“For the serious ones, the real ones, the alpha ones, we know what it’s gonna take….revenue and blood,” so said Gavin Long, the identified shooter of three Baton Rouge police officers this past weekend. As details continue to emerge, I want to deal with this particular sentence from a YouTube video uploaded to Mr Long’s Facebook page. Those words: “real, alpha, serious ones” are the product of toxic masculinity. And toxic masculinity is creating global graveyards.
In a recent Los Angeles opinion piece, Melissaa Batchelor Warnke wrote: “In the United States, 98% of those who commit mass shootings are male; 98% of the officers who have shot and killed civilians are male; 90% of those who commit homicide by any means are male; and 80% of those arrested for all violent crimes — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault — are male.”
Despite the startling statistics, not all men kill. Toxic masculinity is the killer here. It is a weapon of mass destruction and instruction. It doesn’t make men, it unmasks inhumanity. And then smiles as the killing drowns dreams and futures. Toxic masculinity is deeply emotional, and simultaneously utterly dismissive and contemptuous of emotionality. Insecurity-laden, dominance-obsessed, fear-filled–it teaches boys and men to stand their ground, confront unapologetically and aggressively–except when it comes to intimate partner violence, and then it says, look away, not your business. Toxic masculinity centralizes brokenness, elevates it, puts an NRA-stamped weapon in its hands and says, tah-dah!
The sh-t is frankly wild.
Toxic masculinity is all about contradictions. It doesn’t deal in negotiation or discussion or compromise. There is no possibility. It is all about absolutes. And yet, it deflects and denies. And then it explodes. The casualties are you and I: dangerous for men, deadly for women and children. America’s streets from Baton Rouge to Minneapolis are killing fields drenched in the blood of the slain and the slayers.
Why do we continue to be so invested in it? We call for a dismantling of white supremacy, to defund police. Toxic masculinity is in a deadly threesome with anti-Blackness and rampant militarism. But no one comes; we are all in trouble. The two identified alleged killers of the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge had been in the military. Foreign killing fields turned domestic ones, where men return as the walking wounded, a living legacy of trauma, walking nightmares and bodies turned battlegrounds. In fact, Long (the purported Baton Rouge shooter) reportedly suffered from PTSD. Toxic masculinity is a root out of which poison emerges. It makes us all collateral damage. The armed forces—like sports and hip hop and nationalist movements—are breeding grounds of toxic masculinity.
There is of course racism within it. For Black men, toxic masculinity presents particular challenges. We are a people for whom emotionality was alien. Our origins in America meant Black men and women were robbed of the privilege of emotionality, humanity. That created a generational inheritance where emotionality—just feeling normal human emotions—was somehow a sign of some kind of frailty. And frailty and Blackness simply could not be together. In that space, toxic masculinity flourishes due to a particularly ripe bed of poison. No boy ever dreamed of not being a real man, or not being seen, described or respected as one. And “real” means what exactly? If it were honesty, we would say living so close to death is terrifying. Fear may be human, but it’s not masculine according to some; real men ain’t scared. If we were honest, we might say the unpredictable terror of state-violence creates helplessness, because facing the police provokes exactly that. But “real” men are not helpless.
What would emerge if toxic masculinity died?
However, I wonder if, when I say kill toxic masculinity, people will hear, “Kill real men.” And this land where “real” and “men” are constructs dangerous to other men, and deadly for women and babies—it remains a deadly aspiration.
Toxic masculinity is seductive, it can show up as take-charge swagger, determined, unwavering, swagger. Who cares about not having swagger – said no Black boy ever. Toxic masculinity is dangerously child-like, narcissistic, self-indulgent and utterly convinced it is all about me, me, me.
But what if we adopted an “emotional justice” approach to toxic masculinity?
Emotional Justice invites us to claim, honor and name our emotionality in order to effectively address it undisguised or undiagnosed as any other -ism or -ology. Once named, a practice of transformation becomes necessary. A crucial part of this type of justice is emotional literacy—the need to accurately name emotions, accurately identify them. Toxic masculinity makes men’s emotionality everybody’s business, because it guarantees graveyards.
Toxic masculinity is not a necessary evil. We do not have to live with it. We do have to invest in dismantling it. Dismantling it need not mean the death of real Black men, but the beginning of building whole ones.
Esther Armah is a radio host and media lecturer. She is host of The Spin, a weekly all women of color podcast. Follow her on twitter: @estherarmah.
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NYC Radio Host and Playwright