For all of the young people out there (especially), and my social-justice warriors too, struggling with the results of the election, this one’s for you.
With many of us still in shock – and indeed, disheartened – over the results of the very-heated election, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with one of my students. A conversation that is befitting of this particular set of circumstances, as we look for some way to channel our energies, going forward.
I listened to her speak, hoping, just hoping I would be able to offer her some piece of wisdom. After all, she had come to me out of confidence and being one of my favorite students, I owed it to her to not only not steer her off course, but actually help her navigate muddy waters. After listening and reflecting, I came up with – Don’t give up your seat at the table.
It was a literal table that I was talking about, but a figurative one as well. I desperately wanted her to consider how powerful her voice was. Whether she exercised her voice or not, there was (and is) power in it. I wanted her to know how removing herself from a space where key decisions were made, would ensure that she could not (and would not) be a part of those decisions. I also wanted her to know – and, indeed, consider – that as a woman, with her foremothers fighting just to have space at the table, as a product of those sacrifices, she is absolutely deserving of that space. That if she had given up that space, she would be giving into the patriarchal system working to keep women in their place – and that’s not at the table.
Given where we are at this time – the conclusion of the 2016 presidential race…some voicing their outrage at fellow Americans who voted for the president-elect…others filled with glee over the changes he might bring – I look back to that conversation, and to those words, hoping I can heed my own advice.
Don’t give up your seat at the table.
I know it will be gut wrenching and will make your skin crawl. Hearing sexist comments, jokes about sexual violence, and other, as it was described, locker room talk. Knowing that men have a virtual license to engage in such behavior because of little, to no, accountability. Taking it one step further, a license that actually encourages men’s degrading behavior and treatment of women. Being at the table, knowing you (or your mother, wife, daughter or sister) are the object of ridicule or objectification can feel utterly helpless. But that’s when you cannot give up your seat at the table. See, as with all things in life, the tables will turn, and if you give up your seat now, you may never get it back.
I know it will be scary and intimidating. Seeing a certain population of men carrying guns professing it’s because of this constitutional rights, with swastikas (or other divisive symbols) tattooed on their skin, spewing hatred about taking back their country, making their presence known, looking to instill fear into the hearts of anyone not part of their clan. They needn’t be a part of some militia; no, just an ordinary guy proclaiming that we should just “leave”, if we’re so unhappy. For some of us, these images are not fiction, but realities of everyday life. There is constant fear, or at least a threat, that they are coming for us. More than that, there’s an understanding that the justice system will let these men inflict violence and intimidation. (They haven’t been held accountable before, why the hell would it start now?!) But, don’t give up your seat at the table. If we’ve learned anything from our fight against terrorism abroad, it is a lesson of not letting terrorists move us from our day-to-day routine. So when these guys alter what we do or how we do it, they win. When they discourage us from exercising our voices, they win. When they instill in us a fear of being at the table, for what violence that are capable of inflicting, they win. We can dismantle this sort of divisive, hateful America by not giving up our seat at the table.
And I know it will be disheartening, knowing politicians are just itching to pass law to subjugate our constitutional rights. Making it so that some of us cannot adopt children, or get married, or access our partner’s medical records, all because of our sexual identity. All but treating us as though we are not actual people, but people who needs to be healed, or somehow redirected, to conform to their heterosexual ways. We may as well be one of The Others, like a monster from Chuck E. Cheese’, with horns, warts, and fangs, the way co-workers, politicians, hell, even family members, treat us like outcasts. When we get so disheartened that we feel like giving up, remember we cannot give up our seat at the table. It’s not that one president, alone, will take us back to a sexist, racist, homophobic America. But the scores of people who put him into power can bring us back to that America if we give up our voice (thus our seat at the table).
Those words that I shared with my students are applicable (I think!) to those who feel scared of, angered by, and dishearten at the results of the election. My student didn’t know this at the time, but I was fighting back tears as I encouraged her to sit with her detractors, work with them, and strive to let her voice be heard. Days after the election, I feel a similar sadness. Still, in the spirit of heading my own advice, we should look to do the same – that is, how can we work with our opponents because, after all, we are not giving up our seat at the table. It’s just as important now, as it ever has been, to keep the spaces that our forefathers and foremothers have fought for, spaces that we’ve earned, spaces that we can influenced. So although we may not feel an infinity towards the president-elect, let us not give up our seat at the table. For, as Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting, “cause fuck him that’s why”.
You probably didn’t want to talk to me last week. You already know why – two Black men killed by White police officers, in separate incidents, in cities hundreds of miles apart. I could have been either one of those men, just like I could have been Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or many years prior, Emmitt Till. (Given my inter-racial family, I damn sure could have been Emmitt Till.) It wasn’t that I harbored any hateful feelings towards police officers, or White people, or even White police officers. I just could not put what was swimming around in my head, into words, without first giving a bunch of disclaimers and apologies. But now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive, here is just one perspective (as these issues are complex and multi-faceted) I felt important to share, specifically to my White friends.
Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),
Because the answer to the racial tension we are experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point the finger at the other side as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country; but instead, to engage in meaningful dialogue, I am writing to start the conversation.
How are you holding up?
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, how are you?
I’m guessing you can’t been feeling particularly well. If you’re my friend, that is. 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 the marginalization. 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 worried – 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.
It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we used to have – 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. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works, like the adherence to your Italian heritage. 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.
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 also glad we’re friends because there’s 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. 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.
I am particularly grateful that you have been respectful of my experiences, and never asked me to give a black perspective. Instead, you asked what I thought or felt, understanding that MY black perspective may have been different than another black person’s.
