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Two views of black masculinity

Circumstances have once again robbed me of the time and energy to dig too deep into blogging. Part of this is a massive paper that I have just finished – it looks at whether or not mandatory childhood vaccination is legally, ethically, and scientifically justified in a Canadian context. Part of it is prepping for my Eschaton2012 presentation that I will be giving in Ottawa this weekend. Part of it is prioritizing my personal relationships above blogging, given how much of a time suck these other two things have been. At any rate, no post for you today.

In lieu, I want to highlight two essays on a topic I’ve had some call to think about recently. The first is by Robert Reece, perhaps better known to some of you as PhuzzieSlippers, a former guest on the SERIOUSLY?! podcast*:

This experience is one that is unique to black men. Our perceived hyper masculinity, supposedly outstanding physical prowess and abnormal aggression, makes us scary and intimidating to white people. This isn’t new, and it’s something that we’ve learned to deal with. The purse gripping, refusals to join us in an elevator, white women scurrying around corners when we walk behind them, have all become a part of life that we simply accept with little power to change. In the course of growing my dreadlocks, I was even told by a supervisor, a really nice and supposedly liberal older white woman, that my hair made me look “more dangerous,” implying not only that I looked dangerous before I began to grow my hair but that my new, “black” hairstyle increased the level of threat attached to my body.

That is the life of a black man in a white world, one fraught with stigma and fear, but certainly returning home to our own communities would allow us to walk around freely without frightening those around us. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as we go from being subordinate in white spaces to dominant and hegemonic in black spaces.

The second appears on one of my favourite blogs, Racialicious, and is penned by guest author R.N. Bradley:

On the flip side of this question is the implication(s) of what phrases like “rape me so good” suggest for black boys and black men? Upon asking my male students if they had been sat down and talked to about rape and rape prevention they shyly admitted they had not. When we talk about rape, it is often gendered and geared towards women without little consideration for (black) men. There is a need to tackle this issue, especially with folks like Too $hort telling little boys to sexually assault girls to get their attention. Indeed, it is MUCH bigger than Too $hort. Compound that with a young girl or woman casually claiming their willingness to be raped because “he fine?” What language is left when a girl or woman, supposedly asking for rape, “gets what she asked for?”

Sex as validating men for discourse is a sharp dichotomy of sexual prowess as strength and sexual power as predatory. Real black men smash anything that moves. Real black men grind it out–all puns intended–until, as Rick Ross so eloquently puts it, “put his dick in the dirt.” Yet the limitations of this highly compressed sexual identity leaves little room to express the vulnerability and frequent trauma set as the foundation of this type of black masculinity. In what ways do we address the victim and victimizer? Taimak’s character on the rape awareness episode of A Different World immediately comes to mind because of his inability–and unwillingness–to address characterizations of sexual violence. How messy is it that “no means no” no longer suffices as a band-aid for a serious conversation about rape (prevention).

The first stand-out comment that I have on both of these essays is that I approach them in many ways as an outsider. It is very rare that I operate in “black spaces” – this has been true for most of my life, actually. For me, my blackness and my maleness and the stereotypical attachments thereof are inextricably wed, which would preclude me from observing how they shift as Robert has done. And similarly, because most of my interactions happen in predominantly-white (or at least mixed-race) settings, I’ve had few opportunities to interact with and contextualize “black women” as a group. I have known individual black women, but have learned most of what I know about “black women” through second-hand accounts and peering through the windows of conversations.

What I will say is that my upbringing more or less completely precluded me from having to adopt any particular model of black masculinity, I am occasionally (and regularly) confronted by the racialized gender expectations of our culture. It’s usually in the form of “jokes”, especially of the type that people expect me to sympathize with them on (i.e., “That girl’s got a huge ass. I guess she’s all yours, eh Ian?”). Other times it’s simply in the suspicious/fearful looks I get while walking around on the streets (although, and this can’t be overstated, these are rare in Vancouver), or the fact that the seat next to me is almost always the last to be filled on a crowded bus, or when a fan of my band says my name is “ironic” because I look like such a “gangsta thug” (I play viola in the band).

The point being that we place these expectations on each other, and there is a real value in examining them critically and seeing if there’s any truth to them. Our mutual policing of race and gender expectations does none of us any favours, especially if those stereotypes also serve to oppress us both within and outside our immediate peer groups. It’s good to read the accounts of others and contrast them with my own.

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*By the way, there’s no podcast this week either. This one is Xavier’s “fault”.