“Mom! Why does Jamel always get off easy, you let him do whatever he wants!”
Those words sound familiar? They highlight so many childhood upbringings among Black families. The boys are often treated with more endearment, autonomy, and favorability. The girls have to be watched closely, never let too far out of sight, and always told how to dress and act to be respected by others, especially men.
I write this piece reflecting on my childhood—on the ways my parents and caretakers often reinforced what appeared to be well-intentioned policing of my sister’s behavior, and a less disciplined and thoughtful approach to how I… a soon to be adult Black male should approach the world and treat others. Don’t get me wrong, I have a fantastic and supportive Black mother, more supportive than most, and I am forever indebted to her for teaching me the value of emotional intelligence, for teaching me it was okay to cry.
As I reflect on my own process of growth I often wonder how I got here. A relatively self-conscious Black man who makes daily attempts to avoid engaging in what we might call “problematic “behavior. Behaviors like; objectifying women, judging them by the clothes they wear rather than their actions and words they speak, dominating conversations—and adding to a constant state of fear of violence from the world.
The truth is men are dangerous and violent. Sure, not all men. But, overwhelmingly the majority of crimes violent in nature are committed by men . Homicides, assaults, domestic violence and sexual assaults unfortunately leave women far too often as victims, and men the oppressors.
In light of the recent sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, it’s so important to highlight how women are the most frequent victims of sexual assault, and that these incidents are not isolated, and do not happen in a vacuum. 1 out of every 6 women has been a victim of sexual assault, and 90% of all rape victims are female.
This is our issue, it is a male issue and it starts in part, by how we raise and hold accountable our brothers and sons.
My mother would always say to me ‘I can’t teach you how to be a man, only your father can do that’. I’ve struggled to understand what those words meant to me for a time. I love my father, and after meeting him at 16 for the first time, I realized that, my mother’s words weren’t entirely true. My father is a great man, but my father, like every other man I’ve encountered in my life, including myself; harbors sexist, misogynistic, and problematic beliefs that we don’t take active accountability for.
There are great Black men who respect and love women, but that does not absolve them of being complicit in the ways we engage women as a collective. I’ve harmed women I’m sure without being aware of it with my words or actions. I’ve been complicit, I’ve enabled and been enabled by men who weren’t necessarily bad people but they— like myself lacked self-awareness, the resources, and the tools needed to engage with one another and women in respectful and equitable ways.
As a future parent and an older sibling to an 18-year old brother the task I place on myself, and one we all must take up is how we will raise better, more self-aware, Black feminist sons who will understand at a basic level that their gender does not mean they should, or deserve to be treated any differently than women.
I hope we raise our sons to understand what consent is—because many of us don’t know, and this leads to women between the ages of 16-19 being more than 4 times as likely to be victims of sexual abuse than other victims of the general population.
I hope we raise our sons to understand that manhood is not finite, it is not some attainable goal, but rather manhood is being loved, and loving others and the danger in raising our sons comes from forcing us to perform our manhood a certain way. In other word, when we try to police boys to perform manhood the way mainstream society describes how men ought to be, we lead them into a space where they are more likely to pick up on toxic behaviors.
The way parents raise children, particularly sons is critical for preventing a cycle of violence that gets perpetuated onto other boys and girls, men and women. In raising our children, we have to be mindful of how we shape our sons. As bell hooks argues, “Male children are often subjected to abuse when their behavior does not conform to sexist notions of masculinity. They are often shamed by sexist adults and other children. They say it takes a village to raise a child, I say if it doesn’t it should.
The number one step we can take going forward is to acknowledge that we are all responsible for tomorrow’s children. Their parents are our friends, our co-workers, our siblings and more. We are intimately connected to the pulse of the Black communities boys and girls and it’s paramount for us to act like it.
Hold one another accountable, and most importantly for fathers and brothers, we have to constantly check our own behavior and that of those closest to us. Only then can we begin to make progress as a community in unlearning societies sexism and misogyny.