Just a little while back I attended an event that was exploring masculinity broadly, but with an emphasis on Black masculinity. There was a panel discussion composed of young African-American teenagers with their moms and it was moderated by a man who mentors young guys. This event I thought was supposed to trouble traditional gender norms, but I could not have been more wrong.
As the questions from the audience started rolling in to ask these young men how they “survived the hood,” navigated challenging school systems, and issues of discrimination and targeting, they spoke of strict discipline regimes as a way to stay above the fray. As they spoke with smiles on their face, they talked about how their mothers punched them in the chest when they acted out and told them to man up. The audience, for the most part, laughed with the collective understanding that it was just “tough love” and that it was necessary to get them ready for a world that would continually try to make them a statistic. I did not find it funny at all.
I sat there squirming as I listened to them share their experiences with punishment and could not shake the feeling that something was amiss. As people laughed, I grew even more concerned of the normalization of violence against young boys, and in this case, toward young Black teens.
While I found much of the discussion on this panel that I thought was supposed to be about interrupting toxic masculinity disturbing, I was shocked at the responses to a question from an audience member. Someone asked the panel of mothers if they felt they could teach their young sons to be men, to which all of the mothers replied no. They felt like women could not teach men to be men, only men could do that.
I could no longer sit in my seat.
After listening to their responses I walked forward to mic and I said, what do you mean that you are not able to teach your young boys how to be men? How are you defining “manhood”? If manhood is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, being active in one’s community for the better, being open, honest, respectful, caring, and compassionate than I think you all can do that.
The room erupted with chatter, loud sighs, and an audible “no” and “I don’t think so.” I went back to my seat and the moderator shut the line of discussion down by reasserting that only a “man” could teach a boy to be a “man ” to which most everyone clapped in the audience very loudly.
In the moment I realized a few things:
1. Women do and can in fact teach boys to be a “man” for better or for worse. I had no doubt that those moms loved their sons deeply and unconditionally and yet were actually training their sons to be more “tough,” “masculine,” and “macho” at the expense of their son’s full humanity. In many ways, to be traditionally masculine is to deny the creative, the openness, the emotional intelligence, and the vulnerability that young boys and men desperately need.
2. It does a disservice to men and the women who love them, if women do not understand their importance in shaping healthy boys and men. It also creates an opening for women to in fact “teach” and transmit toxic conceptualizations of masculinity to those they love without even knowing it. Those moms were in fact teaching their sons lessons about gender and masculinity and how women can, and do, if they choose to embody both traditional masculine and feminine gender roles. Additionally, it would also negate the fact that many Black lesbian mothers out there who raise sons who grow up to be loving, caring, and compassionate men.
3. That people like myself, who are not traditionally masculine (e.g. nerds, geeks, gamers) as well as gender non-confirming people, are often left out of discussions about masculinity. This invisibility both marginalizes us and we are instantly deemed “not a man” as well as leaving out how toxic masculinity shows up differently for men who are not traditionally masculine. Because of this, we do not explore how sexism or patriarchy for example shows up in nerd, geek, or gamer culture for example.
I left that convening wondering if they want us to be men or to be whole.
The traditional and culturally specific ways that we are taught to be a “man” does not allow us to be whole, carefree, to embody joy and happiness in our every day lives. And we do not merely learn this lessons from just men. We learn them from women too. We are all socialized about what “men” and “women” are supposed to do, be, and act like. We are all transmitters of gender lessons and that also means that with greater awareness, we can also transmit different, new, and transformative lessons about gender that ensure all of us grow up and embody healthy masculinities and femininities.