An old Chinese proverb once said, “Women hold up half of the sky.” It would be nice if men stepped up and held up the other half of the sky with them.
Cloudy Skies Ahead
During my young and single days, like most 20 somethings, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. But I had fun while looking. I was at a bar one night in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. I met a young nurse, we’ll call “Rose.” She was sitting alone at the bar, drinking a rum and coke. I worked my magic, and after some fun conversation, I took Rose back to my place in South Shore. I expected we would end up doing like they do it on the old-school Discovery Channel that night.
I was wrong, so wrong. Rose vomited in my kitchen sink and quickly passed out on my bed. She only let me know that she had taken a couple of valiums before heading out to the bar that night. Clearly, the drugs took effect when we got back to my place. I wasn’t upset at the situation. “It was what it was,” I figured. I put a blanket over Rose and proceeded to get to know my DVR a little better that night.
In the morning, I took her home that morning and never saw her again. I shared my story with my good friend, Big U, and he told me something that really stuck with me. Even till this very day, I’ll always remember his words. “Dude, she’s lucky she was with someone like you that night. If she was with some other guy messed up like that, it could have gotten worse.”
My friend made an excellent point, one that hadn’t dawned on me until he said it. I could have had my way with her or done something much worse. Doing something like that never crossed my mind because I’m not that type of guy. But there are a lot of those guys, and women have to deal with that reality every day. The fact that those types of guys exist is the reality that women across to globe have to deal with when they’re in vulnerable situations. This wasn’t my first realization of sexism in our world, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.
I was at another bar on Chicago’s North Side one night. I was out with a good buddy of mine who had disappeared in the crowd. Eventually, I found myself chatting up a couple of young women. One of them was very drunk, and I was talking to her tall, lovely friend. They excused themselves to the ladies’ room. Out of nowhere, a guy (whom I had never met before) in the leather jacket walked up to me and said, “Dude, let’s finish getting these bitches drunk so we can go fuck them later.”
I told him I was okay, but no thanks. I brought waters for the women and, later on, made sure that they left in a cab. So the creepy guy in the leather jacket wouldn’t follow them. That evening, I was appalled but not surprised. Serving in the hyper-masculine Armed Forces and being around a lot of men in close quarters, the man’s words were not new to me. So many times, comments like his and mentions of casual rape, name-calling, or advocating violence against women came up in that space, unfortunately.
The Other Half of the Sky: The Men
I admit that I’m not perfect, and I’m not telling you all this because I think I deserve a pat on the back for being such a great guy. I have been guilty of harboring sexist attitudes and beliefs in the past. I listen to music where artists liberally refer to women as bitches, hoes, etc. (2Chainz fan here). I, like most Americans, have consumed pornography and watched Game of Thrones (which has been quite rapey these past six seasons). I have mansplained before about not all men being total assholes. I continue to struggle with my own internal demons when it comes to my male privilege. Like every man in this country, I move within a broader context of patriarchy and, consequently, continue to struggle in my awareness of how it impact my interactions with and understanding of women. So, I just say I’m a recovering misogynist, as a brotha once put it ever so elegantly.
That broader context or, more specifically, the history and origins of sexism and misogyny are too long and complicated to explain in one post. A series of factors such as a people’s history, religious traditions, cultural mores, and a country’s political system all influence how women and girls are viewed, valued, and treated. Suffice to say, women and girls must deal with a unique set of challenges that most men and boys can only imagine.
Intimate and Domestic Partner Violence
For example, in 2016, a woman or girl’s most significant threat may be living under the same roof as them. A best friend from the graduate school shared with me that she, her sister, and mother lived for years under the constant threat of physical violence from her father. Her father was a wealthy businessman who had married his secretary, my friend’s mother. Domestic violence is something that many women have to navigate in their daily lives, and the data on this issue can be troubling to read:
“Homicide as a result of domestic violence makes up a greater proportion of female homicides than it does male homicides. In the United Kingdom, 37 percent of murdered women were killed by an intimate partner compared to 6 percent for men. Between 40 and 70 percent of women murdered in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Israel, and the United States were killed by an intimate partner. The World Health Organization states that globally, about 38% of female homicides are committed by an intimate partner.” Source Wikipedia
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, women and girls face various forms of domestic violence, including acid attacks and honor or dowry killings. This is the reality for many women living today, and many men can’t imagine having to live in this reality.
Rape and Sexual Assault in the Military
Additionally, the specter of rape looms. For men, the fear of rape arises whenever we think about prison. Prison is perhaps the only scenario or setting that generates in us the genuine concern of rape. But, for women, many situations pose the threat of rape or sexual assault. More alarming, rapists are often someone with whom the victim is familiar or close: co-worker, friend, husband, relative, boyfriend, etc. The work context is particularly problematic for women, and as I learned during my service in the Navy, women in the military experience disturbing rates of sexual assault and rape.