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. Though you’ll have to do these same things to the next person of color you come into contact with, in order for the card to remain valid. If you ever need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.
Oh to be a Black man in the United States.
…Is to be told (by your elders, who’re also Black) and expected (by the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority) to practice unending patience, while wrongdoings are continually committed against you.
…It means to be listed to, but with only one ear – the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will listen to music created by Black people, and in the next breath, will not hear decries of equal rights. Sort of like how people will shake their asses to Beyonce, but when she talks of equality for African-Americans, she suddenly becomes too radical.
…It means that, inherently, equal rights do not exist. There is a mainstream, or White, version of equal rights like being talked down when you are clearly in possession of a firearm. Then there are the Black versions, where you can never be equal so there’s no reason to ask for such rights. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile.
…Not only that, it also means that to some people, your life is less important that an animal’s. There is significant, collective outrage when lions have been killed for sport and dogs have been drowned. Yet, when Black folks are killed (and it happens to often, it seems as though, sport), for the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority, there are little collective signs of empathy or remorse, and Black and Brown folks are asked what they did to cause their own demise.
…Along those same lines, it means there is a larger, uneducated, prejudice majority who may as well be your arch enemy, given how dismissive they are of you, and your pursuits of equality. A dog does not have an enemy, someone who’d rather kill the dog than see it reach its full potential. A cat person wouldn’t shoot a dog because the animal growled or somehow posed a menacing glance. Hell, even those who don’t like animals express sadness when animals are mistreated. When you’re Black though, the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority cares nothing about your mistreatment. In fact, they cause or assist in your mistreatment.
Oh to be Black, it means so much, to so many. And even though the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will never understand what it means to be Black – in part because they do not have the wherewithal to listen – it does not stop them from offering opinions about what Blackness should mean, calling any dissenting opinions rhetoric or narrative. These words have become the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority way of describing that which is not part of the mainstream (and ignorant) perspective. Wanting better policing is rhetoric, yet demanding educational reform is the sign of a considerate American. See the difference? No? Then you probably understand the inner conflict of what it means to be a Black man (or Latino/a, or a woman, or gay, or any other so-called minority), in the United States.
Now that the dust has settled and everyone’s had a chance to offer a knee-jerk reaction to the Oscars, it feels like a good time to assess, critically, the one line from Chris Rock’s opening monologue that seemed to anger many of us feminists.
The moment the joke left his mouth, I knew there would be criticism. If we can get into heated exchanges over topics with far less depth – like the Starbucks Christmas, no wait Holiday, cups – certainly, there would have to be uproar over the comment, “everything’s not sexism”.
I debated the hilarity of the joke, too. I remember saying to myself, Hell yeah, the moment those words left his mouth. The next moment I thought to myself, Fuuuck.
The internal back-and-forth reminded me of a conversation I’d had with one of my friends (whom I affectionately call my feminist sister), where we both lamented feeling like you can’t say anything without offending someone, and then another conversation I’d had with a former colleague, who chastised me for exhibiting male privilege because I did not agree with her assertions of the rape-prevention nail polish. It was as back-and-forth as a tennis match.
Yes…no. Great point…what are you smoking? Hell yeah…fuuuck!
On the one hand, I get it, Chris Rock even suggesting everything’s not sexism trivializes all that is rooted in sexism – the gender wage gap, the glass ceiling, violence against women, the list goes on. The accomplishments and sacrifices of the women who have fought before us, the plight of those whom we now fight alongside of, are belittled if we accept, broadly, that everything’s not about sexism. Or if we fail to recognize that certain institutions, policies, and practices give women less control, less of a voice, less agency, less room at the figurative table, compared to that which men have. Or if we allow such comments to go unchecked, giving fodder to those who think men’s rights are evaporating like puddles on a sunny day. As progressive and insightful as Chris Rock is, my fuuuck response was fitting. Some things are sexism.
But I used his joke to assess how those outside of the feminist movement see sexism, and how they perceive our view of sexism – what we’re fighting to uproot. This is where some valuable points can be extrapolated.
Although it was not stated directly, Chris Rick was making a clear reference to #AskHerMore, with that particular joke. As in, ask female celebrities more than who she’s wearing. Or why she chose to wear that necklace. Those soft, appearance-obsessed questions that are slow-pitched to female celebrities may not rise to the level of sexism the way our foremothers faced. But they make us feel some kinda way. It may not be sexism from 1960, but it still feels wrong, nonetheless.
From where I stand – as someone who catches a glimpse of the awards’ pre-shows via my wife’s consumption – the interviews are not the actual problem. The true culprits are the awards’ pre-show because they focus on fashion and attire, rate the best and worst dressed celebs, and highlight appearance over talent, like some adult version of mean girls. These shows set the table and provide the environment for those soft and superficial interviews. So it’s no wonder actresses are asked about their gowns and not their crafts, when they’re on the red carpet.
Still, with the #AskHerMore campaign, we are asked to get upset about soft and superficial interviews, but not the entire awards’ pre-show festivities, which allow the superficial interviews to exist. Said another way, we are asked to target the symptoms, but we are not asked to go after the root cause. If we raise our collective voices and ask for a shift in how the awards’ pre-shows are covered – celebrating artistic accomplishments and highlighting challenging roles actresses and actors play, for instance – the interviews can follow suit. Then, perhaps Ryan Seacrest will ask questions that have some level of complexity. As such, one assessment we can glean from Chris Rock’s inflammatory joke is that we should ask more of not only #AskHerMore, but also more of ourselves when we demand #AskHerMore.
