Conversations About Masculinity – 2

What do we want to be?

MacArthurIf people don’t think that race and gender justice are deeply connected, then they are living in a delusional world.  When I first got wind of the horrific burning of an 18 year old gender bending youth, Sasha Fleishman by a 16 year old (unnamed because he is a minor) on a city bus in Oakland, I was stunned and immediately went to the place that most of us go for our news these days…the internet.  But in doing a search for “Oakland youth burned on bus” I came up with, among other things, a site that is called ‘niggermania’ (I will not link to it here because I’d rather not drive traffic to it and who knows what kind of crazies are behind it.)  On this site, there were a lot of people who were very intent on making it clear that because the victim was white and because the perpetrator was black that this would somehow lead to the media not making as much of it as if the race roles were reversed.  There were a lot of mentions of Trayvon Martin and a lot of very sad and bigoted language all around.  I still marvel that my search brought this site up.  But rather than just being pissed off by the existence of this site, I had a good long think about it and realized that this perspective actually didn’t surprise me in any way; in fact it seemed eerily familiar.  Not because, all white Americans are bigots…that is far from the case.  Instead I realized that this was a sampling of the worst elements of the dominant culture invective played out in its most exaggerated and acid tone and as an American, I am accustomed to always hearing about race.  America is obsessed with race.  Regardless of the conversation, somehow, there is always a racial bent on it.  Ask any non-American and they will tell you so.

But that still doesn’t answer the fact that the bigots have been correct in how this story has not had the juggernaut press of other stories of late where black people have been the innocent victims of crimes of racial profiling.  As I see it, there is one reason and one reason only for this lack of coverage: gender.  The sad subtext of the media being more tacet on this story than on the others has a lot to do with a very subtle approval of the suppression and ‘turning a blind eye’ to issues of gender non-conformity.  It is a subtle affirmation, whether deliberate or not, of the act of the 16 year old saying in effect that they agree on a certain level that a boy who does not present socially as a boy is a bad thing.  More specifically, this silence sends the clear signal that when someone who is outside of the gender norm is victimized, it is somehow not as important as when someone who is racially profiled is victimized.  We see this time and again with the non reporting of transgender crimes either to the police or to the media.  Now admittedly, this is part apples and oranges.  The profiling cases we are currently seeing in national media all involve murder and this case is assault.  However, this current situation also involves a minor choosing to permanently disfigure someone and the resulting punishment treats the minor as an adult.  With all of the questions surrounding juvenile justice and the mass incarceration of people of color, there is a significant conversation that could be had here about the fate of this young man thanks to his own twisted decisions.  All of these stories have ghastly and tragic elements and each deserves to be heard by the public.  But we cannot dismiss the Oakland burning as some kind of child’s play gone wrong…’boys will be boys.’ This was a deliberate and gruesome act based on (by admission of the 16 year old) a hate bias against someone’s gender expression.  So where are the marches?  Where are the protests?

Nowhere, because as a culture, we don’t care.

I ask the question, “who do we want to be” in the conversation on manhood, because we have choices.  We have the choice to decide if we are going to be violent and abusive; we have the choice to decide if we are going to put up barriers; we have the choice to decide if we are going to look at someone and call them disgusting, or worthless, or less than us in someway.  We have choices.  But we don’t have a choice in how we express our gender.  This is a completely individual and for some a God given gift.  It is part of the fabric that makes each of us an individual.  Likewise, we also have no choice as to our race.  It is not something we can fix and fiddle after the fact, because, like our gender and gender expression, it came along before us and is defined by who we are.  In no circumstance, can I think of a situation where race trumps gender. Nor can I see a place where gender expression is more important than race.  We must invest in the search for a new language (literally and figuratively) to talk about these elements of our humanness  as part of our basic makeup and it is the struggle toward that language that makes this journey so difficult.  What do we want to be?  We want to be free and safe in both our gender and racial expression.  We want to be whole.

Because I am black, I am not a monster…but I can choose to do monstrous things.  Because I am gender queer, I am not a pervert…but I can choose to do perverted things.  You see, we are who we are, but we choose what we do with it.  The young man who burned Sasha Fleishman is not a monster because he is black (although ‘niggermania’ would have you think so) but he chose to do something monstrous.  Just as Sasha Fleishman is not a pervert for being a man in a skirt, although our media and culture would have us think so through their tacet response.  We have choices to make about our actions and we should be choosing actions that are grounded in love.  We cannot make choices about who we are and we shouldn’t confuse bigotries and biases for identities.  We can choose to be full of hatred, but you must remember that ultimately we are all made from love.

Heartbreak

1379273594000-AP-Charlotte-Police-Shooting-DeathI wept on BART this morning.  Reading the news on my phone as most people do, I read the story of Jon Ferrell, the former football player who was shot in North Carolina over the weekend.  I am numb to these stories.  Not to say they don’t register in me as deeply troubling examples of a twisted culture, but I have lived most of my life with news of black men being killed for one reason or another.

At that same moment, a black man came on to BART with his little boy.  The man was dressed in a fashion that (per my previous post) would probably have women clutching their purses, had he not been accompanied by a 6 year old; he wore a football jersey, sagging jeans, baseball cap, many tattoos, etc.  The man and his son sat down and the boy immediately began to read from Dr. Seuss to his dad. The man encouraged him to read it aloud to understand each word and if he had trouble, he didn’t just give the answer but gave him ways to figure it out.  And when they finished that book, the man pulled a ‘grown up’ book out of his bag, opened it to a page and asked the boy to do the same thing.  The boy struggled with the bigger words, but again, the man encouraged him.  The entire time this went on, the man had his arm around his son.

I remembered a similar scene some 43 years ago, with my own dad on the New York City subway, reading Dr. Seuss and being encouraged to figure out the words and when I had questions being asked to think about the answers instead of just expecting to be given the answers.  We were not rich and lived in the pre-fashionable Upper West Side.  My dad, in those days attired himself in what would have been considered the 1970 equivalent of hoodlum gear: large afro, African chain, daishiki print shirt, black ankle boots, etc.

And then I thought back to Jon Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and I realized that this beautiful scene of a father lovingly nurturing his son in the art of thought and engaging his world could end with that same father standing by a grave wondering why someone would have assumed that this beautiful and gentle creature who he had so carefully filled with curiosity and knowledge…why someone would assume that because he was wrapped in brown packaging that he was less worthy of living.

Every morning I walk through the armies of broken and searching black men in downtown Oakland.  They have narrowly escaped being targets of fatal gun violence, but they have not escaped being the target of our country’s institutionalized fear.  They live on the periphery, bonding and surviving any way they can.  Some are on drugs.  Some are looking for the next person to take from what they don’t have the opportunity to earn.  Some are genuinely angry.  Some are just heartbroken.  They didn’t start this way.  I wonder how many of them sat with a parent embracing them as they learned to read, never knowing that they would end up reading about their brothers being gunned down just because someone was afraid of the color of their skin.