During my time in the U.S. Navy, many of my male colleagues talked about their female colleagues in very unflattering ways. Words like whore, slut, skank, lesbo, and bitch were used to describe fellow servicewomen. One time, I confronted a colleague, who often referred to most women in these terms. I asked him what if someone mentioned to his mother that way. He laughed and said, “I’m sure back in the day some nigga did call my mom a bitch, and maybe that’s what she was.”
These attitudes and views undermine the military’s goal of ensuring a fighting force that respects all its members, no matter their identity. These views and opinions also explain the alarming rate of sexual assault in the military.
“It’s hard to nail down the numbers because it’s estimated that 70 percent of the victims never report it, but the Pentagon estimates that one in three servicewomen are sexually assaulted — twice the civilian rate.”
This is tragic. I have had friends who served who have confirmed this and shared their struggle of what it is like to be a woman servicemember. Dealing with constant, unwanted advances from their male colleagues at all rank levels, from NCOs to senior officers. This is why, during my time as an educator and social worker in Chicago, I was brutally honest with youth who asked me about joining the Armed Forces. I told them I’m a better person for joining the military, but as a man, I didn’t have to deal with the onslaught of sexual harassment that my female colleagues had to endure. I let young ladies know they would have to deal with that from their comrades if they joined the military. I know the military is making some significant changes, but like the rest of society, we still have a long way to go.
My transition from an “alpha” male culture in the military to a touchy-feely social work culture was an education in socialization for me. My women’s social work colleagues and peers shared stories about riding the public transit in Chicago and having to deal with strange men pulling out their penises and showing it to them. There were also stories of random men yelling sexually explicit things to them or groping them while taking the bus or train in Chicago. As a man, these things never happened to me. I never thought about the possibility of some strange person groping me on the train. Through the years, I’ve had numerous women of different racial and class backgrounds share their stories about dealing with sexual and physical abuse at the hands of various men in their lives.
These women are my friends, they were former lovers, and they are my sisters, my nieces, and my colleagues. My empathy can never match the pain, sorrow, and anguish that so many women have gone through at the hands of men and sometimes other women (who turn the blind eye towards or partake in their suffering to maintain the status quo). These women are some of the most influential human beings I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I am a better man for knowing them all.
The Hurricane: Black Men on Black Women
Sexism is wrong, but when you combine it with racism, it can be even more disturbing. This was the case for our gone but not forgotten sistas, Sandra Bland, and Korryn Gaines. To be a woman of color, and in particular a black woman, it can be a minefield to navigate this country’s culture. Too often throughout history and to this very day, black women have found themselves on the frontlines of the struggle for racial equality and justice in a system of white supremacy. While at once being victims of sexist violence and abuse at the hands of black men they know and love. Black men know the world is hard on us, but many of us fail to realize despite racism, we have male privilege. The last thing you’d want to hear as a brotha struggling is that you have any type of privilege. It seems oxymoronic, but it’s true, especially for men like me who are cis, straight, and present themselves as masculine.
Black men, I’ve come to respect and love, like Jimi Hendrix and Huey P. Newton, all are guilty of abusing black women. Their abuses towards women, and in particular black women, have been well documented. It doesn’t take away from their achievements, but it does demonstrate that even those you see as heroes can become suddenly more flawed once you scratch the surface. These men who changed the world also were fallible. They hurt women in their lives in the most brutal of ways. Black women often suffer in silence, only finding comfort in each other. Unfortunately, white feminist organizations fall silent when violence, either domestically or by the state, occurs against black women.
History has shown us that in the struggle against racism, black women have been on the frontlines since day one. Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Well, Fannie Lou Hamer, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Alicia Garza, Briahna Joy Gray, and Opal Tometi are only a handful of sistas who’ve put themselves in harm’s way in the name of truth, justice, and real equity. Many of these women will never be known as well as Malcolm X or have a national holiday named after them like Dr. King. But we must do better as brothas to respect, love, and care for our sistas as they’ve done for us since day one. I think Jesse Williams said it much better than I can when it comes to what we black men need to do:
“Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Jesse Williams. We must do better, and we have to do better. These women are our daughters, our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers, and our mothers. My grandmother Lula Jean Patton was a strong God-fearing woman who didn’t take shit from anybody. She spent a lifetime serving the community and church on Chicago’s far South Side. When she died, our family lost our foundation, and the community lost its matriarch. Her story is the story of countless other black women. I’m not perfect, and I still struggle to become a better man. I just want to be a man that my nieces will always love and respect. I hope that my women won’t have to suffer in silence anymore. I hope one day that the struggles of black women will be treated as just as necessary as the struggle for racial justice for black men.