When we dig deeper, though, we can extrapolate another valuable point – that is, our collective sexist treatment of female celebrities. Let’s go back to 2015, when everyone was outraged over the 10 hours of sexual harassment one woman faced while walking in New York City. With good reason, most of us were not okay with an everyday woman (that is, someone who is not a celebrity) being catcalled, gawked at, and fawned over, and subjected to sexual comments, which made her feel uncomfortable. Women do not owe you their time, was one of our collective battle cries. Yet, when it comes to actress, singers, and other female celebrities, we seem to be okay with a certain level of sexual harassment and objectification. Of course the complexities here are endless, as some celebrities pose, purposefully, so the camera (and those of us consuming the images from the camera) can get a better glimpse of their bodies. But this is not true for all female celebrities. As P!NK sang in one of her fiery hits, “I’m not here for your entertainment”. Not all female celebrities choose to pose on men’s magazine covers, for instance. But, all female celebrities are subjected to sexual objectification. In this regard, it feels like we have selective outrage. When it happens to the young lady who documented her trials, we labelled it sexual harassment. When it happens to actresses, though, we dub it entertainment. So if we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s remark, it is just treatment – that is, let us humanize our female celebrities and not reduce them to a collection of sexual parts. Their crafts should be enjoyed as entertainment, not their bodies.
When I dig deeper still,
I see a field that is so besieged by patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that damn near everything feels as though it is reinforcing those archaic ideals. And rightfully so. Women in leadership positions aren’t given the same respect as men in those same roles. Some politicians are determined to politicize contraception, taking control from women over their bodies. And even though we denounce sexual violence, we still ask women to take ownership for preventing assaults committed against them. Those atrocities are surely worthy of our attention and outrage.
Yet, while many issues are rooted in sexism, not every issue is. Not every issue reinforces male privilege and not every issue furthers patriarchy. Take manspreading, for instance. You know, where a man is seated on a train, bus, or other public venue, and spreads his legs such that he covers two seats. Taking away seats that other passengers could occupy. Limiting seating options for women. When we delve into this issue, however, we will find that manspreading affects women as well as men. It affects anyone who’s looking to occupy an empty seat, really. Additionally, a man spreading his legs across two seats is just as restrictive as a person (perhaps a woman) sitting in one chair, while placing their bag in another chair, effectively taking up two seats. So while manspreading may be an annoyance – and an irritation and leave some too intimidated to speak up – it is not a privilege given unto men that women cannot have. Nor does it confine women as second-class citizens. Suffice it to say, I am not part of the feminist movement that believes manspreading is worthy of our outrage. In and of itself, manspreading may not be trivial. But when compared to the gender wage gap, for instance, it is trivial.
So when we voice outrage about issues such as manspreading, and we give it the same level of contempt as we do the gender wage gap, for instance, it comes off as both disingenuous and disrespectful to the latter. If we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s joke, it is that our collective outrage can use some perspective.
During his opening monologue, Chris Rock made me laugh and then he made me cringe. But, his jokes forced me to do some self-inventory – Is it the red-carpet interviews or the awards’ pre-shows? Are we okay with sexual harassment or sexual objectification? Do we apply sexism to everything or those specific issues that are truly, unjust? This isn’t giving him a pass – as mentioned above, his comment trivializes many sacrifices and accomplishments. So I didn’t laugh at Chris Rock’s joke because it had strong comedic value. But because it challenged me to consider how can we reach people outside of the movement, and bring them in. If it means admitting “everything’s not sexism”, let’s assess it and have a dialogue. If we hope to engage the masses, we have to meet them where they are, in order to eventually bring them into our mix. More than that, we have to remain open to self-analysis – whether the criticism is coming from someone inside, or outside, of our field. It’s complicated. Not everything is about sexism. But we have to admit some things are still about sexism. Moreover, we cannot let the perception that everything’s not sexism prevent us from addressing that which is about sexism. For so many of us, it is sexism – and its many manifestations – that drive us to do this work. If we’re going to be driving the bus, we have to keep our focus on the final destination, while also remaining open to different routes (in this case, critical assessment) that’ll help get us to that destination.
Sooooo this happened.
Not only did I have the luxury of getting Tim Wise’s autograph, I had the privilege of attending an event where Mr. Wise gave a riveting address. It was absolutely outstanding. To borrow a line from the sitcom “Martin”, it was all that and a pot of grits! I had heard plenty of Mr. Wise’s lectures and talks on online channels, but this was different. Being in the room and hearing the inflection in his voice when he spoke the most salient points, listening to the quickness with which he sometimes spoke (which reminded me of my own fast-talking style), and sensing his frustrations over a student who tried to monopolize the Q and A session, those were just some of the advantages I could have only received by attending the session with Mr. Wise, in person. It was akin to drinking orange juice with pulp. Sure, in essence, pulped orange juice is the same as orange juice without pulp. But the pulp is a flavorful reminder that you are drinking orange juice. Not apple juice or cranberry juice. Not fruit punch of Kool-Aid. But, orange juice. Similarly, seeing and hearing Mr. Wise speak in person, was a flavorful reminder of where I was, and more importantly, why I was there.
The messages Mr. Wise delivers resonates with me for a multitude of reasons. One of those reasons is that he (being a White male, taking on a supposed Black issue, delivering it to mostly-White audiences) has made the discussion about race and racism easier to have, to the extent that discussing race can be easy, that is.
