoughts raced through my mind like cars zipping around a racetrack.
Is it important enough to challenge the ways in which we (as men) teach our sons about sports and sports-person-ship?
Is it important enough that we will donate to local sexual and/or domestic violence agencies? Will we give of our time and run in 5Ks for those same agencies?
Is it important enough that we will elect officials who will see to it that sexual and domestic violence agencies receive state and federal dollars? (Which helps with sustainability and growth.)
Although no person is free from fault, are we willing to draw the line, and not vote for the politician who engages or perpetuates sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Similarly, while acknowledging that no artist is perfect, are we willing to take stands and not support the art of entertainers or the athletic accomplishments of sports figures who engage in sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Will we attend events on victimization?
Do we, as men, care enough to, say, call out another man for their sexist behavior?
Or care to the point that we’ll look at perpetrators and pick apart, and find fault with, every one of their actions. (Instead of doing this to survivors.)
The weight of those questions hung over me like a rain cloud.
Back at that conference I found myself at another equally-ambiguous impasse: If men cared, they’d be at the (figurative) table, right? Right?
Well perhaps if the table was an inviting one.
And by inviting one, I mean: Are we – the people who are the work of discussing, addressing, and leading prevention and education efforts of sexual violence – providing space for men to be at the table. Not in the same room. Not at the kiddie table, next to the adult table. Not even at the table, with mouths covered, so as to be rendered voiceless. But, at, the, table.
Now I get it, this is the space women have occupied for countless years. So one question we must come to terms with is – Is there room at the table for those of all gender identities?
We say, and talk up, this idea of engaging men – but, even as I sat at that training, one of the speakers made a stereotypical comment about men, that was intended for humor’s sake. I let it roll off – time and place, right? But I included the comment in my evaluation of the conference.
The audience gave a collective laugh, but my response was more, are you (bleeping) kidding me?! Talk about incongruity – we cannot sincerely speak of engaging men, and then, without even blinking, simultaneously create spaces where men are not welcomed. And when men are welcomed, they must be comfortable with and able to sustain (what feels like) attacks and put-downs. It’s one thing to speak of men’s violence against women (and indeed, most of this work is preventing men’s violence against and other men); it’s another to suggest you hate men.
As I think deeper on this idea of welcoming men at the table — more than simply asking men to recognize their male privilege, those of us in this work have landed at a place where we wish men would join the table, but only so that we can ridicule. I can almost hear my friends: Let me get this right – you want me to come to one of these events just so I can endure man-bashing?
While we, as men, have a heavy gauntlet laid before us, in how we will rise to the challenge of preventing sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence, this one – on creating comfortable space at the table – lies at the footsteps of us doing the work. As preventionists, social workers, care takers, clinicians, and advocates, we can do better.
But back to men…A month or so removed from that conference, I saw a glimmer of hope. Just as I saw the many decisions men have to make in order to show that we, collectively, care about preventing sexual violence, I also see a multitude of avenues for contribution, intervention, and prevention whether talking to your son or nephew about what it means to be a man; calling out your buddy; donating; running 5Ks; thinking twice about buying concert tickets to that artist, and then removing them him from your playlist altogether.
It’s also okay to be a work in progress. A mentor recently shared with me that her training is a work in progress, and I was almost floored! With gobs of experience in this field, I just assumed everything she touched would turn to gold. That there was no part of the work in which was hadn’t already received a gold star, and was working towards platinum. But as I put my own judgments and expectations, I find the line, work in progress, does not undermine or take away from the successes and accomplishments she’d had. That we’re all allowed to be a work in progress in some area or another.
So men, be committed to being that work in progress as long as you stay the course, to borrow another phrase. Remain committed to unlearning all of those stereotypical masculine ways in which we were all raised and acquire new behaviors. Push your gym buddy to get in that extra rep, but without the tint of homophobia. Poke fun of your friends, but without sexist language that disparages girls in the process. Lean away from that urge to rage when setbacks arise, and instead, lean into your poetry or favorite movie or Woosah. And when you falter, own in, apologize (mean it!), and get back on course. Through it all, commit to being a better man and stay the course.
