Escaping The Mold: An Exchange On Manhood

07/11/2017 10:33 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2017

Perspectives on Love, Vulnerability, and Masculinity

By Dwight Vidale & Dorian O. Burton

What started off as an exchange between two brothers turned into a larger discussion that we thought should be shared more broadly. In what follows, we present our thoughts, unfiltered, and without reservation. We hope that we can ultimately continue to lay the groundwork for having vital conversations around black boys and manhood moving forward.

March 15--Dwight

Hey Dorian,

Hope that this email finds you well and in good spirits.

My apologies for taking a while to sit down and craft this. This topic of black masculinity and emotionality is one that I want to discuss for a variety of reasons, which I'm sure we will investigate later. Briefly, I want to share two quick ones: First and foremost, I am learning how to be more expressive in both my personal and work relationships. And in doing so, I have been keenly aware of how different people have responded to my sharing as a black man; I also think being a teacher colors folks understanding of my shared emotions. Oh, intersectionality! Additionally, I have a ten year old son, who needs, in my opinion, to be able to be emotionally intelligent, aware and present for his well being and for the future relationships that he enters. So I am thoroughly invested in teaching him how to be more expressive, which is contrary to what US culture allows for young boys, especially black youth. While these initial reasons are seemingly selfish on the surface, I do hope that this conversation can be one that is held in group chats, twitter and other areas in which it currently does not occur. Thanks for pushing me to actually write down my ideas and thoughts.

So my first question for you, Dorian, is what do you think of when you hear phrases like, "man up," boys don't cry," be a man"? When was the last time you heard it, either directly or indirectly? More importantly, how does it make you feel?

All my best,

March 26--Dorian

I appreciate the question my friend. As a starting point, let me say that I feel like I truly started to understand what it means to be a Man and a leader for my community when I was about 30. I am 35 now and still and will forever be learning. In my five years or so of truly being a man, I have built an understanding that manhood is not about your age; instead, it is about your consciousness, values, and passion and how those things show up in positive ways in service for others. More specifically manhood is a way of interacting with your soul, a mindset and a mode of thinking and living your daily actions in ways that nurture, grow, and build up your family and your community in positive ways.

Likewise, I have found for me that manhood is not about me at all, but rather that my journey to manhood had to start with me. See, you can’t build up those around you or dedicate your life to serve until you have built up and transformed your own way of thinking.

The first step to building you differs from how I was reared as a child: the greatest strength a man has is in his ability to be vulnerable. Now, I say that carefully, knowing that the privilege of being emotionally vulnerable is a luxury that not all of us have, especially our black boys. Your son is ten; I have a nine and a six year old, and I must say I am terrified every day because I know that America thinks it has a black boy problem. As our black baby boys start to grow into young black men, the world forgets about the genius in their short stories or the Picasso-like masterpieces they are able to create with a minimal palette of watercolors and crayons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t create a great deal of time for us to teach them or reference points to show them how to be vulnerable. So like our fathers and their fathers before them, we tell our sons, “boys don’t cry,” and that they have to be tough because the world will be tough on them.

In spaces that have other black boys, we show them that there is danger in their tears, and that your smile makes you unsafe. In spaces with white boys, they learn to code switch and smile more, not out of joy but so they can neutralize the perceived threat. The phrase, “you need to smile more,” which translates into “you need to make us white people feel more comfortable around you.” Wow, right?! Where is our safe space for our boys to even play with the idea of growing into the man they might want to be, when they have to worry about something as small as how their smile is perceived?

Our sons’ rights of passage into manhood have traditionally made us sacrifice their emotional innocence so that broken systems in America won’t sacrifice their physical bodies. Systems have “Adultified” our kids and forced them into a pseudo-manhood far before they are ready. It has robbed our kids of their fathers to the justice system. It has pushed our mothers into working multiple menial jobs to put food on the table. In many cases, broken systems have left boys who should be playing with toys and growing their emotional intelligence at a rate that is in lockstep with their age, to care for siblings, to be protectors and friends of their mothers, and in some cases to be wage earners. Our boys are now the default “Man of the House,” a heavy weight that carries all the grown up responsibilities with little of the grown up supports or emotional safety.

The catalyst for me coming into my manhood came on the heels of me being in the middle of a divorce and having a child on the way from a woman, who was not my wife. My soon to be ex-wife told me I wasn’t a man and she “never wanted our sons to be like me.” Firm words and a hard pill to swallow, but she was right; I would never want my boys to be like 29 year old me. At that time, I had to deeply reflect on what manhood is, what leadership is and overall how could I unlearn all the bad habits I had picked up along the way and truly “Man up.” So when I hear “Man Up” now I hear it in a very different way. “Man up” is not about the machismo of being the toughest guy in the room, or the deeply false and extremely problematic narrative of sexual conquest. “Man up” for me now means that I am deeply connected to my feelings, aware of how those feelings show up and affect those around me and express myself in ways that are authentic to who I am and the loved ones and the community I am accountable too and for. It means that I live my life by a set of positive values in service to others and through my faith.