See, I’ve noticed that whenever I speak about race, racism, or racial constructs, SOME of my friends who are White (and even some who are Black) respond that I’m being too sensitive, that I need to have thicker skin, how it’s only a joke. In much the same way my male friends reply that I can’t take a joke because I don’t laugh when comedians who use rape as comedic material. I won’t laugh at the horror suffered by a survivor of sexual violence, just like I won’t laugh at the pains suffered by someone who’s been afflicted with cancer.
It’s almost as if they’re saying, why do you care so much about this. Well, for starters, the discussion about race or racism is not purely an intellectual conversation for me. It goes much deeper than that. Here’s what I mean, I’d suspect that people who have not been targeted because of their race are able to have a dialogue about racism from a purely intellectual perspective. What they think about racism, much the same way one can talk about a fire that’s happening in another state. It’s from a distance. It’s something that someone else is experiencing. So the thoughts and ideas are conceptual or idealistic. As in, if people are experiencing harassment by law enforcement, they ought to comply because, in the end, officers of the law are here to protect us. Well, in an ideal world, yes, that should be the case for everyone. But, we live in America – a land that, while it has its advantages, it is far from idealistic.
So for me, and I’d suspect this to be true of other Black folks, a dialogue about race, racism, and racial constructs is way beyond intellectual. It’s first psychological, then emotional, and then further down the line, intellectual. Given the same example as above, when people of color experience harassment by law enforcement, it stimulates painful memories of an uncle who told stories of cops taking him down by the docks so no one could hear him scream. Or stories about people like Emmitt Till, murdered for supposedly whistling as a White woman. Or stories, and images, of our enslaved ancestors, whipped, kicked, spat on; raped, pillaged, and torn from their families. Harassment by one officer is never just that. For us, it’s always linked to the historical treatment of our people. Treatment that was legal, at one point in time. I sometimes ask myself why in the world would America find it wrong that police harass Black folk in 2016 if it was legal for police, and any other White citizen, to kill Black folk in 1955? Even in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated? We’ve had some major accomplishments in the past 50 years, but elements of injustices are still alive and well.
Then, it moves to an emotional level. Fear of being killed. Anger for the way my grandmother was berated by a White cop. Frustration at the calculated prejudice, targeting of Black and Brown folks, yet turning the other way when the same actions (criminal, suspicious, or not) are committed by White folks. The agony knowing officers don’t give a shit about you. The hypocrisy stirring inside – sure your great-great grandfather may have fought for this country. But, he had no more rights than a dog. Not able to vote, own his own home, or pursue the supposed American dream. Now in present-day America, while you may have more advantages than your great-great grandfather, you still are without many of those same freedoms.
If you’re able to move past those states, then, perhaps an intellectual conversation about race can be had. But it’s pretty hard to be unbiased, when you’re the recipient of all of the biased behaviors. It’d be like someone asking you to give an opinion about home invasions that does not take into account the thousands of times your home was burglarized. Or having an unbiased stance on drunk driving laws, when your parents were killed by a drunk driver. It’s damn near difficult to not see racism in many of the injustices inflicted upon Black and Brown folks when so much of the historical treatment of Black and Brown folks was racial. In many respects, these two worlds are simply not mutually-exclusive. Not, one, bit.
So, to my friends who are White, that’s where I’m coming from. When you hear about a Black teenager that was killed by a White police officer, it may not even trigger an emotional response. But perhaps, an intellectual comment – so sad. And your empathy is good, so don’t get my wrong. But when I hear about a Black teenage that was killed by a White police officer (or vigilante citizen) – Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown – I shutter, knowing very well, the next Black male could be me (although I am far from a teen). Or worse, my son.
We all have fears. Some are irrational and humorous, like people who fear they’ll be eaten by a shark if they step foot in the waters of Lake George. Other fears, however, are warranted, like fearing you might be killed by a police officer if you don’t comply, or sit in your chair as he barks order, or disobey a command, or look him in the eye, or possess anything that could be mistaken for a weapon (whether it be a toy gun or cell phone box), or makes the officer fear for their life. These sort of justifications sound eerily similar to the reasons slave owners gave for enslaving our African ancestors, beating their slaves who were disobedient, punishing Blacks for wanting more rights and freedoms, and legalizing the mistreatment of Black folk who advocated for equality. It wasn’t that long ago that it was legal, that is, not against the law, to beat abuse and murder Black folks who misbehaved.
If America wants me, and other people of color, to lay down our fears, it first must be willing to lay down the ill-treatment of its non-White citizens. Whether Black men, or Persian women. More than that, we should be prosecuting White police officers who kills Black teenagers the same way we prosecute any other murderer. But also, owning up to the racist past that our country was built upon and working to create a more equal tomorrow.
I’m not asking America to pay for the years of counseling I’d most likely need to get over my fears, anxieties, and paranoias. What I am asking is that America stop breathing life into those fears because Black folks aren’t allowed to have mental illnesses, but that’s another subject for another day.
I’m going to risk being in the minority here – in more ways than one – but for all of my dear friends and colleagues, passionately working to end sexual violence, clinging to bystander intervention principals, I am issuing the following challenge:
Is bystander intervention really the best method with which we ought to be addressing this issues of preventing sexual and dating violence?
Not to expose our own dirty laundry, but let’s get down with it and examine how we teach about bystander intervention.
Do we educate, in in-depth manners, the meaning of the word, bystander. Do we discuss, in the amount of time necessary, how the term bystander came to be in our social consciousness? Do we analyze Kitty Genovese, and the seemingly ever-changing details of her murder? Or, do we, sloppily play videos of “What Would You Do”, and ask audiences to react…as if, after seeing how people did not react, anyone in our audience will be honest enough to say they would not intervene, in some way.