Like you, I am a work in progress. And that progress is not something that will manifest into a finished product overnight (or even, ever). I have learned to accept this. I want so desperately to be that finished product now, but alas, I cannot. Sexual violence is not static and in order to truly care about this issue, neither can we afford to be.
I wrote this poem some years ago, while contemplating what is success. It still feels relevant.
I Cry each Time I Sit here and Scribble Another Couple of Lines
The stale air feels heavy inside my mouth,
And I feel a sudden sadness permeating from the pores of my skin.
A dreariness rather, that has no name,
But a name I know all too well.
Life may as well have me already defeated –
For, I feel a downpour of rain each time a friend asks about my 401K plan,
As I shudder to think saving for retirement has become life’s next feat;
Could we all be already dead?
Steadily stashing money away for the rainy days of tomorrow,
Yet, forgetting to soak up the sun that’s still shining today.
I think I can hear the four horsemen trotting nearer;
Or is that my fear of failing becoming clearer?
I must be equating the two again,
The way I often confuse receiving a rejection letter with receiving the kiss of death,
On those dark, damp, desolate days,
When the greyest clouds fill the skies,
And trees bow in exhaustion,
And the sun concedes defeat,
And dreariness thunders, and rattles the earth.
I wipe away a single tear just before it rolls down my face.
Could that droplet have held the cure for cancer
And healed the tumor that has grown upon my soul?
Thoughts abound as I ache for nourishment;
My throat is closing up,
And that stale air is now sitting at the back of my windpipe, stirring.
My heart can barely pump
And I wonder will this day be my last,
When it was my poor mother’s,
When the wickedness of cancer stole her;
So I lie in bed, wondering,
Steadily wiping away tears.
But, death doesn’t frighten me,
Words terrify my soul (the way the bogey-man once did) –
Those rhythmical, descriptive, addictive words that simply roll off your tongue,
That gives life to your emotions,
And helps you feel those feelings that you have never felt before.
So I wonder if I will ever be able to capture these feelings exactly how they appear in my imagination where
The strong, vibrant sun,
And cool, gentle breeze rescues me from another day in a melancholic world;
The bright blue sky becomes my canvass, and…
A buzz of my cell phone signals another stream of consciousness interrupted
As I leap to see who’s sent a text message,
And I mash the buttons for a quick reply,
Or so I tell myself,
Before playing text-tag until my inspiration wanes.
No wonder writing hates me now –
I’ve neglected her over the years,
I’m but a fool,
Too late to realize that writing is now pushing back;
Much like those days when I stuffed my craft into the dark, damp, desolate corners of my spiritual closet,
Though hoping it would somehow blossom like the flowers sitting outside my doorstep.
And with another passing thought, I shed another tear,
And yet another tear that could have held the cure for my cancerous adverse for writing.
My taste buds salivate from the garlicy aroma brewing on the stove,
What has come of success?
Late days, followed by late dinners, and no time for writing?
Yet, steady shoving money into a 401K plan!
Could success even be real?
It feels like the wind that briskly blows by, but stands still when I turn to stare him in the eye.
Success must be real, alright!
Because failure has a kick like Jack Daniels,
And cuts like the sharp, thin edges of freshly cut paper.
Does success hate me so?
And keeps me crying for my mother’s touch…just once more;
I shed a another tear each time I sit here and scribble another couple of lines;
For, success seems to know everyone,
But success doesn’t know me.