Question 2:

It is also important to note that when I came into Manhood, I was not in the Rialto, CA neighborhood where I had grown up, a place that had brought me to many of the false notions I had come to think about manhood pre-thirty. No, when I came into manhood, I was at Harvard; I had a warm safe place to lay my head at night, and I was around a group of leaders and in a doctoral program that was intently designed with all of the supports and coaching for students to be reflective, and dig deep on the person they were and the leader they wanted to become. This is not a situation that many of our boys grow up in, or that our males have opportunities to experience in later life. What role does physical environment play in shaping our ideals around masculinity? Secondly, what happens when you put young boys in survival mode and then ask them to develop positive notions about manhood?

Building Together,

April 4--Dwight

Thanks Dorian, first and foremost, for being vulnerable and sharing a deeply personal moment about your ex-wife and your sons. Thank you for your honesty and transparency and please know that I am appreciative of your willingness to do so unabashedly.

Your moment is one that I worry too many black men find themselves: in relationships in which they are unable (and ignorant), for a variety of reasons, to be emotionally accountable for their actions and to their partners, resulting in hurt for those involved. Those moments undoubtedly have real, lasting effects and, in your case, it became a catalyst for your continued growth and development. Unfortunately, that positive change is not the dominant result. Instead, many continue to find themselves in the same or similar relationships, replicating and reliving toxic masculinity, struggling with how to express their emotions and, as a result, damaging their relationships with others.

As an aside, I would add that there is no timeline for when one becomes a man, in part because the definition of manhood is fluid and highly individualized. You named yourself as a man at around age thirty, while I would name myself a man at an earlier age. Likewise, I would argue that one's sense of manhood develops and changes as one experiences life. And note, that I add this piece to displace the arbitrary age restrictions that seemingly govern our lives. These age "requirements" unfortunately push many to experience situations that they may not be ready to handle, yet feel pressured by society to do and have in order to be "normal."

On another note, I appreciate that you shared the internal aspect of masculinity. Too often, the way that one understands, mimics and performs masculinity derives from the overly toxic stereotypes and archetypes presented in the media and upheld in family and friend groups. These models privilege the exterior, while "villainizing" the internal, the emotions; sharing, showing, discussing feelings become feminized (I chose this word intentionally) in a way that makes it uncool and unmanly. Thank you, Dorian, for naming vulnerability as the foundation of your understanding of manhood. Thank you for centering the emotionality that meaningful personal and interpersonal growth necessitates. The idea of leadership, in my opinion, rests on one's awareness of one's feelings, coupled with the ability to share constructively with others. Additionally, one's ability to understand and recognize other's feelings forms the basis of any worthwhile relationship. Thus, one way to build competent and authentic leadership is to help our young men learn how to be emotional, which is counter to the typical way we raise our sons. Imagine a world that encourages our young boys, when they are hurt, to cry and share their pain. My upbringing as a young boy looked nothing like that and, instead, was the opposite, filled with "boys don't cry," which resulted in repressed emotions and negative manifestations of them. Thus, emotional awareness, I would argue, is one of the keys needed to begin, continue and realize one's journey towards manhood.

Unfortunately, our sons are often not given this option. Too soon are they called "the man of the house" and told to "man up" before they are able to even comprehend or interrogate what the popular saying means (sometimes before they are able to wipe their bottom properly). As you outlined in your previous email, their very smiles become signs of assimilation and feigned comfort, instead of the joyous expression it could be. That comment about the smile stung deep for me because I acknowledged, while at a Teach For America diversity training session with Lee Mun Wah, producer of the documentary, "Color of Fear," that my smile was a way for me to disarm people, particularly white folk, as a signal to let them know that I was somehow a "safe" tall, black man and not the criminal that their biased understanding of black male bodies would suggest. Claude Steele discusses in his book, "Whistling Vivaldi," this situation and similar ones, which he names as stereotype threats. I recount that moment because you asked about the role that physical environment plays in our understanding about masculinity. Context always matters. As folk living in the United States of America, we have been indoctrinated in the language of "that's how it is" and "boys will be boys" and a myriad of other comments that regulate and position solely one option for who and how our young boys can be; likewise, there is one option for them as they age into men. With this one option, many boys fight themselves and police others so that they fit in the tightly constrictive "boy/man" box. They do so because we all know what happens to those on the outside, who are called a plethora of derogatory and demeaning names. As a result, they are ostracized and, unfortunately, often physically hurt, bullied and even killed.