We black men cannot demand justice and equity, but in our private lives become the oppressor to those we claim we cherish and love the most. We must continue to tell black women that they are beautiful, they are intelligent, they are loved, they are respected, and their lives and stories matter. Men like Jesse Williams, Idris Elba, and Damon Young at verysmartbrothas.com are a few brothas showing us what it means to be evolved, men. Like them, I recognize that we must and can do better.
Meet Me in the Sky
Over the years of challenging male friends and students about their sexism, challenging, and accepting my own male privilege, I have grown. I still know I have a long way to go. I have a lot more to learn. I often think the reason why men don’t challenge other men on their sexism is fear. I said in an earlier post, “Women fear men, and men also fear men.” Well, we must step out of that fear to make the world a better place.
Sexism is an ultimate paradox for many men. For example, we may love our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. But at the same time, we may view other women as nothing more than someone to sexually please us, serve us, and look pretty. The women closest to us become “special women,” while all the others are just beneath us and need to stay their place. Well, those other women are someone else’s daughter, sister, or grandmother. In a perfect world, all people should be treated with dignity and respect. We’re not in that world, but we can try to strive for that through our daily actions. Here are a few potential solutions that can help men become better allies to the women in our lives.
The best dating advice I have ever gotten is two-fold. First off, no means no! Simple, and that’s it. Secondly, think about the type of man you want women to remember you as. Do you want to be remembered as Charlie Sheen or George Clooney? Charlie Sheen’s craziness has slowed down these days, but his track record with women shows he’s a grade-A asshole.
In contrast, George Clooney has been known to be the quintessential gentleman. I prefer to be the George Clooney type of guy. (And I’m comfortable enough in my sexuality to admit that George is quite the debonair Dude.) Whether you plan on having a one-night stand or making her your life partner, treating her with respect is critical. This isn’t about putting women on a pedestal. It’s about recognizing their humanity and treating them accordingly. I realized a long time ago, it was contradictory to judge a woman for her sexuality and not judge men in the same matter. If a person is safe and the sex is consensual, people can get their freak on with all the people they want.
Those wanting to get involved with women’s rights efforts and equality for all should research a few organizations and sites, and join up. Websites like Everyday Sexism Project share stories of how men and women combat sexism in their daily lives. Organizations like the National Organization for Men Against Sexism and the ACLU are just two of the many organizations tackling sexism and championing women’s rights.
Let me share two stories with you.
The first story pertains to one woman I worked with in undergrad. I basically gave her all types of unwanted sexual attention. It never occurred to me until a friend pointed it out to me. I ran into that young lady a couple of years later at a college pub. I pulled her to the side and apologized for acting like a total ass towards her. She accepted my apology, but it didn’t excuse my actions.
The second story involves a similar thing that happened during my time at the University of Chicago, in grad school. I was drunk and had come on way too strong towards a classmate of mine. A mutual friend later reminded me of what had happened, and I was ashamed of myself. I also apologized to the woman for my actions, and I never made a pass at her again.
I’m sharing this because we all screw up in life, but recognizing it and changing our toxic behavior helps us grow. If the roles were reversed, I would have been uncomfortable in both situations. There’s no excuse for my actions, and I was responsible for making women feel uncomfortable. I was lucky to be wise enough to redeem myself by offering each respective woman a sincere apology. I was young and stupid, but I have done my best over the years, not to be that guy again.
As a 30 year old single guy, and out looking for Mrs. Right. I would make my bid toward different women; if she wasn’t interested, I’d respectfully move along. I never took rejection personal. Maybe she was married, preoccupied, perhaps she was a lesbain, or just not interested. It took years for me to get to that point. In professional settings, I’d do my best to be a professional and ensure that I fostered an environment where everyone feels welcome regardless of their sex or gender. This was important when I worked as a counselor and instructor.
Finally, this post is very binary and heteronormative. For the LGBTQ community, their experiences are more in-depth, and even more nuanced than this post can accomplish. I’m an ally, but not a member of the queer community. This post is from the perspective of a person who identifies as a straight black male. I will follow the lead of those from that community to take charge of that conversation, which recognizes the full spectrum of gender and sexuality.
So if the world is to become a more equal place, women and girls must be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. As men, there’s a lot we can do to stand up to sexism in the world and become evolved men. An evolved man is someone who treats everyone with respect and dignity. They learn from their mistakes and try to do better. This includes how you deal with the women in your life. Women have to deal with a lot of shit already. We don’t want to be the cause more of it. This post is not saying that women are all perfect either. Women abuse, sexually assault, oppress, and hurt others as well. All humans can be capable of inhumanity.
The essence of the post I hope is to show how connected men and women are to each other. Why patriarchy can harm both men and women. Biologically, when males and females procreate each parent gives that child 23 chromosomes apiece, thus showing how interconnected we are to each other. Male and female would not exist without one another. Thus, the destinies of both men and women have always been intertwined. Like the yin and yang, life is all about finding a positive balance. It’s up to men to be bold enough to see that balance and make sure the other half of the species is valued.