Toxic masculinity and its deadly grip on the black community
On April 18, a nationwide manhunt came to an end as Steve Stephens, suspected of the Facebook Live murder of 74-year-old Robert Godwin on Easter Sunday, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
According the Stephens, the rejection of love from his ex-girlfriend, Joy Lane, led to his presumably emotional breakdown and decision to take another’s life. This story unfortunately speaks to a much larger epidemic in the black community that occurs when the male ego is challenged and masculinity crosses that dangerous line into becoming toxic.
Last week, Ebony editor Britni Danielle catalogued a series of tweets and a follow-up story about women who had been killed at the hands of black men due to domestic violence. The effort was to bring awareness to an epidemic that has been happening in the black community for some time and yet rarely discussed in any meaningful way. Her tweets were met with much praise but also backlash as some chose to victim blame the women and reduce the accountability of the black men who committed these crimes. Their defense was rooted in a desire to protect the long-damaged image and perception of African-American men.
This isn’t the first time an awareness campaign has attempted to discuss the challenges and dangers black women face regarding their safety around black men. Three years earlier, Danielle profiled activist and journalist Feminista Jones’ anti-street harassment campaign #YouOkSis, which often times has led to injury and even death at the hands of black men when their advances are rejected.
“The bottom line is that a lot of the ways in which men have been taught to approach women has been problematic,” Jones said. “Men are taught to believe that women are perpetually accessible to them, and it’s hard to take no for an answer.”
Her campaign forced many men to open their eyes and even directly challenge the masculinity of others.
This event prompted scholar, activist and avid Twitter user Anthony J. Williams to start the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag. In speaking about the hashtag, Williams said “it came from pure frustration and a sense of helplessness.”
“Following Feminista Jones on Twitter was like some awakening for me. Seeing how she was personally treated as a black woman and listening to the individual stories she brought to Twitter as a social worker helped me realize my complicity in toxic masculinities,” he added. “It’s now 2017 and her individual efforts, the organizing of black women, and my hashtag have changed the conversation but haven’t stopped men — including black men — from assaulting, stalking and killing black women because we somehow feel entitled to them.”
He often wonders how we can work toward a solution to this ever-growing epidemic.
Toxic masculinity, however, is not only assumed by the heterosexual man. Masculinity within the LGBTQ community shows up in many ways as to create power dynamics within the lines of sex and gender. ‘Masc’ and ‘fem’ are often directly linked to sexual positions and used to shame those in the less so-called dominant role. Gay men often shaming trans people shows just how far the divisions are even within a marginalized population.
Lesbians have also exhibited these characteristics when discussing ‘dom’ (dominant) and ‘butch’ in comparison to those who are considered fem. Masculinity is seen as the peak power dynamic in most communities; therefore, it’s quite natural that other populations or sub-communities would adopt such structural hierarchy, essentially creating a class and power system.
To gain more insight into toxic masculinity, I spoke with psychologist and TV personality Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., ABPP of Farley and Associates Advanced Crisis Management Firm. “Generally speaking, toxic masculinity is in all communities and comes from misogynistic views, anger and low self-esteem; where women become targets of hate. The same is true in the African-American society,” Gardere said.
“However, you need to add the wrinkle that in some cases, social inequality may add increased stress and threaten the male role expression, especially in individuals who may have pre-existing personality or other emotional challenges, resulting in anger-based views and behaviors such as toxic masculinity.”
This definition coincides with the depiction of toxic masculinity in media, which has also long stood as a form of art imitating life at its worst intersection. The first movie that comes to mind is the critically-acclaimed classic Carmen Jones, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. In the final act of the movie, Carmen, played by Dandridge, is asked to return to her lover Joe (Belafonte). When Carmen rejects this request, Joe strangles Carmen to death before being apprehended by police.
In What’s Love Got to Do with It, which depicted the life story of Ike and Tina Turner, Turner dealt with years of abuse from her husband, most often due to jealousy of her rising fame outside of his own. Ike Turner relied on the power dynamics of abuse to not only keep her fearful but keep others around them from stepping in to do anything about it.
When we look at the current trend of shows depicting how toxic masculinity usually ends in abuse or death, look no further than TV One’s Monday night lineup. The show Justice by Any Means depicts friends and families of loved ones hunting down those, mainly men, who have killed their loved ones, primarily women. Another show on the network, For My Man, explores women who are led to do heinous crimes under the power and control of the men they love. The show gives insight into how masculinity can transcend gender and can be used as a tool to manipulate and hurt others. Similarly, TV One’s For My Woman depicts men who, when challenged by their women, are driven to kill “the other man” in tangled love triangles.
These type of shows exemplify how the media continues to profit on an issue that is destroying the black community. What happened this past weekend is the continuation of a deadly epidemic in the black community that we can no longer dismiss as “lone wolf” incidents. For many, the fear at the hands of black hetero men is much more prevalent than for any other race, particularly in the case of black trans women. If we are ever going grow as a community, we must start addressing these problems head on and not be afraid to check our egos at the door —because toxic masculinity is literally killing us.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, TheGrio, JET, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.