Chivalry, feminism and the black community

african kings

I recently watched a woman put gas in her car on a 100 degree summer day – while her boyfriend sat in the driver’s seat of the air-conditioned car texting on his phone. I shook my head in disgust and wondered what kind of man lets his lady pump gas and what kind of woman would find this behavior acceptable.

From the outside looking in on this scene, it would seem to confirm the growing sense that chivalry is dead. The word is out that men are decreasingly making gentlemanly gestures such as opening doors for women, offering their coats when there is a chill in the air, giving up their seats on public transportation, or bringing the car around in inclement weather.

Moreover, expressions of modern feminism have lead some to believe that not only are many women no longer welcoming these gestures, but that they are also insulted by them.

Chivalry: A code of knights

Speaking from experience, I have never expected that my holding a door open for a woman would result in her frustration and a curt, “I am more than capable of opening the door myself” retort. As it turns out, this is not an anomaly. Many men have received similar responses to their small chivalrous acts, I have been told.

Much has changed.

Chivalry originated as the code of conduct associated with knights in the medieval era. It governed their actions in battle, mandated dedicated training and personal excellence, and required a deep commitment to the service and protection of others. These attributes and the prestige of the knight’s rank in society made chivalry a desirable and definitive masculine quality.

This remained true even as chivalry evolved to mean courtesies with deep gender associations that played on the physical differences between men and women. In other words, because the average man was physically stronger than the average woman, chivalry was an expression of protection and strength.

Sign of respect or subordination?

In many ways, acts of chivalry do infer a woman’s weakness, or desire for help. This can play on the stereotypes that men are supposed to be gallant knights and women are distressed damsels in need of rescue.

Of course, this type of outdated thinking imposes traditional gender roles on men and women alike, and is particularly out of place in modern day social interaction.

What remains true, however, is that there are many who choose to adhere to traditional roles – not necessarily as a sign of weakness or a desire to subordinate women to men, but as a sign of respect and an expression of personal preference.

The nation’s attitude towards chivalry also seems conflicted.

Gender messages clashing

In a recent Harris Poll, eight out of ten people said women are treated with less chivalry than in the past.

Yet in another study on who pays for dates – one of the most definitive gestures of chivalry – researchers found that 84 percent of men were paying for nearly all the dating expenses well into a relationship, and even more pay for first dates. Only 60 percent of women said they would pull out their wallets and offer to help, but 40 percent of those women expected their offer to be declined.

Even more said they’d be upset if men actually expected them to split the bill.

As a result of all this, men are simultaneously accused of being lacking in chivalry, while also insulting women with chivalry. Some women also feel pulled between rejecting chivalry out of allegiance with feminism, and embracing it because it makes some men feel more comfortable.

The new gender normal

Men and women around the country are learning to adjust to the new normal. For African-Americans, this change is especially pronounced.

The major problem most have with chivalry is that it assumes traditional gender roles. At the same time, feminism has legitimized the concept of women’s independence from men for protection and provision. As economic empowerment has replaced physical strength as the means of generating security, women’s academic achievements coupled with anti-discriminatory employment policies has led them to becoming more self-sufficient, and often household breadwinners.

This is especially true for black women, who in 2010 attained 66 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 71 percent of the master’s degrees conferred on black graduates. Additionally, as of 2011, 68 percent of black women that had given birth over the past year were unmarried, meaning they are more and more responsible for being the sole or primary provider.

So any notion that perpetuates their supposed weakness, however symbolic, is rejected.

Black chivalry: What it can mean

Despite all this, black men are accused of exerting male privilege in expecting women to conform to our notion of gender roles. Black women are accused of being unappreciative of a social privilege that affords them special treatment because of their gender in everyday interactions, or when danger approaches.

Black women are constantly harangued as “hard,” “bossy,” and not feminine enough when it comes to accepting protection, assistance and subtle guidance from black men. Black men are accused of not being supportive enough by black women.

What we need to understand is that gender roles are evolving. There is no longer a standard, society-wide acceptable set of gender-based norms for how men and women are supposed to act.

But common courtesy and thinking of others should remain alive and well.

Courtesy: The new chivalry?

Courtesy has no gender baggage associated with it.

Opening the door for the person behind you, man or woman, is courteous, not chivalrous. Giving up your seat to someone, man or woman, is courteous. And yes, even pumping gas while your significant other, man or woman, sits in the car texting is courteous, too. As is replying with a civil “thank you” when someone extends a courtesy to you.

For me, I will always open the door for my lady and wouldn’t be caught dead sitting in the car while she puts gas in it – and, most importantly, she appreciates, and expects, the courtesy.

When it comes to relationships though, the people involved should determine what is right for them.

The traditional code of chivalry is indeed dead.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.