As Frederick Douglass prophetically stated, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." So how, Dorian, do we provide our young boys with other viable options, moving away from the prescribed and forced monolith? What do options that exist outside of the patriarchy look like? What does feminist masculinity, as bell hooks suggests in her book, Feminism is for Everybody, feel like? How will these new options free our young boys and men? How will these new options free our young girls and women? How will these new options free our transgendered and non binary youth and adults?

All My Best,

April 26--Dorian

As always thank you for your comments and insight. First, I believe we must change the narrative starting where everything must start: right at home. How do we as boys/men express love to our sons, brothers, uncles and fathers? All of us should seek to do some deep reflecting on what positive expressions of true love look like and how we can convey those expressions amongst each other without putting individuals in the "box" of toxic masculinity, which you so eloquently described in your last reply. Secondly, we must also think through what those expressions look like towards our sisters, aunts, wives and mothers. As I have said before, I deeply believe that it is our role as men, particularly in the Black community, to protect and lead our communities in positive ways. More specifically in ways that respect, uplift, and build our women. For me, this is a multi-directional charge as it is not solely the man’s role to hold the community on his shoulder but it starts with us and our deep understanding of community, respect, obligations, and expressions of love. Lastly, we also have to be personally reflective about how our masculinity and expressions of love show up in intimate relationships. However a person chooses to identify their sexual orientation, they must think through how they show up in ways that consistently seek to nurture vs. dominate, to build not tear down, to listen and understand in vulnerable ways, and that move beyond traditional expressions of physical intimacy.

The building blocks to develop the "new normal" of masculinity is not only a deep reflection on how love is expressed to others, but first and foremost, how it is expressed to self. A really important question that perhaps is the precursor to all others is do you love yourself, and where do you find your worth? If we don't love ourselves first, we can in no way find ways to constructively love others and positively express that love in ways that are not toxic and uplift those around us. To the point of self worth, stature, and relevance, we must re-brand the concepts of each completely. Worth for men has far too long been associated with a dollar amount, who has the nicest car, who can earn the most money or who has the highest "body count." There is a clear correlation for how we express love and the nuance of how we ascribe worth.

You might have noticed that I very intentionally have chosen to couple love and the expressions that come with it to masculinity. This is intentional and by design. Love is the foundation for every other emotion. You break patriarchy by not assigning gender roles to love and how it is expressed, not expressed or intentionally withheld in daily life. Self-awareness of expressions that are towards love and not dominance is key. The belief that to be a man you must dominate or conquer any and everything is at the root of a patriarchal system, and is in most cases driven by our own insecurities and not clear deliberate expressions of love. In the black community, I feel like this particularly shows up because systems have undeserved or not served us at all. When individuals are in survival mode, the need to have something, to be seen as something, to be over something can be increased in ways that don't show up positively. While I don't think this is any different in affluent white communities, I believe inequalities of large systems have made these things more pronounced. The Douglass Quote used to be my favorite, and while I understand what he is trying to say, I must disagree with the concept of broken. There is no such thing as broken men, especially not in the black community, but there are deep and distressing systems that have lead to disenfranchisement and promoted and elevated the concept of toxic masculinity in our communities to new heights. I will say that black men like all are imperfect, but I would describe each individual one of us as beautifully flawed, unique, powerful, intelligent, and resilient. We have continued to stand and thrive and no amount of oppression has ever broken us.

What does the new normal of masculinity look like? How does it show up in our relationships with black girls and women? What are the high-level bullet points for one to practice in daily life to reach this new normal both for men and for women (Support and accountability)? How can we hold each other accountable to achieving this new normal? And most importantly what positive and impactful ways does it move our community forward?

Building Together,

May 3--Dwight

Thanks Dorian for framing your response within the quintessential power of love. I wholeheartedly agree that love needs to be the foundation of one's life because it permeates and affects one's individual and communal experience. Yet, there are some real and perceived obstacles to attaining and recognizing that love. As a black person in America, this concept of self-love is consistently challenged because what we, as a society, value reflects the standards set by the dominant white culture. The last time I checked, being black, the other, has historically (and presently) been marginalized and unappreciated. Therefore, it is difficult to love oneself because the images and messages contradict that goal. Similarly, as a black male, enjoying the privilege of the patriarchy, I have been taught to desperately find ways to assert my entitled sense of dominance and ownership over others and things, including those bodies perceived to be below me like our black women. Here, in this intersection of race and masculinity, is where the dollar amount, the body count, and other ways of performing collides and sparks the fumes of toxic black masculinity. In a way, I, along with millions of other black men, search for our identity outside of our bodies, unable to look inward and embrace our emotions. Instead, we participate in harmful activities that act as false finish lines for our search. This crashed identity is one that many, not surprisingly, wish to attain in order to belong to and participate in a seemingly communally-imagined black masculinity. Doing so maintains ignorance (and even acceptance of that's the way it is) to the disastrous and divisive effects it has on our communities and our individual lives. While writing that sentence, I am reminded of the adage attributed to dying organizations: "We have always done it this way." Unfortunately, we reiterate that sentiment and pushback change when we say, "boys will be boys," "boys don't cry" and a plethora of other phrases that pepper our young men's childhood and adulthood.

