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Discussing Masculinity: Rules of Engagement

Collecting Osiris

I recently attended a workshop about creating a new image of masculinity. The workshop was kicked off with a panel of women who discussed patriarchy and particularly how it expresses itself in activist groups. The panel was followed by an open discussion session and then the group broke out into smaller groups to discuss the issues that were brought up before coming back together and allowing the men to discuss re-envisioning masculinity. The dynamics of what played out were fascinating and, if nothing else, offered insight into this continuing discussion concerning the issues between the two genders.

Creating Spaces

What I learned most from the workshop was how unprepared that we are to begin having these discussions between the 2 genders. Masculinity as a topic for Black men should, at some point, include women. The perspective of Black women is vital to the development and discussion of Black masculinity. However, men must reach a certain place in the discussion before doing so. It is problematic to bring in another demographic to “help” define and discuss masculinity before Black men themselves have come together, discussed and come to a few conclusions by themselves.

I say this because there are some things that I believe Black men will agree upon with which Black women will disagree. Therefore Black men must be confident and convicted upon these things so that when they go into the discussion they know exactly how much they are willing to consider altering in regards to Black women’s perspective. But they certainly should not build the entire definition and understanding of masculinity based upon a feminine perspective.

I found that the men in the workshop I attended were either awkward or uncomfortable in discussion. There was too much consideration for the presence of the women at certain moments when the men should have been free and comfortable enough to completely express themselves no matter how poltically incorrect. Transparency is the key. A hidden illness cannot hope to be cured. I believe that men have to be completely honest about the things that they feel so that Black women can, therefore, respond and then that response can be considered and change can take place. But creating a space where men are uncomfortable sharing openly while having their feelings and perspectives policed by women is both counterproductive and offensive.

The Place for Pain

In many cases we aren’t ready to have these conversations and/or do not prepare to have these conversations. We come together with all our baggage and pain in search of therapy and validation before we gain understanding and empathy from one another. I suppose we assume that should already be there but that is a gross error.

It is understandable that many of the topics and issues that need to be discussed will hold painful memories and experiences for many people participating. However, I submit to you that these spaces are no place for your pain. If an individual is not willing to face that pain, name it, discuss it and move past it, then they are not ready to do the work of transformation. Transformation is almost always painful and growth is almost always messy, but the benefits are well worth the effort.masculinity_image_mar13

In the small discussion group in which I participated I brought up a couple of experiences that I’d had with women in my efforts to understand their feelings about catcalling. I explained that what most benefited me in gaining understanding and empathy regarding the situation was actually having a woman to explain in depth the feelings that such actions conjured for her and how they plagued her long after the moment had passed. I explained that as a man I did not have a reference point for truly understanding and empathizing with women regarding the issue and simply telling me it was bad and I shouldn’t do it really didn’t amount to much in terms of fundamentally changing my the thought that ‘it wasn’t that serious.’ In response, one woman explained that it is not always easy for women to explain those feelings without reliving them or experience emotional anguish. I could understand that but I also reiterated that I thought these discussion groups should be places where the women who are able to should come and speak. It is those voices that men need to hear and those words that would make the most difference for men’s understanding. In order for these discussions to be most effective, we have to leave our pain somewhere else and come with a healthy measure of pragmatism in an effort to gain understanding. The goal in all communication is understanding and in discussion it should take precedence over anything else.

The Point

There must be rules of engagement when we have these conversations. We do not spend enough time detailing and committing to the rules of engagement. Setting the boundaries and agreeing to certain terms before we begin engaging the issues. Not that many of these groups do not set guidelines when they come together but that we need to discussion groups about having discussions. That sounds redundant but from what I have come to see in the discussion dynamics, it is obviously necessary.

We need to spend time speaking about how to create atmospheres that are conducive to doing the work. We need to discuss and detail how men should approach a discussion with a woman about their feelings. We need to detail how a man can speak about his perspective, however patriarchal it is, so that those thoughts and feelings can be addressed and, hopefully, changed. We need to discuss how women can express their desire to engaged a certain way. We need to detail how women can express their pain without the fear of being labeled emotional and having their feelings disregarded. These discussions are necessary for creating an overarching

There has to be an obligation to explain our feelings openly and honestly no matter how painful for those expressing or those listening. We have to speak our truth. There are plenty of people speaking out against the behavior of men and criticizing the patriarchal system that perpetuates the problem. There is a time and a place for those voices but those voices alone will not solve the problem and they will not change the system. The best bet for that is to teach a generation of men how to treat women and for that generation to teach their sons and the young men in their lives. And then one day we will birth a generation for whom these lessons are second nature. We have to think beyond achieving this goal in our lifetime and think about doing the work for the lives to come. The work of transforming masculinity begins with men first and then men and women in solidarity. If men are going to redefine or recreate what masculinity means and what it looks like, then it cannot be defined in the negative and it cannot begin with discussions about what masculinity shouldn’t be. The men must come together and discuss what already is and why it is and what they would rather it be before anything else. Otherwise the entire discussion becomes a sterile, cyclical male bashing that leaves men confused, offended and in most cases absent.


I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,


An Angry Black Man


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