This was someone whose footsteps I always wanted to follow. We were RAs together and after graduating, she went into higher education. A year later, after graduating, I found myself going into higher education. She ventured into student leadership and development, and I went into student leadership and development. She made the jump into the corporate world, and I wanted to make that same move. All though her journey, I had no idea that her some of jobs were just as UNFILFILLING as my own. Upon interviewing her for the webinar I facilitated last week on the elusive dream job, I uncovered this nugget of wisdom from my friend, Jen, which is just as fitting for recent college graduates as it is for seasoned professionals:
“Get a side hustle! If your job isn’t filling you up, then find something that will – something you can do alongside what’s (currently) paying the bills. It could be working on a book you always wanted to write, or volunteering at an organization. For me, it was DJing. I totally stumbled into it. I basically taught myself. And in the beginning, I would work all week at my full-time job and be miserable and mentally exhausted by Friday. But then I would hit the boards at a club on a Friday night and the dance floor would be PACKED and people we having a great time and I was like “I did that!” And it just lit me up. And I was instantly hooked. I would only make a couple hundred dollars per gig, but it was not about the money – it was about doing something that felt like I was applying my talents to bring joy to people. And now, here I am, five years later, turning down gigs because I’m too busy!”
I posted Part I of this letter in July of 2016, following the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Now that the city of St. Anthony has reached a settlement with the Castile family, yet the officer who murdered Philando was acquitted, I’ve felt compelled to withdraw from it all. I want nothing to do with current events, news stories, social media, you name it, I want out…all the while knowing that I will never be truly able to retreat from the real issue – racism. See, I could not (and still cannot) imagine living in a country where a person who looks like me, can be murdered, simply because they look like me, and no one is held responsible…but here is nearly three million dollars to avoid “a federal civil rights lawsuit” as one article suggests.
So here is Part II of this letter, now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive.
Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),
Because the answer to dismantling the racial tension we’re experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point fingers at the Others – on the opposite side of the fence, as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country – I am writing to continue the conversation.
Has it gotten any realer?
By that I mean the racial tension in this country that feels as thick and overbearing as the humidity on a scorching summer’s day. By that I mean the discomfort one ought feel at seeing a person get shot, the final moments of their life caught on a cell phone video. By that I mean hearing people proclaim, “go back to your country”.
See, social justice warriors would avow that during times like these, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the feelings of the majority, but instead, with the rights of the minority. And while I believe in this idea on many levels, on one particular level – from my experience in helping bring under-represented groups to the figurative table (as a member of the dominant group you aren’t particularly under-represented, but just go with it) – these are the times when we should be engaging in dialogue with the dominant group. So again I ask, has it gotten any realer?
I’m hoping it has. If you’re my friend, that is, it probably has. It has to be tough knowing you are part of the larger group that has historically inflicted harm and marginalized other groups. And even though you do not participate in those inflictions, you still benefit from them, and the subsequent marginalizations. It’s similar to the bouts I face with my own privilege as a male. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot undo all of the atrocities committed by the group of which you’re a part. So, if you are my friend, you undoubtedly have inner conflict over the racial tension sweeping across our nation with flu-like quickness. I’m sure you’ve been scapegoated, and stared at, and had insulting remarks yelled in your direction because of the actions of some of the people who are in the dominant group to which you belong. So I’m writing because I’m wondering if it has gotten any releaser. See, those scapegoats, stars, and insulting remarks are what many of us face daily. But I realize they may be new for you, and unbeknownst to you, you’ve worked so hard at becoming, and remaining, an ally to people of color (as we’ll see below), that I’d hate for you to retreat because of the inner conflict you’re experiencing. I’m also writing because although I can’t tell you with any certainly that the inner conflict will subside, I can offer this: I’m glad you’re my friend.
In looking back on our friendship, I’m glad you laughed with me (and not at me) when I told stories of growing up Black, and poor, and fatherless. I stole a line from the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when I used to say, “I’m just a poor Black man trying to make it at Quinnipiac”. And even though you may not have fully understood what I meant, I appreciate that you were willing to try. Like listening listening to Tupac on full blast with me (remember those days?!) or engaging me in dialogue when I told you the reason I couldn’t swim – we don’t got pools in the hood. I’m glad we had those conversations and shared that laughter. Most times, the laughter was really was a cover for the pain. On the flip side, thanks for introducing me to Alanis Morrisette, drinking games (flip cup, anyone!), and how to take pictures without giving the finger.
It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we had – how your father left your mother for another woman, how there was only one Black kid in your high school graduating class, and how he got picked on to no end, how you always wanted to date another girl but couldn’t find the courage. How you had cancer in high school and how your brother was an unsupportive schmuck. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works. Those talks helped me connect with you in ways that could never be duplicated in a classroom or some diversity training. More than anything, those talks helped me see you as my friend first, and your racial and ethnic group second.