Next, how many of us use the same sloppy, if not stereotypical scenario – College party. Soberish guy giving girl drink after drink until she can barely stand up. At which point, guy attempts to take girl someplace secluded – upstairs, downstairs, outside. Anywhere where they can be alone. At this point, the bystander is supposed to notice this incident and step up. Seems pretty standard, from damn near every training, lecture, webinar, and conference I’ve attended. This scenario has begun to irritate me for two reasons. First, it gives audiences a faulty perception of what the set-up of a sexual assault looks like. It leaves students thinking they should be on the look-out for guys feeding girls drinks, only. Never mind the fact that – from the research done on college rapists – his friend are usually in on the plan, and are aiding and abetting him in the process. It doesn’t take into account the rapes that happen between same-sex couples; boyfriend-girlfriends, behind closed doors; or when there is no alcohol present. No party, no booming music, no one around to act as a bystander. Secondly, from all of the advocacy work I’ve done with survivors, this scenario makes up a fraction of sexual assault scenarios. Using this scenario could actually be doing more harm than good, but we’ve clung to it, as the best way to teach bystander intervention.
Lastly, and let’s just for argument’s sake, say the previous two points play out in the affirmative. If we educate and empower bystander to intervene when they see that exact high-risk situation happening, have we truly prevention sexual violence? Of course, in that instant, we have. So there’s a MAJOR win. (I will not deny that preventing at least one person from victimization is worth the battle!) But, that’s certainly not how we’re educating students. We’re telling students that intervening in those moments prevent rape, as a whole. That it will stop that would-be rapist from raping, in that moment, and ever again. And that’s what we need to dig through. If we stop one would-be rapist, in one moment in time, who’s to say that the rapist won’t target another victim, at the same party, later than evening? Or that the rapist won’t devise another scheme where they are no bystanders to assist? If we empower students to thwart one rape, can we say that we truly have changed how that would-be rapist behaves, overall? As Time Wise notes in White Like Me, “telling someone not to engage in racist commentary in front of you isn’t the same as getting them to stop practicing racism.” Similarly, getting one would-be rapist to stop one act isn’t the same as getting that person to change their beliefs, and thus their actions, on their own.
What’s more – and we ought to do some critical thinking here, too – if we operate under the assumption that survivors are in our audiences, and thus, we deliver content sensitively and appropriately, we must also accept the fact that people who have already committed rape, as well as those who will go on to commit rape, will be in our audiences, as well. Giving them our models on bystander theory can certainly motivate them to create alternative ways of carrying out sexual assaults.
Now I’m not calling for educators and preventionists to stop using bystander approaches. What I am challenging my friends and colleagues to do is – some thorough analysis and critical thinking. Let’s stop feeding audiences the rhetoric. Let’s spend time unpacking these very complicated issues and let’s stop being lazy and haphazardly reviewing concepts during the last few minutes we have, just to say we met some measure. Let’s stop making things so goddamn simplistic. Sure it sounds good to say to people “we can prevent rape, if bystanders will step up!” When we do that, though, are we really, truly preventing rapists from valuing, contemplating, planning, and carrying out rape? Or are we just displacing the blame, yet again, because the alternative seems too damn difficult?
To my friends and colleagues, and those who openly discuss bystander theory, let’s give the theory the respect it deserves, and analyze it, fully, as another tool to help prevent sexual violence. It’s not the tool that will end sexual violence on its own. Let’s give the complexities of rape the respect it deserves, as well. It’s not some simple entity that can be stopped by someone checking in, or saying, “I have to go to the bathroom, can you come with me”. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Let’s also give survivors the respect they deserve, and stop regurgitating the “if only there was a bystander” talk. How might that make survivors feel, to reanalyze their assaults, yet again, wondering why someone didn’t step up? Or that, as a field, we hold the bystanders just as culpable as we hold the rapists. I’m calling bullshit on that, and I challenge my friends and colleagues to do the same.
It was a simple question, really. A woman sitting near the back of the dimly-let theater, in the center of a row full of young men, had asked how she, as a woman, could get through to the young men with whom she worked. The entire panel paused and the moderator scanned our faces, as the Jeopardy music – that seems to make time stand still – sounded as though it were playing in the background.
Who’s going to answer this one, I could see the audience thinking.
After taking a breath, and getting the go-ahead from my fellow panelists, I reached out and grabbed the microphone. My answer went something like this:
It’s tough, right, to be a woman teaching teenage boys how to become young men. So on the one hand, you certainly want to acknowledge your woman-ness going into a male space. It doesn’t mean that you cannot permeate that space, though. But that you definitely want to acknowledge the barriers and challenges that will come along with, as a woman, trying to teach teenage boys how to become men.
On the other hand, you can’t let being a woman stop you from working with young men, and teaching them about masculinity.
Again, this is a complicated issue, with no magical, quick-fix, singular type of solution. So I’ll try to break it down into a few specific, concrete steps – First, as a woman you have to build trust and (much like the my fellow panelist articulated in a previous answer) show the young men that you love them. That you have their backs. This isn’t easy, and you will encounter challenges along the way. But, I worked with one school counselor, who tells me how she had developed such a close relationships with her male students that they would disclose all of their sexual escapades to her. Using the same profane, colorful language they would use as if she were male. In this respect, trust and love are the foundation for building and leading men.
