The first time I read Melissa Harris Perry’s book Sister Citizen, I realized I knew even less than I imagined about what it means to be a woman, and more specifically, a Black woman. Sister Citizen enlarged my world and reminded me of a question I had asked my mother many years ago at church, “Mom, why are there no women pastors at church and in the pulpit?” The answer I received then and the answers I often receive now remain unsatisfactory when discussing gender equality. Yet I must never stop asking them and as an adult I started to seek out answers, devouring books, articles, and speeches by famous feminists and theorists. Feminism is “the social, economic and political equality of ALL genders.” Last year, the Ms. Foundation for Women invited thought leaders, public figures, writers and artists to participate in the #MyFeminismIs campaign. Elements of the campaign included photos, videos sharing stories and discussed why feminism is essential to our lives. A video from the campaign featured writer Mychal Denzel Smith and I discussing our understanding, journey and association with feminism. We delved into the idea of men identifying as feminists and adopting a feminist politic.
Many of my Black male identified friends saw the video of Mychal and I and started sharing their feelings about the word ‘feminist’ and why they didn’t openly identify as feminists. After these conversations, I realized that a lot of Black men were interested in exploring a dialogue around feminism and gender equality. I reached out to partner with the Ms. Foundation for Women and Ebony.com to start the conversation of #BlackMenAndFeminism. As I began talking to Black men I asked questions including: How were you introduced to the word “feminist?” Do you identify publicly as a feminist? Do you believe in gender equality? It was refreshing to see so many men willing to share their thoughts. I even found men casually petitioning to have this conversation. Guys weren’t necessarily raising their hands to participate, yet when I wore a shirt that read, “I met God and she’s Black,” I would get questions and even head nods of solidarity.
As I asked Black men their thoughts on feminism and identifying as a feminist, television personality and pundit Toure’ summed up my findings best, when he exclaimed “there’s a mental reorganization that must happen in order for men to understand sexism and the urgent need for gender equality, and that requires a type of vigilance that most men don’t understand.” When asking men if they identify as a feminist, one thing was true – the word feminist had been weighted down with years of un-interrogated lies. Many men weren’t ready to shoulder its’ weight, and walk through the firewall of lies to obtain the truth. Julian Walker, the young star of the movie Blackbird believes “men have issues with identifying as a feminist because there is a standard that has been set to how men are supposed to walk and talk and most see the word ‘feminist’ and run from it without knowing the true meaning behind it.”
Though many of the men I interviewed didn’t openly call themselves feminists, there were others who wanted to push the conversation beyond just the idea of identifying as a feminist. Husband and educator Michael Jennings expressed, “I believe in gender equality and I’m sure the word feminist alone doesn’t get us there. The male embrace of the word feminist doesn’t singularly change the conditions that allow women to be viewed and treated as less than, but an understanding of its’ nuance, complexity and power can help men create a movement that can free women and maybe ourselves.”
Actor and activist Robert Wisdom of the critically acclaimed series The Wire believes, “men must continue to engage, remain curious and listen with empathy to women, as they discuss the oppressive nature of sexism if we desire to understand their struggle and obtain the language to talk to other men about issues such as gender equality.”
What’s clear is that regardless if men labeled themselves feminists, they were interested in offering their thoughts on gender equality and feminism in a one on one situation. Some expressed a level of apprehension of saying the wrong thing when strangers or women are in the room. Engineer Preston Roberts from Harlem conceded, “when trying to describe your outlook and perspective, you don’t want to offend anyone so I’m apprehensive about offering my full views.”
In order to get around this fear, I wanted to engage men in traditionally male-only spaces. So I headed to the barbershop. During my barbershop conversations, one thing was clear; openly identifying as a feminist was not the norm. Some highlighted how the word ‘feminist’ felt too closely related to the word ‘feminine’ and therefore they didn’t like it. Others offered a historical perspective as to why they didn’t identify with the word ‘feminist.’ Business manager Robert Lewis of Denver explained, “feminism to me has been a white woman’s issue and it’s not for Black people. In my mind, it has only been beneficial to white women and hasn’t had the same impact for Black women.’
I asked men with sons how they, or if they, wanted to raise young men who were dedicated to gender equality. Phoenix Byrd, 40, and father of a young son offered, “I teach him to respect women and the teenage basics. I’m more concerned that he respect women and understand their role in his life versus being an advocate for a change in a social paradigm he may not be affected by in fifteen years.”
Philip Horsey, who has been a barber for over 20 years, helped me understand something I had never thought about, when he said, “the barbershop allows people to get a feel of what’s an acceptable opinion on a conversation.” That’s it. Spaces like the barbershop offer men the chance to develop opinions and they use other men as resources on topics that they may have never explored before.
But I wondered, outside of the barbershop were men talking about gender equality. As actor Tory Kittles explained, “The barbershop sort of functions as a sanctuary for discussion within a community. But I don’t think the conversation is solely happening there. They happen at the gym, the bar, the golf course.”
Men explained that from Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama to Beyoncé and even the Oscars, they were many reasons to discuss gender equality and feminism. But the one answer that men stated the most is that feminism/gender equality is important is because they have a daughter. The men who had daughters were triggered to interrogate their own issues of consistency when it comes to being a true gender equality advocate. 38 year-old Bryan Robinson from Fort Meyers, Florida explained, “I have a daughter so my own hypocrisy around my attitudes toward women, feminism and the word feminist can only go so far when I’m trying to raise a young women. Because it’s easy to put a spin on the conversation when the majority in the room are women but I’m guilty of being silent when they are not.”
Bryan’s comment made me wonder whether or not the men I interviewed spoke up consistently when a room full of men is speaking disparaging about women. Lawrence Washington, star of Bravo’s Fashion Queens explains, “I have a low tolerance for men that operate in a very patriarchal anti-feminist way.” During many of these conversations the men and I didn’t always agree but I respected their willingness to engage. But I wondered if the barbershop was the right forum. Activist Tiq Milan offered this for why we need to expand who’s in the room and the spaces to discuss gender equality. “I don’t think Black men need homogenous spaces like barbershops to discuss gender because they don’t allow for accountability.”
If he’s right, men must continue the internal battle and do the emotional work needed to be gender equality advocates and feminists. Despite all the work I’ve done to seek out knowledge and understanding, there’s so much I have to do for myself as an individual and there’s so much more we can all do to keep this conversation to the collective forefront of the Black community. Throughout the rest of the week, in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women and our friends at Ebony.com, we’ll be sharing stories, videos and photos of Black men talking about their experiences engaging with ideas of feminism and gender equality. We’d love to have your thoughts, feedback and ideas be part of this conversation. Use the hashtags #BlackMenAndFeminism and #MyFeminismIs to share your videos, photos and what you think about being a feminist, global gender equality and equity.
About Wade Davis:
Former NFL Player Wade Davis is a thought leader, writer, public speaker, and educator on gender, race, and orientation equality. Davis is currently a senior consultant at YSC, a global leadership consulting firm, as well as the NFL’s first LGBT Diversity and Inclusion consultant, and the Executive Director of the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ending discrimination, sexism, and homophobia in sports. Follow him on Twitter: @Wade_Davis28
About the Ms. Foundation for Women:
The mission of the Ms. Foundation for Women is to build women’s collective power to realize a nation of justice for all. Their annual Gloria Awards: Women of Vision is on April 27 in New York. Follow the foundation on Twitter: @MsFoundation