Thus, when I think about a way to remedy this toxin, I too imagine the power of loving oneself, with the added ability to respect, love and show concern for how others love themselves. The way I love me and express that will undoubtedly be different from another black man's love for himself and how he expresses it. Yet, there is a desire for sameness in that experience. Hence, I hesitate to use the word "normal" when envisioning a healthier black masculinity. The word connotes a monolithic experience and in doing so excludes the multitude of expressions of love that exist within a new, larger, more expansive thinking of black masculinity. If we normalize an experience, we unintentionally (or intentionally) recreate the black male box, which forces many to lose their authentic self as they struggle to confirm and squeeze themselves in it. Likewise, it punishes those that remain authentic to themselves and do not fit into the strict, small, acceptable identity as a black man. In fact, we often fight, bully, and kill those who reside on the outside the box's boundaries. This box does not have space for love or for any other emotion. On the other hand, with love as the foundation of this new, expansive black masculinity, it allows black males to find and connect with themselves in a positive manner. The search turns inwards and better reflects their authentic being. In doing so, they can deal with their childhood traumas; they can interrogate the unhealthy messages of who they should be; they can picture themselves as they want to be. Additionally, the ability to love oneself enough to witness and encourage others to love themselves in their own manner is a possible key to healing the community. I know quite a few people who reportedly love themselves and are upset with how others choose to love themselves. Such behavior seems contradictory to the spirit of love, yet appears common, in part because of the presence of the single black male identity that all black men should be.

I'll end with a quote from Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If we want to successfully reimagine a healthier black masculinity, we have to first acknowledge the roots of the issue and then think creatively, outside of the (black male) box, to create something new and different, one grounded in love of self and others.

All The Best,

May 21--Dorian

There are certainly no monolithic stories for black males and perhaps the concept of normal has been the very thing that has trapped us or banished us to the box. One community unified by a common bond and constructed on the foundation of difference is how we must move forward together. For the community to thrive our new rules of engagement, as men have to be built on the values and affirmations of acceptance, love for others and oneself, difference, respect, vulnerability and a humble confidence that we are good enough, we always have been good enough and we always will be good enough. As the Campaign For Black Male Achievement CEO, Shawn Dove says, "there is magic bullet or no great savior, for black men. Why? Because we are the Calvary, we are who we have been waiting for."

Our work and our lives do not happen in isolation, yet our views of masculinity and self-love have to be extremely personal. They are also part of an intricate quilt that we must all weave in service to ourselves, our sons and our communities. I will close by saying you are my brother and man to man I offer my ears to listen, my hands to do the work of our communities, and most importantly I offer my shoulder to cry on, because the sooner we realize boys do cry and they have a village willing to listen, work, and dry their tears, the quicker we will truly step into our masculinity and the men we have been destined to be.

Building Together,

May 30--Dwight

Dorian,

Thanks for those closing words. Likewise, you are my brother and a friend. Thank you for encouraging me to write and express some ideas I have about black masculinity and emotionality. I appreciate your willingness to engage with me in a fruitful conversation. Thanks.

It is my sincerest hope that our email exchange finds its way into group chats, twitter, and other arenas of conversations because it is necessary to discuss and explore black masculinity for our black male brothers and also our communities. Throughout our emails, the seeming central idea focused on love and healthy expressions of our emotions, allowing ourselves to feel and share those feelings. Unfortunately, this idea runs contrary to the popular way, easily understood as the only way, of being a man. Yet doing so, being more aware of our inner feelings and thoughts, we imagine that it will allow for a healthier, more expansive black masculinity to emerge, one that encourages love for self, along with respect and concern for others and how they choose to love themselves. Undoubtedly, there will be pushback from other brothers and sisters who are tied to the way that things are. I welcome the conversations, not to persuade them to think otherwise, but to listen and hear their hopes for the community. There is no one right way; our conversation provided one avenue that we believe. And I acknowledge that this idea of patriarchy, race and love is one of many topics that we, as a community, must discuss and look forward to engaging in future conversations.

All My Best,

Dwight Vidale (@dwvidale) is an educator, diversity/equity practitioner, and a writer. He has over 10 years of teaching, administrative, and consulting experience. He is also the founder of the Young Men of Color Symposium, a leadership conference for young men of color in independent, public, and charter schools in grades 6-12 in New York City and surrounding areas. He can be reached at dvidale@riverdale.edu.

Dorian O. Burton (@Dorian_Burton) is the assistant executive director and chief program officer at the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. He is also co-founder of TandemED. Burton holds a Doctorate degree from Harvard University, where he is also an affliate of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

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