by Aaron Morrison
It can take a lot of courage for a young black man to make this admission: “I was never really a tough guy, I don’t like sports, I have some feminine mannerisms.”
Those are the words of rapper Tyler, the Creator, who recently talked to Fader magazine about fashion and masculinity in the black community.
“The black community is very fixated on that hard masculinity, they always gotta be hard and fucking tough,” he said. “It’s kids who’re probably growing up and don’t know themselves yet or have the strongest self esteem so they’re trying to fit [in].”
With that said, here’s what black men everywhere need to know about masculinity: Teaching young black males to “man up” through relentless policing of candid expression does more harm than good for a child’s identity.
For many black men, so much of their self-worth can be wrapped up in “being a real man.” Often, parents play a major role in these early tests of a boy’s “manhood,” going to great lengths to prod their sons into masculinity. They are often doing so out of a fear that, in addition to racism, their son may be seen as “too feminine.”
But gender and sexuality are so fluid and complex that even some adults don’t understand. They both exist on scales that cannot be categorized into just male and female or straight and queer, president of the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Dr. Herbert Samuels said.
Calling any boy a faggot, sissy or punk has absolutely no positive effect on his self-esteem or his ability to form healthy relationships with women and men, Samuels said.
“If you have a child who does not display the type of virility or macho that you are looking for and you try to make that child fit a very narrow view of masculinity, then yes, you have done harm to that child,” Samuels, who is also a professor of human sexuality at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, recently said. “You might make him display something that you want him to be, but that does not change the way that he feels inside.”
Hypervigilance about perceptions of sexual orientation promotes harmful self-consciousness in adolescents. That can be hard to overcome as an adult, LGBTQ activist and former NFL player Wade Davis said. In a TedX Talk titled “The Mask of Masculinity,” Davis described how he performed masculinity as a teen:
“Growing up I understood that I must wear this mask of masculinity every hour, every minute, every second of every day. … And that also meant that I worried about things like my clothing choices. I would wear 36 size jeans, when I was really a [size] 28. Or a XXXL T-shirt, when I was really a ‘sm-med’…One of the consequences of always wearing this mask is that you must remain hypervigilant to everything around you constantly scanning and surveying everyone and everything, in hopes that your [gender] performance is rewarded with a smile, a head nod, [or a] dab, or something that looked like approval.”
Conversations about masculinity are often hinged on a tendency to equate masculinity with heterosexuality. Davis said that when he got older he recognized that the adults who raised him often parented out of fear that he would face hardships if he was gay or effeminate.
“At the root of it, they are trying to keep us safe,” he said recently. “But oftentimes it shows up in a very non-loving way.”
Davis added, “There’s a cost to teaching masculinity—it’s emotional, physical and psychological. When you are performing these ideas of masculinity and femininity, you’re the one who is losing out and others are losing out on knowing who you really are.”
At its extreme, the “man up” trope is a response to abuse that was prevalent in U.S. slavery. Scholars have said that the origins of black male masculinity derived from the horrendously inhumane treatment and rape of enslaved men. Post-slavery, white supremacists used contemporary media to recast freed male slaves as either docile, emasculated buffoons incapable of dominance, or brutes destined to rape and ravage the civilized population. Fast-forward to today and these depictions still pervade the definition of black manhood.
To be sure, tearing down a black boy for his effeminate mannerisms and telling him to “man up” is an ineffective response to centuries of racism, Samuels said. “It’s just over the-top masculinity,” he said. “You can take it too far.”
Aaron Morrison is a senior staff writer on the Identities team at Mic, where this piece first appeared.