Inside the conversation at The Good Men Project.
At the last call I was on, we had a fascinating (as always talk), and then at the end, one of the members of the group brought up the topic of racism. We didn’t have nearly enough time to discuss this topic. But the point this person brought up was that he felt that the way we sometimes talk about racism is problematic. What he hears when he reads articles on racism is: “all white people are racist and if you don’t agree with this article then you too are probably racist.” And he sees that as divisive and polarizing and not in the spirit of an open conversation about these difficult issues.
When I read the articles, what I read is: “there is a system of oppression that marginalizes people of color, and that can only be changed by shining a light on how strong that system is—a system so engrained that even someone like me who believes in goodness and equality might not understand how strong that marginalization is or might harbor unknown racist ways of thinking.” And I’m willing to allow that very difficult sentiment to live in the same place as “I would like to take actions to create change for equality, and therefore I am not racist.” And I am fine with that conflict. However, I can see how it could be difficult for others to swallow.
And so—I wholeheartedly agree that these issues are difficult. But rather than try to defend the articles we write, I’d like to take a step back and explore the connection between the Man-Box and Racism.
So let me review the Man-Box as Mark Greene explains it so eloquently in this video. He describes the Man-Box as a set of very limited rules which tell men in America how to perform masculinity. Those rules are: Men are emotionally stoic, men are financial providers (not caregivers), men are decisive, heteronormative, sports focused, men are physically fit, employed and confident. And—as Mark describes it—if you stay within these rules you will probably be OK. But if not—you’ll get all sorts of shaming, policing and name-calling. Or worse. And what is implicit in this bargain is not just that you will be shamed for not staying in the Man-Box, but rewarded with status and privilege if you do.
You can see right away that there are ways that the Man-Box as it is envisioned here makes it more difficult for non-white people to even fit in. If you are a black man living in America, you have a more difficult time being a financial provider. That is systematized racism. You also have an even smaller box around you when it comes to something like emotional stoicism — because while all men have historically been allowed to express “anger” as the one emotion. Black men, however, can’t even display anger without fear of consequences. And finally – the idea that men have to display confidence all the time — part of what institutional racism does is it makes it everything more difficult for POC—and then therefore that much more difficult to display confidence. Just look at the unequal distribution of education to see that in action. How can you possibly be as confident as everyone else if it is 10 times more difficult to get your basic educational needs met?
So that is number one—-how the man-box dynamic works to exclude people of color.
Now I’d like to look at how the man-box dynamic works to actually create racism in white people.
Here are two reasons WHY people are racist — from what I can see from having these conversations over the years on The Good Men Project—often directly speaking with a lot of people who very clearly ARE racist. Here is what I see.
REASON #1 for Racism: The Man-Box failed to deliver
As Mark Greene explains it, guys are basically “sold a bill of goods” with the Man-Box. The way Mark explains it to me, there is this bargain with the devil that goes something like this: “IF ONLY you perform masculinity in the exact “correct” way, then you will get all the rewards and benefits that have been associated with great men since the beginning of time.”
This of course, is not true. Privilege helps overall, but it doesn’t help everyone equally. I think this is a key point we have to internalize.
So—interestingly—the people who are MOST racist are those that have this awakening that the Man-Box somehow failed them, and it has suddenly dawned on them that they are NOT going to get all those “benefits and privileges” bestowed on the 1% or 15% of men who make it to the top. They don’t see it as a “Man-Box” thing, but I will tell you that almost 100% of the time, someone who is really racist says a sentence that is almost exactly like this: “I have worked my fingers to the bone and I never got a single ounce of those so-called privileges that they said I should be getting.”
Let me repeat and dissect that: “I have worked my fingers to the bone and I never got a single ounce of those so-called privileges that they said I should be getting.”
Here is what was said and what it means:
“I’ve worked my fingers to the bone” —-> I was told that to ‘be a man’ I had to be a financial provider, a financial success, report to work every day, get to profits at all costs. And damn it, I did that.
“I never got a single ounce of those privileges” —-> My bargain with the Man-Box failed me.
“They said” ——> Who said? Who is to blame? Can’t be me. It must be….(looks around wildly for a target).
These people often end up being racist.
When those same people say, “well, people can be racist against white people”, what they REALLY mean is “I feel that I have been the victim of an oppressive system that failed me too.” And they are angry and bitter and they can’t make the jump that the fact that the system that failed them is the system we are trying to change.
REASON #2: The Man-Box DID deliver
Interestingly enough, the second biggest group of racists that I see is a subset of people whom the Man-Box DID deliver all those benefits and privileges to. The problem is—these people see the advantages they got not as an entitlement or part of the system, but as a result of their sheer hard work, intelligence, and personal effort. They, too, “worked their fingers to the bone”. Literally. I know for a fact the people at the top 10% often work very, very hard. But they think it is ALL hard work that got them there — not a system that keeps the majority of people down so the odds become stacked in their favor and the system ensures that they really CAN work their way up.
Here is what those people say and what it means:
“I got to where I am today through sheer hard work. Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what I did.”
Let’s dissect that:
“I got to where I am today through sheer hard work.” —–> “I upheld my end of the bargain with the Man-Box. I was told I had to work hard to be a success, and I did it. I did it even though I am not a perfect person, even though I wasn’t born into great wealth, even though I was told all along I was no good.”
“Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what I did.” —–> And anyone who DOESN’t do what I did is either lazy or was too stupid to follow the Man-Box code to begin with.
So – what about people who are not racist? The people who are not racist, I believe, share the following characteristics:
— They are aware enough to be able to separate themselves from the system.
