On one of my recent off days a guy friend of mine reached out. He wanted to come by and have a laptop playdate. An adult version of pretending to work. As he shuffled up to my house, he seemed a bit off. He wasn’t his usual hyped-up self, full of funny quips and anecdotes. I could tell there was something more to this visit.
With our laptops out we worked and chatted. Then I dug into how he was doing. What came next ended our playdate. I listened to this very tall, dominating man, a good father and son, engaged member of his community, venting his frustrations with his current relationship—and pretty much every relationship he’s ever been in. You see, though this man has a dominant presence and can captivate any room, he’s a sensitive soul, possessing an amount of emotional intelligence only trickling into normalcy in the Black community. Like any normal human being, he has insecurities, gets anxious, doubts himself at times. Like so many of us, he ponders on his life’s purpose, how to achieve ultimate happiness, what legacy he’ll leave behind. But, unlike most normal people, he’s a Black man. A misunderstood automaton, built to protect and provide.
Black men are supposed to be the ultimate image of strength and sex appeal, right? Linebackers and the Sexiest Man Alive. But, when is the linebacker allowed to cry? How does the Sexiest Man Alive express his honest insecurities about his image? For so many Black men, there’s no safe space to express this level of vulnerability. So many of them live life in a ball of anger. That stereotypical “angry” connotation isn’t solely reserved for Black women. Black men are often assumed to be so angry and violent that people are shocked when they smile. Taken aback by a Black man like my friend. A Black man who just wants to chill, laugh, and have good times.
Far too often this lack of expression can turn into destructive behavior. We all have the capacity to misdirect pent-up rage. But, the term “toxic masculinity” was attached to the explosive presentation of a man’s locked away aggression. Misogyny, sexism, and homophobia are wrapped up in the term. Socializations like “boys will be boys” as a laissez-faire justification for bro behavior have been brought to the table of toxic masculinity discussions. As many men faced the cultural reckoning of the #MeToo movement the idea of toxic masculinity spread. Every “bitch/ho” rap lyric was dissected by talking heads and determined to be written by a toxic man. Every overstep towards a woman in the office was because of the pervasive toxic male boys club. At some point, the term felt oversaturated and would get the eye roll from several original heavy users. The friend I sat with actually introduced the term to me, and years later grew tired of its use.
In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, Michael Salter shared his issues with the term, saying, “The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture.” The excessive use of the term was often by people who never took the time to dig into the culprit of the toxicity. It had less to do with some inherent muscle in men that was never circumcised and more to do with the impact of their surroundings.
I can imagine the mask Black men are often forced to wear is suffocating. As a Black woman, I suffer through the constant gaze of how I dress, how I speak, the kink of my hair, and my alleged inability to smile. These are the crazy factors that have impacted my livelihood. So, imagine being a Black man, walking through the world under that gaze, then going home to the added pressure of providing and protecting. How can he provide when he’s under the microscope of such a massive gaze? How can he be expected to protect other people when he can barely keep himself alive?
My friend vented, and I listened. And I was sad, honestly. I was sad for him. As women, in romantic and even familial relationships, we are allowed the space to vomit vulnerability. But, when men do it—or attempt to—their feelings are dismissed, laughed at. They’re told to “man up,” which is probably the most toxic thing to say to any boy or man, as its meaning is a vague, subjective perception. We see hardcore fathers enforcing these “man up” philosophies that always backfire in the media. Like the father in Waves, fiercely played by Sterling K. Brown. Rarely do we see the reality that much of this enforcement comes from mothers, wives, and girlfriends. Toxic femininity can also contribute to the destructive behaviors of men.
I know women who suss out the sensitivities of men and use it to their advantage. They use it for superficial means, to create the visuals of a life they always dreamed of. And some women are so desperate to simply be partnered they attach themselves to a man who’s quick to keep the peace, so they get to maintain the role of running the show. There are just as many toxic women who were never exposed to balanced, healthy relationships as there are men. They loved a dominant, emotionless father who took great physical and financial care of them but showed little to no care for their hearts. So, these women grow up believing this father is the epitome of a real man.
I was friends with a woman who grew up with a dominant, emotionless, superficially giving father. I would ask about her conversations with her father, about the nature of their relationship, and what she would explain sounded very transactional. She did well in school and at work, and her father was proud. He bought her gifts and took her to fancy dinners and went on his way. There was no discussion about how she felt about school or work or the pressures of adulting. And because she was used to this being the sum total of their relationship, it didn’t dawn on her to expect more. She suffered through several terrible relationships. She gravitated to rich, dominant men who provided her with things. Lots of glamorous things. She knew little about what these men thought about life or felt about their careers, families, wants, and needs. And she made no effort to dig that deep. As she matured and came face-to-face with these renaissance Black men of today, a sort of New Negro, taking ownership of their mental well-being, expecting beyond the basics of a transactional relationship, she was completely out of sorts. Devastated when these relationships would end. I’d tell her about a deep night of talking I’d have with a date or a friendly lunch with an ex, and she’d scoff, roll her eyes, then inquire about my methods. How—or why—was I so open to this level of understanding? There were no methods. I just listen, create a safe space to share, and see men as I see myself. I’m not just a woman, subject to a stupid pink box. I’m a person. Men are people.
He’s too emotional…
Every change we hope to see in the world starts with kids. I truly believe children are the future. Wholeheartedly. They are green and innocent. Adaptable sponges, unencumbered by the burdens of the world. If they are lucky enough to be living without trauma, their young lives are free of the fear and worry that will inevitably plague them later on. I have nephews and a lot of mom friends with young sons. They pour so much love into their boys. They hold and hug them, love on them when they’re hurt, express an endearing amount of patience when they wipe their tears. For Black boys, I’m always curious when the switch happens. When the love well dries up. I’m curious about the notion that these boys, who’ve spent a significant amount of their fundamental years receiving and expressing vulnerability, have to eventually relinquish the existence of vulnerability. At some point, they are expected to just turn off that vulnerable muscle and be a man. What a mind fuck that is!
There’s hope for a future with a deeper mutual understanding between genders when attempting to communicate and cohabitate. In The Atlantic article, Salter notes that the current “prevailing social-scientific understanding of masculinity, the standards by which a ‘real man’ is defined can vary dramatically across time and place.” This understanding played out in a recent season of the popular reality show Married at First Sight with one of the Black couples. Karen and Miles, the New Orleans couple, dealt with the normal struggles of being married to a stranger. But, they also faced a major hurdle that brought toxic femininity, emotional intelligence, and mental well-being front and center. Miles is a few years younger than Karen and expressed his consistent dealings with anxiety and depression. Karen already felt some kind of way about his age and “emotional” actions on his Instagram, so the news about his mental health struggles tripped her up to the point where she questioned whether she could remain married to Miles. She thought she would be matched with a man that was more “masculine,” she said to the cameras.
The internet exploded on Karen. Never before had we seen someone attach masculinity to mental strength and mental weakness to not being masculine. Being a New Negro, Miles stood up for himself time and time again and let Karen know that he’s not the problem. She’s the problem for not recognizing that she was matched with an emotionally intelligent man, and understanding the benefits of being married to such a man.
It’s very easy for Black women to form a sister circle when another Black woman is hurting. But, Black women took Karen to task over her comments, and for the first time, people were having discussions about a woman’s toxicity. I was here for the articles and podcasts and YouTube videos that dug deep into this topic because it felt like a window of emotional freedom opened for Black men. They were finally able to fly freely, hearts cared for and loved, as the people they were meant to be.