Secondly, as a woman, you can introduce young men to men who can serve as mentors. This isn’t to take away from the many lessons you will teach these young men. But, it means connecting them to men who have certain areas of expertise, like fixing cars or managing stock options. Guys who coach sports or play musical instruments. In our collective effort to remove the shackles of macho, misogynistic, violent definitions of masculinity from our teenage boys, it would behoove us to connect our youth with men from different backgrounds, who represent the many forms of masculinity and who are outside of the Man Box. Not just so our young men can determine the versions of masculinity they want to emulate, but so they will develop networks, and support systems of men, from which to learn and draw wisdom.
Finally, as a woman, you want help young men build skills and competencies that they will carry with themselves for the rest of their lives. Skills and competencies that will help him carve out who they are, versus who everyone else wants them to be. When you encourage the young man who has a strong interest in dance and choreography, to pursue his passion, you are teaching him to embrace what makes him unique, and not follow the crowd. When you suggest that another young man plays sports when he shows athletic inclinations, you introduce him to the concept of teamwork and being a part of something that is greater than himself. But probably the best way to help instill in young men life skills and competencies, is to role model these traits yourself. The single mom who works 3 jobs, teaches her son just as much, if not more, about work ethic, sacrifice, and perseverance than that young man could ever learn from anyone. (Parenthetically, which is why athletes who are recognized at the highest levels will thank and recognize the contributions their mothers have made, in helping them become the men they are today.) So keep on doing the great job that you’re doing; just know there is a payoff at the end.
In putting this all together, a class or course on masculinity could be really valuable. Just like students learn about English, math, Spanish, and history, so too should we encourage and steer our young men to examine what does it mean to be a man, in structured spaces, using purposeful methods. That could look like young men having a weekly masculinity group. Or participating in recreational activities, and then journaling about what that sport or activity is teaching them, about life. Or connecting with male mentors, and identifying the versions of masculinity they would like to emulate. This could also be taking young men to museums and aquariums, arranging for tours on college campuses, having them volunteer (or do internships) with businesses and non-profit agencies. The young man who is cultured will have more opportunities from which to draw, and carve out, the type of man he wants to become, and not succumb to the stereotypical Man Box.
In the end, though, what you really want to look for in the young men that you work with, is conflict. That strife or ambivalence. That thing inside of a young man that is struggling with the machismo, violent, misogynistic versions of masculinity that he sees, compared the type of man that he wants to become. For, if we can get our young men to that tipping point, we can show them the greener pastures, and have them choose versions of masculinity that are healthier, more empathetic, less violent, more accepting of women as equals, less likely to need to prove one’s own masculinity, and take the road less travelled.
All of these things, and many others, you can teach the young men that you work with. I know what it’s like. I grew up in a household full of women, and I am the man I am today because of it!
Leave it to college students to help break me out of a funk. I can’t deny, I was disappointed, disgusted, and downright disheartened over the grand jury not indicting the officer who killed Mike Brown. Another Black life taken, from an officer sworn to protect and serve. More than that, another message was sent, that the lives of young Black men do not matter, or, at least, do not matter as much. (Matter as much as what? I’ll leave that up to you.) All day my mind went adrift – What if what happened in Ferguson, happened in New Jersey? What if I were pulled over, and, unbeknownst to me, I made the officer feel so “uncomfortable” that he drew his gun on me. What if I was Mike Brown?
And then I saw this.
A swarm of Rutgers students marching and chanting, chanting and marching. Black students, Brown students, and White students. Holding signs, screaming about the injustice that happened in Ferguson, voicing their displeasure. It was an inspirational sight to see, but then it became more than that. It showed me what we should be doing, about our collective displeasure. Not just sharing our opinions on social media – although that is important and helpful. But, actually taking a stand, in whatever way feels organic to us.
College students have the opportunity to use academic and social resources – taking classes to learn more about complex issues like criminal justice or psychology; and holding rallies and marches to protest injustices, all over the country.
While adults may not have the time to protest every, single, injustice, we do have other resources to tap into – namely, our occupational and economic resources. Here’s what I mean:
Teachers can help, by using texts, theories, and reading materials by authors and experts who are Black and Brown, gay and lesbian. In the classroom, we can do a better job of helping students value the contributions from these so-called other voices by bringing them to light, and not just during Black History Month. We teach students, on a year-round basis, to value the contributions of African-Americans, and they’ll go from compartmentalizing the contributions of African-Americans, to accepting those contributions as just as much a part of their fabric as their own history. Taking it a step further, books like Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States can help students go from simply regurgitating what teachers want to hear, to actually thinking or themselves.
Cops and police officers can help, by working within the system, to change police practices that normalize violence against underprivileged, inner-city, Black and Brown boys. I’ve heard all about the code amongst police officers. The brotherhood and fraternity. But, what about the times when an officer clearly uses deadly, and unjustifiable, force? We need the good police officers to hold the bad police officers accountable, like this video from MSNBC suggests.
Similarly, lawyers can help by holding their own accountable, as well. Prosecutors who don’t bring charges against murders. Attorneys who don’t provide jurors with enough evidence to render a guilty verdict. Sometimes, it seems that the lawyers are either incompetent or ignorant. We need the good lawyers to hold the bad ones accountable, and we need the good attorneys to step up and work on the side of justice in these cases.
Financial planners, insurance salesmen and women, and doctors can also help. It may not be with their time, but they can definitely help by donating money. Boys and Girls clubs all over America work to serve underprivileged communities, and with more financial help, more teens and adolescents can attend after-school programs, get academic support, and learn job-readiness skills. No, this may not solve racism, or violence from police officers to Black and Brown teens. But it will give those Black, Brown, and underprivileged teens the resources and skills to become their own best advocates.