For me, those talks helped things get real – my connection to you, my connection to your world, my connection to everything I was not.
By having those talks, I now see that we were able to correctly conclude that there’d been historical and institutional injustices committed against damn near every racial and ethnic groups. So when I spoke of injustices members of my family had faced, I could see in your eyes that you felt I wasn’t making it up. That validation has been important to our friendship. To be my friend, I’ve needed to know that you get it, that being Black brings about a certain level of burden. But it wasn’t just Black and White – yesterday it was the Irish, before them, Native Americans and African slaves. Now, it’s African Americans, the entire LGBT community, and our Latin brothers and sisters. Injustices have also afflicted Asians and Italians, Jews and Muslims. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” I think it’s safe to say they came for me, just as they came for you. And we’ve remained friends because we spoke up for each other.
I’m asking you now to speak up because it’s real.
I’m asking this of you because there is a certain level of emotional and psychological safety I feel in your midst. You have, and continue to allow me space to share my organic thoughts when it comes to issues of race. Like the soliloquy I crafted about whether I am truly an American, after the officer who killed Michael Brown was not indicted. Or like all of those times I quoted jokes from Chappelle Show. They weren’t White jokes any more than they were Black jokes. Instead, they were humorous analyses of our cultural differences, because sometimes using humor helps lessen the pain.
See, sometimes you just need a vent session, like when women get together for a Ladies Night. Nothing against men, sometimes women need a forum to share their thoughts and experiences with other women, without judgment, and without fear of offending anyone. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to admit that I didn’t understand how some White people could do (fill in the blank – whether it was kill a lion for sport or not season their vegetables), knowing that I love you and White people, too. I appreciate that you joined me in that space. Never one did I hear I was mentally weak or that my response is just a part of my narrative or rhetoric. Your response to my response told me that I was free to have my perspective in your midst, and that I could be my authentic self.
Along those same lines, I’m better off that you challenged me when I needed it. Whether it was calling me out for being am ableist, exhibiting male privilege, or reminding me that not all White people do (fill in the blank). Even though those were tough conversations, we were able to have them – and I was willing to listen – because you are my friend. We had those conversations because we got real with each other. Through I may have given you the finger a couple of times during those talks, I can honestly say I’m a better person because you’ve challenged me.
Thank you, as well, for celebrating my culture, focusing more on our similarities than our differences, and for not trying to define my Blackness for me (as you’ve seen, you can be Black and listen to Alanis Morrisette!). Most of all, thank you for learning with me. Calling me you brother from another mother was funny. But referring to me as your nigger wasn’t cool. I know I called you that word several times, and I referred to our mutual friend who’s also Black, as my nigga. And sure, we listened and dances to music, where the lyrics seemed to be nigga this and nigga that. Through all of that, I love that you understood my boundaries and respected them.
Within our friendship, we have been able to expose each other to new ideas, and push each other to extend our comfort zones. As I sit here empathizing with you during these times where racial injustices seem like they’re at an all-time high, I have to imagine you feel as if you’re part of the problem, simply because you’re White. While I can never give you a She’s Down card for other Black folks to see, I can let you know that you are an ally and that I value your friendship. When shit goes down, I know I can count on to help stand against the injustice, and for that, I’m proud that you’re my friend. For those, and countless other reason, thanks for being someone I can count on.
So this is your ally card. And with it, I am entrusting you to bear it responsibly. I’m also asking of you to speak up because it’s real. It’s real that a family member (though marriage) commented that if I don’t like the country and he and his brothers fight for, that I should leave. It’s real that I have to teach my children to embrace their dark skin because everything on TV tells them light (that is, White) skin is the best skin (try having that conversation with a five-year-old!). It’s real that Black and Brown people are being murdered by the same groups that’s supposed to protect and serve.
In order for your ally card to remain valid, I’m asking you to take another step — let it get real. And when it gets tough, and need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.