The analysis of President Obama’s press conference on the George Zimmerman verdict focussed quite correctly upon America’s ongoing issues with race. I have no wish to once more revise the debate as to whether the verdict was reasonable or not (if you’re interested, I agreed with every word of Deborah Orr’s piece the other day) but there’s another aspect to the death of Trayvon Martin that has gone almost unnoticed.
When all the dust and bluster is cleared away, the inescapable likelihood is that Trayvon Martin would never have died had he been white. However as Obama subtly acknowledged, there is another part to that equation. Look at his words carefully:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.
Not every reference in his address specified gender, but most did. Yes, black women are also subject to racism, to prejudice and suspicion, and I do not for a moment seek to downplay that. However it goes without saying that assumptions about race and ethnicity intersect and react with assumptions about gender to create very different outcomes. It was not just that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he were not African-American, he would probably still be alive today if he had not been male.
Black men in the US are the most vulnerable racial-gender group for almost every known health condition. in 2001 their life expectancy gap to Asian women was 21 years. In 1990 it was reported that black men in Harlem had a lower life expectancy than men in Bangladesh. There are similar statistics in education, in employment, in mental health and, most famously, in the criminal justice system as both prisoners and victims.
To understand this we need to appreciate not only the assumptions that are made about black people, but also the assumptions that are made about men. In both cases we are talking not only about the externally imposed prejudices, but also internalised markers of identity -what we ourselves believe to be the appropriate and acceptable ways for someone like us to behave, assumptions which are inevitably informed by and reactive to dominant cultural values, including racial and gendered stereotypes.
To understand why Trayvon Martin died, we need to understand how society perpetuates narratives about the criminality and violent tendencies of men. That helps to explain why Zimmerman made the assumptions he did about the 17 year old, and also perhaps why the pursuit became a deadly confrontation (without necessarily having to apportion blame on either side.)
This seems to me a grimly profound example of what feminists and critical race theorists call an intersectional relationship. When different strains of prejudice and oppression collide they are not just added to each other in a 1+1=2 formula. They react with each other like reagents in a test tube, to create a new and unique. I’ve argued before that contrary to some feminists’ claims, misandry is indeed a thing. So too is black misandry – the stereotyping, negative prejudices and oppression visited very specifically upon black men – which is different not just in degree but in quality from either half of the whole, in other words there are assumptions made about black men which do not routinely apply to either all black people or to all men (aspects of sexuality or probable gang membership, for example.)
One very useful insight of millennial feminism has been that different oppressive structures (eg sexism, racism, homophobia etc) are not independent, but mutually supportive. Patriarchy is strengthened by racism and so has a vested interest in preserving it. Homophobic structures are given protection by transphobic attitudes, and all the vice versas, all the different combinations. This is (broadly and simplistically) what is meant by kyriarchy. If one accepts this logic, it should be a contradiction in terms to be a transphobic feminist or a racist gay rights campaigner.
I do accept this. I believe that the systematic gender oppression of men is an essential element of the economic system, running alongside and parallel to the systematic gender oppression of women. Feminists say that patriarchy hurts men too. I’d go further – I believe patriarchy hates men too. Since my last couple of blogs on these issues I’ve cautiously started adopting the phrase patriarchal misandry. One Twitter feminist described this as “the single most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” and given my general disagreements with the same person, I take that to be a validation. The phrase captures for me how psychological, emotional and physical traumas are imposed routinely or sporadically upon men purely as a result of their gender, in large part in order to nail them to their expected place in the social order. That place that includes being the oppressor of others, whether you want to or not, and it includes not just the gender hierarchies of society, but the racial, sexual, social and economic hierarchies of society.
Having said all that, I think anyone who is concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of men has to understand how sexism. racism, homophobia, ableism and every other form of oppression and imposition are all part of the same package. A men’s activist who remains indifferent to the mechanics of racism is as self-defeating as the transphobic feminist. A men’s activist who actively contributes to misogyny or homophobia is bolstering the very system he presumes to change.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy hinges on negative stereotypes, but in different contexts supposedly positive stereotypes can be equally harmful. I wrote recently about a men’s group co-ordinator from London called Kenny D’Cruz, who commissioned me to help tell his story of his struggles with his own mental health. Kenny came to the UK as a refugee from Uganda. Fleeing the most terrible dangers, he lived through months in transit camps and years of racism in a small, all-white Welsh town. But the oppression which may have done the greatest damage to his emotional wellbeing was when he was separated from his father at the airport in Uganda and told “You are the head of the family now, you must look after your brother and mother.”
This expectation that a 9-year-old boy would be head of a household (which still included his mother, incidentally) is deeply patriarchal and sexist. It can also be deeply damaging, as it proved to be in Kenny’s case. It is simply unreasonable to expect a small child to take emotional responsibility for the wellbeing of a traumatised family, (however symbolic it may be, and in Kenny’s case it wasn’t). This is an extreme example of the social forces which, at root, can largely explain so many of the issues in health, wellbeing and social attainment for men today. The pressures which drive men to be big cheese on their block, in their gated community or in their merchant bank are to a large extent the same pressures that drive men to the prison gates and the psychiatric wards.