Recently, Jenna Chandler-Ward and Elizabeth Denevi wrote a piece titled “Calling in our White male colleagues” on Teaching While White which detailed the unique resistance they have experienced from white men in their antiracism work. Included in the piece was an invitation to respond. This was written in response to Jenna and Elizabeth’s piece that can be found here.
Jenna and Elizabeth,
I wanted to start at the beginning.
But, I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “man up.” I don’t remember the first time a man in my life taught me never to show weakness. Maybe it was my pops, who never took a sick day. Never acknowledged the way his mind, body, and spirit were pushed to the limits. Maybe it was one of my uncle’s stories about how tough my dad is. Maybe it was the way they too took pride in how they were calloused, or was it numbed? Or, maybe it was Reed, the teenage boy next door who chased me around my house with knives and told me stories of Freddy Krueger just to prove he could inflict fear at will. I don’t know where I first learned the lesson, but I’m sure I did.
I’m sure they aren’t the beginning. I’m sure they didn’t know they were teaching. I’m sure they had learned the same lessons from the men in their lives. I’m sure they were working to make sense of the empty space that should be occupied by what patriarchy and American masculinity erodes away.
More raw, more real, and more — ugly is that I don’t remember the first time I taught those lessons to the younger men in my life. Maybe my brothers, maybe my cousins, and most terrifyingly, maybe the students in my classroom. I’m complicit in the expansion of that emptiness. I know that.
That’s hard to say. It’s even harder to accept. It’s terrifying to stare at a gaping wound, but it’s paralyzing when you realize you have no clue how to begin closing the gash.
Patriarchy and American masculinity have wounded us. Rather than understanding the entire spectrum of human emotions, and being able to make sense of how they impact our lived reality, we are left ill equipped. Ironically, we are exposed, vulnerable, and powerless, the very things we are being molded never to be.
This is the beginning. The pattern you describe begins here. In the emptiness. In the terror of disconnection and the desperation of denial.
It was fall of my freshman year; I had rode my bike to a local park to meet the girl I had a crush on and her friend. Somehow, they began talking about how ridiculous the whole “real men don’t cry” mantra was. I remember thinking I could win some points by agreeing, so I did. Well, they weren’t going for me just telling them, they wanted to see it. I can still feel the tightness in my chest. They wanted tears. I remember being terrified. Not that I was going to cry, but rather that I wasn’t. I’ll never forget how real it felt when I told them: I can’t.
My grandmother transitioned on the winter solstice of my sophomore year. I got in a fight at the Christmas concert. When I got home, I buried my head in my pillow and cried until I fell asleep. At her funeral I remember feeling shame that the people around me could hear me crying. I remember someone behind me putting their hand on my back saying “shhhhhhh now.” I lowered my head into my hands and swallowed as many sobs as I possibly could.
I sat on my girlfriend’s steps unsure what was about to happen. I had just found out that a high school classmate and friend had transitioned. I could feel the lump in my throat. The familiar pressure on my chest, the pain mixed with determination to let nobody see. I was aware my girlfriend had not seen me cry before. I knew she wouldn’t judge, but I still didn’t want her to see it. I remember the sun lowering behind the trees on her boulevard. I remember wanting to be human. When she came out the door, I turned to look at her with tears swelling. She quietly sat next to me as I shared memories about my friend through tears.
I’m sharing these here because fuck yes the resistance you described is familiar to me. In many ways it is me. Resistance is fundamental to American masculinity. We resist emotions. We resist the reality that we can’t resist. Resist, resist, resist, deny, deny, deny. Same song, different DJ. It’s one that resonates with us white men on at least two levels: race and gender. They feed each other. Give each other life. Dual parasites stealing our humanity. The disconnection of patriarchy makes it easier for the violence of whiteness, and the disconnection of whiteness facilitates the violence of American masculinity.
You all also asked, what’s changed? If I’m honest, not enough. Just last week I was frustrated and leaned into the more toxic manifestations of my masculinity. But, if anything has shifted it’s realizing my self-interest. I talk about this a lot in regard to race and racism, but it applies to American masculinity as well: it is in my best interest to unlearn patriarchy and the lessons on masculinity America wants me to internalize. Put as concretely as I possibly can, I enjoy the person I am when I can be soft. I like the father I can be to my daughter when I can be vulnerable. I like the partner I can be when I can communicate my feelings to my girlfriend. I like the communities envisioned by women leaders. I feel more whole, more human, more connected when I can acknowledge the more feminine aspects of my being. None of this is possible with patriarchy and American masculinity. None of this is possible with whiteness. None of this is possible within capitalism.
I wish I could offer a clean story of how I came to those realizations. I can’t. I think it’s different for each of us. Each one of us, and here I mean men, have our own intertwined, complicated mess we need to wrestle with. I wish there was one particular thing, one particular action, workshop, book, article, or question but there isn’t. It’s the everyday mess of being in community. It’s the accountability that comes from meaningful relationships. It’s the messiness that leaves no room for performance. And maybe that’s a good thing. As I’m writing this I’m thinking about Dan Price. He knew all the ways to show up. It’s the mess.
And now we are arriving at the beginning: connection and relationships. Vulnerability and accountability. When we are resisting we are searching for ourselves, or maybe some version of ourselves we sutured together in our imaginations. These distortions of ourselves are not capable of showing up the way we need to, not only for you but for ourselves. We are terrified of or own incompleteness. However, those sutures can and do come undone. Ask the questions that facilitate the undoing and we will find our way back to ourselves.
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