Understanding Black Masculinity
Author: Khalei Suol
Black masculinity is multifaceted, complex, and can lead to toxic/warped self-views and low self-esteem. The foundation of black masculinity is a response to a series of historical traumatic events. These events have forced African Americans to place hegemonic, hyper aggressive, self-sabotaging expectations on their boys and men. Through these expectations a series of conflicting thought patterns can manifest. For example, passiveness within this community is associated with weakness. Hence, if a man is naturally passive, he will fight within himself to be that which he is not, thus, creating inner conflict. Consequently, hyper aggression is born, which stems from wanting to be viewed as a man, fighting what has been culturally associated with weakness, and conflicting views of himself. There are things specific to the African American (AA) community and AA males that no other population has encountered. It is through these experiences, both current and historical, that African Americans have fashioned views, cultural norms, and standards of Black masculinity.
Skinner and McHale’s research sought to understand the developmental correlates of gender role orientation in a group of AA youth. Gender role speaks specifically to a pattern of behavior, personality traits, and attitudes that define masculinity or femininity in a particular culture. Gender constructs are created during the early stages in our development and can become the driving force behind gender views in adulthood. Masculinity is the possession of social role behaviors which are associated with the characteristics of being a boy or man. However, masculinity is not defined by maleness; maleness is determined by genetics. Thus, masculinity is associated with different characteristics within different cultures. For example, in Korea men of all ages wear makeup to heighten their features, smooth skin complexions, and give their skin a more “glass” like look. It is culturally normative for this to take place and these men can do so without being stripped of their masculinity. Likewise, some tribes in Africa associate masculinity with being skinny. In fact, they expect their men to be small and their women to be large. Both of these beliefs are opposite American gender constructs. American men are not stripped of their masculinity for being large and are stripped of their manhood for wearing makeup.
When we consider societal and community views it is possible to understand the behavior, response’s, and interactions within this group in social and romantic situations mutually. For AA men the development of a healthy view of self through masculinity is crucial. Members of this community whose natural habits challenge traditional views of manhood are made to believe they are inferior to those who meet these cultural requirements. For example, Anthony (a subject in Fields study) stated, “I’ve gotten into two fights in high school to try to prove who I am, you know what I mean. Like, okay, I put all that gay shit aside; now you about to see me, you know what I mean. Not sugar-coated either- it’s gonna be just me, and they found out the hard way, you know what I mean. I hate to be that way but it was hard …I always felt I had to prove my manhood…It seems like you always have to because you know what I mean your manhood is always at stake…. You know what I mean.”
In 2018 Griffith and Cornish conducted a study targeting middle aged AA men in order to understand their views on manhood. Through their research the idea of being a provider, self-reliant, and being respected were found to be associated with what defines a man. Moreover, the key traits associated with manhood included provider, self-reliant, caring, friendly, and accountable as well as a few others. This was an eye awakening moment for me being that protector wasn’t one of the strongest themes. Although each subject at some point mentioned the importance of being able to protect their family, more weight was placed on the traits mentioned above. For instance, one subject stated, “A man is God-fearing. A man is a protector, a provider, a man is kind but stern. A man has principles, has a core set of qualities that he believes in, which is defined by his faith, his moral conviction and by his character. A man motivates his family, his household. A man secures his family his household as well as himself and a man is defined by his intentions and his intentions whatever those intentions are blaze a trail.” Another subject reflected on manhood as the following, “I do not want to come across as arrogant or self-centered, but I personally think I’m an honorable person. I know that I’m a dependable person. I know that I’m a loyal person… I’m a role model who’s early. If I’m supposed to be here at 10 o’clock. I’m not going to show up at 5 min to 10 or 5 min after. I’m going to be there early. That’s important to me to be dependable.”.
Culturally speaking we apply more pressure on men to meet the world’s view of masculinity than becoming his best self, whatever that may be. African Americans also place great importance on a man’s ability to provide -by any means necessary. This allows a correlation to be created linking providing to masculinity. Thus, if you cannot provide you are less of a man. Darius states, “We have been, both black and white, have been taught different versions of masculinity. White men are taught to be the provider, just to get a good job, get educated. Black men have been taught, hey, hustle, make it any way you can. I mean that’s the perception we’ve been taught.”. The “you gotta hustle, make it any way you can, however you can” mindset has thrusted African American men into unsatisfied, desolate lives that lead to incarceration, shattered dreams, ruined communities, destroyed families, and broken homes.
Although there are differences in masculinity ideologies, there is a particular set of standards that hold sway over large segments of the population which include: anti-femininity, achievement, separating from the appearance of weakness, adventure, risk, and violence; these have been collectively referred to as traditional masculinity ideology and are intensified in the AA community. Researchers at Akron University provide data which identifies oppression, stereotypes, or systematic barriers as challenges for African American men. All of their participants from dyadic interviews referenced structural barriers and historical oppression as challenges to their manhood, inwardly and generally. Rogers et al. go on to identify leadership, provider, protector, and being a positive role model as major themes and subthemes linked to masculinity within this population. Similarly, Wilkins et al. assert that because of stereotypes forwarded post slavery which speak to an enraged African American, African Americans have taken on non-threatening behaviors as a means to protect themselves from becoming another dead black person. Again, we are faced with a barrier for this population. It is important to understand the cognitive dissonance that can occur when a person feels the need to protect himself by not protecting himself. Through these confined emotions a broken and/or weak bond with ordinary institutions which include work and school can occur; in-turn diminishing their core self.
Is it possible to change the way we as men, more specifically African American men, view ourselves and masculinity? ......If so where do we begin. To put it very simply, the work begins in you and the change starts with you. Our ancestors were forced to shape their actions in response to a series of life altering atrocities. Through their resilience we find ourselves in better standing, more than they could have imagined. It is our duty as men, fathers, uncles, parents, grandparents, and friends to unlearn the toxic views of masculinity forced on us because of our history. Ask yourself what you wish you knew when you were younger about being a man and share it with those around you. We can learn a lot through healthy communication. Further, through honest conversation we can break barriers and create safe places for our children to grow into strong, healthy, self-loving, understanding men. Lastly, it is an impossibility for a broken man to nurture strong men. The biggest thing you can do is take care of yourself. Most organizations offer free counselling services for a number of life events. Contact your HR department and start your journey to a better you today.
-As A Man Thinketh So Is He
Check the Sources
Derek, M., Cornish, K. (2018). “What Defines a Man?”: Perspectives of African American Men on the Components and Consequences of Manhood. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/men0000083
Fields, E. L., Bogart, L. M., Smith, K. C., Malebranche, D. J., Ellen, J., & Schuster, M. A. (2015). “I Always Felt I Had to Prove My Manhood”: Homosexuality, Masculinity, Gender Role Strain, and HIV Risk Among Young Black Men Who Have Sex With Men. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 122–131. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301866
Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. (2018). American Psychological Association.
Rogers, K., Heather, A., Ronald, F. (2015). Masculinities Among African American Men: An Intersectional Perspective. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0039082
Skinner, O. D., & McHale, S. M. (2018). The development and correlates of gender role orientations in African‐American youth. Child Development, 89(5), 1704–1719. https://doi-org.su.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/cdev.12828
Wilkins, E., Whiting, J., Watson, M., Russon, J., & Moncrief, A. (2013). Residual Effects of Slavery: What Clinicians Need to Know. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 35(1), 14–28.