Speaking of advocates, and social workers, they too can help. Not just by doing their jobs, helping clients find and organize their voices, find and practice healthy coping mechanisms. But also by advocating on behalf of clients who cannot stand up for, or advocate on behalf of themselves. Advocates and social workers can also be helpful by practicing self-care. The more the professionals who care for underprivileged teens take care of themselves, the better equipped they’ll be to fight for what is right. Self-care is not a luxury; it’s a part of what makes for an effective clinician.
We ALL can help, by electing officials who show compassion and value for Black and Brown lives, for the LGBT community, and for women. We need to elect more officials like Elizabeth Warren, instead of Todd Akin.
More than that, we can also help by valuing Black and Brown lives every day. Whether you’re a member of a Black and Brown community, or not. Let’s hold protests to end gang violence. Let’s start programs to get guns off the street. Let’s stop wearing shirts with slogans like Don’t snitch. Now, this is not the same as a White officer killing a Black teen, simply because the teen is Black. But, buuuuut, we can’t simply be moved by the killing of a Black teen when the murderer is White. If we’re going to say that the lives of Black and Brown teens matter, they have to matter all of the time, and not just the time that fits an aesthetic.
Even members of the media, like CNN, can help. The more we villianize teens like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, talking about the teenagers’ failures and wrongdoings, the more we perpetuate the notion that it is okay to murder, or take Black lives, because in the end, they’re all monsters, anyway. I take exception to that rhetoric. Black lives matter when it comes to entertainment, but not when it comes to violence, right newscasters?
But not only that, let us all put pressure on legislators to take a stand by repealing laws that have come to serve as a platform for furthering racial injustice, and enacting laws that criminalize racial, gender-based, economic injustices and practices.
Our artists and entertainers can also take a stand by not promoting or putting our music, movies, or video games that glorifies and violence and the devaluing of Black and Brown lives. We can have the debate as to whether art imitates life or life reflects art, but one thing we cannot deny is that violent media messages have an impact. Just read the diatribe of school shooters, or mass murders, and we find that when teens listen to music, watch movies, or play video games with violent content, that content begins to impact their decision-making skills, as suggested by Brad Bushamn, professor at Ohio State University, and other notable researchers. This isn’t to say violent video games cause school shooting, only that there is a correlation – aggression levels are raised and empathy towards others decreases. So when artists spit ill fire – “But nobody saw when I…smoked him, roped him, sharpened up the shank then I poked him” (courtesy of Twain Gotti, a hip hop artist who rapped about a murder he allegedly committed) – the message sounds eerily similar to that of the Black and Brown teens who are murdered at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve. The message being we don’t value your life.
Artists and entertainers can even go a step further, and take a stand by using their voices to bring attention to such injustices. Check the transcript of Jesse Williams!
For me, everything starts at the top. So, even the president of these United States can take a stand by voicing concern about violence against Black and Brown teens, as well as injustices towards the LGBT community, women (no matter their political ideation), and others. And when the president speaks about these injustices, as he did following the death of Trayvon Martin, we should applaud his efforts (just as we did when the president spoke, just as passionately and staunchly, after the Newtown school shooting) instead of crucifying him. We want the president to take a firm stand against foreign threats, but we want him to pretend the lives Black and Brown teens don’t matter when the threats are right in our own backyards.
I learned something from watching those college students march, today. I learned that if this issue truly outrages us all, there is something that we can do. In ways that feel organic, and make sense for us, simply by tapping into the resources that we already have.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, why should I care what happened in Ferguson. Well, as we learned from Martin Niemoeller, “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Don’t speak out about injustices now, and run the risk of who will stand up for your brother, who’s gay; or your daughter, who marries a Latin man; or your best friend, who suffers a stroke; or your old college roommate, who contracts HIV; or your sister, who experiences sexual and domestic violence in her marriage. If you don’t take a stand for any of them, who will be there to stand a stand for you?
This case was about Mike Brown, but when you think about it, it’s also about so much more.
As a final word on the Ray Rice case…
After listening to various people comment on the Ray Rice assault, the suspension, the press conference, and the role he played (or lack thereof, depending on one’s perspective), I come away with one impression: people’s take on the assault says something. For me, it speaks to how much they value men AND women.
Saying Ray Rice was provoked suggests that he has no control over his actions. As an athlete, if he can control himself enough to juke a player out of his jockstrap, he can certainly control himself enough to not hit his wife. (Parenthetically, Mrs. Ray Rice wasn’t just hit. She was knocked unconscious. Do you know how hard you have to hit someone to know them unconscious?!) See, I studied psychology, and I have a love-hate relationship with the subject. I know all about theories on controlling emotions and behaviors. Here’s my take – we can control our emotions, but only sometimes. Here’s what I mean (and this is a surface level example, so bear with me) – whenever I arrive late to work, I feel rushed and hurried, and I let that feeling taint what I do, how I do it, and when I do it. But, I could certainly choose to do a mental check-in, and decide not to let my tardiness affect the rest of my day. (It’s positive thinking, or whatever you want to call it.) In the one scenario, my actions (being late) caused my emotional response (rushed). In the other scenario, I gained control of my emotions to put forth a healthier action/behavior.
So even if you go off the notion that Ray Rice was provoked, what does it say about him, that he would resort to hitting his wife (and let me reiterate, Mrs. Ray Rice wasn’t just hit. She was knocked unconscious. Do you know how hard you have to hit someone to know them unconscious?! Sorry, I know that’s overkill!) whenever he’s angry, upset, frustrated, or….(gulp!) provoked! When you use the Ray Rice was provoked argument, it say something about how you see men – that they can beat the crap out of someone if they get angry, upset, frustrated, etc. Wait, I’m sorry, I thought there was never a time or place for a man to hit a woman. (Yes, that’s sarcasm you smell!)
