Racism does not prevent black men from absorbing the same sexist socialization white men are inundated with. At very young ages, black male children learn that they have a privileged status in the world based on their having been born male; they learn that this status is superior to that of women. As a consequence of their early sexist socialization, they mature accepting the same sexist sentiments their white counterparts accept. When women do not affirm their masculine status by assuming a subordinate role, they express the contempt and hostility that they have been taught to feel toward non-submissive women”-Bell Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 1981.
Sexism is real and so is black male patriarchy. I could write a whole blog on sexism and how men, whether intentionally or not, contribute and benefit from being men in almost every aspect of our society. However, I want to talk specifically about black male patriarchy, where it comes from, and how it has been used to control black women. Black men benefit from sexism because they are men. Black male patriarchy is a sexist structure that controls and subjugates black women. Unfortunately, many black men either ignore or deny the existence and prevalence of black male patriarchy. This is in spite of the reality that this structure has been active and predominant in various aspects of black society including black liberation movements.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two of the most important black male leaders in the 20th century and arguably history, were agents of black male patriarchy. One of their biggest limitations was their inability to place value on the power and self-interest of black women. Both believed that the civil rights struggle was more of a black man’s struggle and that women had no place in leading such movements. The Black Panther Party for self-defense in the late 1960s has also been criticized for its misogyny and advocating that the woman’s role in the movement should be that of cooks rather than leaders and fighters. Misogyny is still prevalent today as many so called “pro-black” activists frequently downplay the role of black women and in many cases, openly defend blatant sexist elements.
It is important to understand where black male patriarchy comes from. Historically black men have been devalued and dehumanized in a dominant white male society through coercive polices of enslavement, segregation, and criminalization. As a result of this lack of power, they have sought control to feel valued and have used whatever privilege they have to their advantage. This has resulted in black men controlling and defining racism for themselves (without black women), oppressing women in churches through misused scripture, and excreting unnecessary power in the home based on some divine providence. This also explains why black men have been hesitant, and in many cases hostile, towards women’s rights movements and the ideology of feminism. The unequivocal denunciation of women’s liberation movements by black men is a result of feeling threatened by the thought of women, especially black women, having more power. This is similar to the fact that a critical segment of the white population has always feared and resisted the social change and liberation of blacks.
It is important however to understand that the criticisms and ambivalence towards feminism and women’s liberation movements are not limited to pro-black men nor are there completely without reason. Black Womanist scholars like Bell Hooks and Alice Walker have roundly criticized mainstream feminism as appealing to the needs of wealthy white women while ignoring black women. It is very true that many feminist movements have lacked inclusivity and have failed to challenge the racism within their ranks. However, Black Womanists have also critiqued black male patriarchy, something that many “pro-black” men have failed to do. Both Walker and Hooks discuss the damage of patriarchy in black culture, from the lack of inclusivity of women in movements to the silence and rejection of rape culture in black communities. So often I hear black men either defend rapists and/or blame the women victims. The case of Bill Cosby is a perfect example. Many black men rushed to defend him and simply suggested that the media was trying to destroy a successful black man. Like the case of Cosby, many black men find every excuse in the book to downplay the rape culture that they contribute to. It is toxic and keeps black men from being honest and vulnerable about their sexism and fear of women having more power. Below are some important things for my fellow black men to consider and think about:
1. You do not know what it is like to be a woman: As a man, you are in no position to tell a woman that her experience with sexism (including rape and harassment) is invalid and that she is being sensitive. Just as white people have absolutely no right to dismiss your experience as a black man as being exaggerated or accuse you of playing the “victim” card. Expect women to know their lives and experiences better than you do. Hold yourself to the same expectations you have of white people with racism when it comes to you and sexism.
2. You can’t be pro-black and anti-black women: You cannot truly be “down for the cause” if you ignore the experiences of black women. Black women have to struggle with being both black and woman, and historically, they have been left out and ignored in many movements and circles. In feminist circles, they were ignored and rejected because of their blackness and in civil rights circles, they were ignored and rejected because they were women. If you are truly dedicated to fighting against racism and injustice, you must fight against sexism and challenge the misogyny in your communities. This includes condemning the objectifying language from your brothers and attacking the sexist thoughts that are deeply ingrained in your psyche.
3. Say no to being a male savior: You are not the savior of black women. As whites must reject the white savior mentality, black men must reject the black male savior mentality. This means you must step aside and let black women lead.
4. Recognize your privilege: Whether or not you have personally treated women as second class citizens is irrelevant. As a man in this society, you are influenced by and have benefited from sexism. It is important that you are honest about this. Do not be defensive.
It is important to recognize the prevalence of black male patriarchy and how much it comes from and adopts the oppressive nature of white supremacy. If you are serious about addressing oppression, you need to be serious about addressing the oppression of black women. What I applaud about the Black Lives Matter movement is that they have committed to fighting black male patriarchy and valuing the interests and influence of black women from day one. Furthermore, they have seen the struggle for black lives as a struggle for all black lives, not just heterosexual black male lives. We should learn from them and fix the toxicity of black male patriarchy. We must listen to our sisters and our mothers and let them lead.