I heard a comedian joke about how black men were once required to step aside when they crossed paths with white women on the street, but now it seems that white women are always the ones to cross the street when they pass us in public. I can relate to the experience of white women speeding up, altering their paths, clutching their belongings or casting wary glances in my presence. Because I am of average height and know these experiences all too well, I suspect that this ritual is a familiar one to many black men regardless of upbringing or physical stature.
In the opening words of his classic The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of a "twoness" possessed by African-Americans -- a perpetual dual worldview brought on by self-identification as both Americans and African-Americans. Du Bois wrote within a context that is far different from the one in which I write, but few things force me to consider my own "twoness" more than a white woman taking protective action in my presence.
There is my one consciousness that is furious when this occurs. It screams that I am not violent, and this woman has no right to consider me as such based on a limited encounter. In an instant, it convinces me that this woman knows black men only through caricatures rather than actual contact. It inspires defiance and hints that black men will never escape tired stereotypes no matter the walk that we choose.
Then, there is a second consciousness that is aware of the massive levels of gendered violence committed by men of all races. It knows that men have not historically been at the table in order to combat this violence and so it can hardly blame women who individually or collectively take action in response to the threat of violence. It inspires introspection and encourages me to interrogate the ways in which I may be contributing to cultures that produce violence and fear.
Each consciousness arises instantaneously when provoked. Each is visceral. Each leaves me longing for spiritual successors to Du Bois that might provide some insight on reconciling dueling worldviews. I know where to turn when looking for exemplars of manhood who stand against the demonization of black men. I have plenty of those kinds of colleagues and heroes. Over the years, I have even discovered quite a few male colleagues who are taking up the challenge of living in opposition to cultures that produce violence against women. It is finding colleagues that are committed to the eradication of both racial injustice and gendered violence that is the tougher challenge. Most often I encounter men who emphatically support one cause at the expense of the other but both causes are necessary. The community of men that recognize this certainly exists but is far from mature so those of us who wrestle with dueling perspectives can expect isolation and confusion at times. Fortunately, Du Bois and his powerful contemporaries left behind proof of the change that can come from sustained action for social justice in a world where the majority position often leaves you in search of a home.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.