So was Ray Rice really provoked? Or are people justifying his act because Ray Rice is a man, and his wife is a woman. Let me ask this another way – do we accept the violent act because Ray Rice is a man and his wife is a woman? You can say no, it’s never okay to his a woman. But, the words – he was provoked – say something much deeper.
Let’s look at this from a 30,000 feet level, and peel back the layers where our musicians sing/rap about hitting women, and when they do in real life, we give them second chances and see their apologetic actions as endearing. (See Chris Brown) Ditto movies, TV shows, and magazines. Was Ray Rice really provoked, or was he merely existing, as a man, in our society where we tell men (both covertly and overtly) it’s okay, you can hit women…just make sure you apologize afterwards. You can even be redeemed! Let’s look further, shall well – what about politicians and political pundits who say damaging things about women, about how women can’t be raped because their bodies have a way of “shutting that thing down”? Or the scores of men who try and take away women’s reproductive rights? So was Ray Rice really provoked, or was he merely breathing, as a man, in our society where we tell men it’s okay, you can control women…it even says so in the bible! Don’t stop there, let’s look even further – what about the countless men who abuse the women in their lives and are never held accountable? According to RAINN, 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail. That means only 3% of rapists are convicted! So if rape is such a horrible crime, why don’t more men who commit rape spend time in jail? Here’s a dirty little secret – because, for many of us, domestic/dating violence, like sexual violence, is only bad when it’s happening to you, or someone you know. When it’s happening to someone else, that’s when people will say – she provoked it. When it hits close to home, though, then it’s time to march or raise money. Then it’s time to take action.
Worse, we don’t convict abusers and rapists because, well, we tell ourselves they didn’t mean it…she put herself in that situation…she let it happen…she provoked it. And when we say those things, what we’re really saying is, men have a RIGHT to act a certain way (violent, sexual, sexually violent, etc.) and if women don’t want to get caught up in that, they should not date men, they should not let abuse happens, they should not wear short shirts, or they should run like hell the first time an argument with a boyfriend ensues. When we say Ray Rice was provoked, we are granting abusers and rapists all the privileges in the world and we are failing to hold them accountable for their actions. Instead, we are putting the blame and onus on the woman. Wait, I’m sorry, did I just write that?! Yes, when we say Mrs. Rice provoked her husband, we are blaming HER for the incident! We are blaming her for her victimization. Wait, who was it that was knocked unconscious. That’s right…Mrs. Rice. But, she should have known better, right?! Because, after all, getting beat unconscious comes with being a woman, right??!!? (again, more sarcastic odor) When you say bologna like she provoked it, it say something about how you see women – that they can be hit, abused, knocked unconscious, raped, and exploited all because a man got, angry, upset, frustrated, or just felt like it.
So don’t tell me that a man shouldn’t hit a woman, BUT…, and then go on to give some BS rational. Because when you say Ray Rice was provoked, what you’re really saying is, it’s okay for a man to hit a woman, because…
When men talk about the Ray Rice case and say things like, she provoked it, for me, it says something about how those men view and value men (and men’s actions) and, more importantly, how those men view and value women.
The conscientious men out there will get it, and will know that this does not even apply to them. For all the other men, here’s a mirror, maybe it’s time to take a look at your reflection.
It happened again this week, and then it happened again, and again. Shootings. But not just shootings, killing of innocent people. By men (not women, mind you), all with something to prove. It’s tough to bring myself to write about senseless tragedies and how we ALL need to “step up” to stop these shootings. The posts are everywhere, and at times, read like rhetoric. Empty promises to live life to the fullest. Vowing to do better. Banning together to finally enact change.
For me, what matters most is that yet another state and school system has been affected. Another candlelight vigil has been had and another community has been left heartbroken. Another set of families have been left wondering why, wishing they could hug their son or daughter just once more, pleading into television cameras, urging politicians to do something. What matters is that we are all affected, as if these shootings have become a virus, afflicting every town, every state, every region of the country.
So that prompted me to take another trip to Sal’s, because, like it or not, these shootings are being carried out by boys and young men who struggle with certain pillars of what we’re told makes a man – in power, in control, and entitled. We can’t just think about preventing violence against women today. We also must consider what we can do today, that will help prevent violence against women tomorrow. So here are a few ways we can reach, and engage, boys and young men in redefining masculinity, in a forward-thinking, big picture vantage point.
What do we know about these shooters? Amongst other traits, they sought power and control, they wanted respect, and they had a sense of entitlement. As we learn from Dr. David Lisak, these are the same salient characteristics, and driving forces, of those 8-15% of guys (in a given school, campus, or community) that commit rape. Even though this is a small percentage of guys who commit sexual violence, they are inflicting pain on about 20-25% of women in a given school, campus, or community, and terrifying women everywhere, who search for ways to keep themselves safe from victimization. So redefining masculinity has a direct correlation on the safety and well being of women.
But that shouldn’t be our only reason for redefining masculinity. How many more men can we lose to jail or death or troubled lives, all because they think women “owe” them something? We should prevent violence against women because in doing so, we also reach men who are venturing down the path of destruction.
The impact of the good guys cannot be overstated. By reaching that one floundering, ostracized, or socially-awkward young man, you can not only help HIM, but potentially help the handful of women he may go on to victimized, ensuring their lives will not be turned upside down by brushes with sexual violence, at the hands of another boy-turned mad, scorned by rejection. Getting through to a young man like your nephew, cousin, or student can have a profound impact on him, as well your daughter, sister, or neighbor.