— They realize the system either failed them or didn’t, but they are not angry or bitter about it.
— Sometimes it is because they came from an oppressed group and never made that “bargain with the devil”. If you don’t believe you’ll get “so-called privileges” if you act a certain way, you don’t feel entitled to them.
—They are realize the way to great change would be through a new system that is both compassionate and pro-equality.
So with that context, I’d like to talk about racism and men and why these systems continue and what we can do to create change.
Jed Diamond: “This is of personal importance to me. I grew up in a middle class Jewish family. I believed everyone was equal and believed I didn’t have a racist bone in my body. Then my wife and I adopted a child, we adopted a black girl. Raising a black baby opened my eyes. And then, she grew up, and now I have five grandchildren. Three of them are boys, now teenagers. Recently I went to a rite of passage with young black males. And watching them—I still have no idea sometimes. One of them said, “Given where I live, what I really want more than anything is to live without being afraid of walking out the door and not surviving.” And I believe we are all in boxes. And the best thing we can do is to look beyond the box and connect with others.”
Jay Snook: “One thing I’ve noticed is how racism still goes on in Hollywood. You still have white actors playing roles that are not white, back like they did in the 30’s and 40’s. Why is Hollywood still doing this? Hollywood should be so far away from this—society should be so far away. For me, growing up in a privileged environment, I didn’t even think racism existed. It shouldn’t exist. My message to everyone is, ‘Don’t be fooled.’ It still exists.”
Unattributed: “The stories in the news are all about young black men. It’s not just race—it’s gender too.”
Ashley Michelle Fowler: “As a woman of color, I too can attest to the feeling of just getting through each day and trying to live. I will also note that the murders and violence of young black men have been what is published—but violence by women of color has been vastly underreported and all people of color have been devalued. I feel unsafe all the time. It’s not either/or, it’s yes/and.”
Cabot O’Callaghan: “I want to Columbus Ohio for the first time—I’m not well-traveled and I was really naïve. My breath was taken away by the naked racism in my face the minute I got off the plane. The divide was plain as day—it was systematized and shocking. I don’t believe it when a white person says ‘I’m not racist.’ The systems that create racism are too deep. I would like to say, ‘Be brave enough to be wrong.’”
Patty Beach: Thanks for talking about that Man-Box and Racism, that intro was so eloquently done. I’d like to give another view of how masculinity affects racism, and talk about Barry Johnson, who speaks of the differences in thinking between men and women. He says that the more masculine ways of thinking are seen as differentiated thinking: black and white, right and wrong. There are very structured parts. Whereas the feminine way of thinking is fuzzier, more intersected and more holistic. Also, masculinity defines you by what you are not, and that is what creates such the narrow box. So Johnson’s premise if that if I’m a strongly masculine thinker and I’m good, then I look around to see who is not like me and label them bad. It becomes a part of one’s identity. And the way to change is by helping all people have both masculine and feminine ways of thinking. Greater connectivity is what will open up the Man-Box.”
Kozo Hattori: “Last week, James was on the call. And we talked about shame. And to me that is the fundamental point that connects the Man-Box and Racism. Both the Man-Box and Racism tape into the core of people and who they think they are, and makes them feel as if they are not right with who they are. And that is shame.”
Steve Harper: “As a black gay man this all resonates with me. And I want to talk about gender for a minute. I saw a panel where Geena Davis was talking about gender in the media. And it gets back to the point that boxes are entrenched and cultural. If you look at crowd scenes for example—women make up 17% of people in every Hollywood crowd scene—and it has been that way since the 40’s. We’ve been creating this lie through the media. And so then we judge people based on what we see. We judge based on a lie.”
Cabot O’Callaghan: “You can zoom in really tight or zoom out to look at culture as a whole. We cannot see culture because it’s invisible. What we see are the symptoms and the disease of culture.”
Thaddeus Howze: “All of what we are talking about is personally relevant to me as a black man of 51. The nature of our problem isn’t just racism. It’s about our inability to recognize culture. As others have said, it’s invisible. You are not aware. Culture is what happens as you are growing up. Movies you see promote the man-box, the race-box constantly. In order to change, we need to change what we see about the culture. Also…everything that makes people fight makes money. Everything that people fight about are the things that get attention and ultimately the money.”
Kozo Hattori: “This talk of culture reminds me of the story of the two fish who are swimming, and they meet this older fish. And the older fish says “Hey boys, how’s the water?’ And one young fish looks at the other and says ‘what’s water?’ That’s culture—we don’t even know it’s there. The Man-Box is so prevalent, we don’t even see it. One way of Buddhist thinking is that is surrender which stops the fighting and dissolves culture.”
Thaddeus Howze: “I have studied Buddhism and I have been a Buddhist. I understand the ideal of not fighting. But when we as blacks weren’t fighting, when we just said ‘we want to be free’—it didn’t happen. I have lived as a Buddhist and I agree that surrender is what makes it possible for me to walk out of my house in the morning. But the thought that ‘we must take abuse to solve abuse’ is a lot harder to swallow.”
Cabot O’Callaghan: “But back to the original point about racism—how do we change it?”
Thaddeus Howze: “Our culture is racism. Do we fix it by fixing racism, or fixing it by solving the culture?”
Roger Tonis: “Part of it is definitely wealth inequality. The 3 or 4,000 people who control the money at the top. In history, civilizations have collapsed because of runaway greed. What it requires for that not to happen is a foundation of community. I believe that most of the problems of culture are caused by human greed.”
Thaddeus Howze: “The way to change is to change yourself. And then share that change with others who just might listen. We can’t change society, we can only change ourselves.
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photo: EvanHahn / Flickr