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Black Men, We Must Be Better

September 21, 2021
6 min read

Oluwatoyin Salau was on the front lines of protests in Tallahassee, Florida. She was fighting for equality for her and her people. Her friends described her as “loving, very spiritual, very caring” and “like a light in a dark room.” On June 6, Oluwatoyin tweeted out about being sexually assaulted. Later that day, she went missing, and a week later, she was found dead in Tallahassee. The man that had sexually assaulted her was charged with murder.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article called How to be an Ally to Black Women to celebrate the intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Funny enough, as I was conducting the interviews and writing the article, I never once thought about how I myself could be an ally to Black women; I just took everything that these women were saying and assumed that it was directed at white people. That mindset is one that I believe a lot of Black men have: we’re both Black, so we’re in this together.

For myself and many other Black Americans, the last few weeks have been emotionally and mentally draining. When I was at a low point, the first three people that reached out to check in and offer consolation were my two sisters and one of my close friends. Not coincidentally, all three of them are Black women. After hearing of Oluwatoyin’s death, I didn’t immediately do the same. It didn’t come to mind to check in on them and support them the way that they had supported me. Sadly, I think this is a trend amongst Black men; again and again, our sisters have always been there to support us, but we haven’t been there for them.

Black Male Privilege

As Black men, we tend to only focus on the challenges that come with being Black, and we forget (or willingly ignore) the privileges that come with being men. Given the constant oppression that we face, it’s hard to come to terms with the idea that we are in any way privileged. As Jewel Woods writes in his paper The Black Male Privilege Checklist, we struggle to identify our privilege because most of our exposure to the concept is “based on a history of political, economic, and military power that whites have historically exercised over black life.” However, we must look past the antiquated context in which we view privilege, and look toward how that privilege naturally puts us in a better position than Black women.

To demonstrate, I’ve pulled 10 items from Woods’ paper. Before you read them, I recommend grabbing some pen and paper, and as you read, place a checkmark next to each number if the statement applies to you.

  1. I do not have to worry about the daily hassles of having my hair conforming to any standard image of beauty
  2. When it comes to sex, if I say “no,” chances are that it will not be mistaken for “yes”
  3. In general, the more sexual partners that I have the more stature I receive among my peers
  4. Most of the lyrics I listen to in hip-hop perpetuate the ideas of my gender dominating the opposite gender, sexually and socially
  5. I will make significantly more money as a professional athlete than members of the opposite sex will
  6. I have the privilege of marrying outside of the race at a much higher rate than the opposite sex
  7. My “strength” as a person is never connected with the failure of the Black family, whereas the strength of the opposite sex is routinely associated with the failure of the Black family
  8. I have the privilege of knowing men who are physically, verbally, or sexually abusive to women and yet I still call them friends
  9. I can be courteous to a person of the opposite sex that I do not know and say “hello” or “hi” and not fear that it will be taken as a come-on or fear being stalked because of it
  10. In general, I have the freedom to travel in the night without fear

Being honest, how many check marks did you have? I had 10.

You might be thinking that some of these aren’t specific to only women, or to only Black people, but that’s the point. The dual identity that Black women carry comes with inherent challenges that we as Black men simply cannot relate to, and that’s okay. Pointing out the privilege that I carry as Black man does not diminish the tests that I face in this country. I can be aware of the oppression facing me and still acknowledge that in some ways, I have it pretty good.

Showing up for Black women

As we look to support Black women, we have to do some self-reflection and see what behavioral changes that Black men need to make:

Respect all Black women

Even as you’re reading this, you might be thinking “well yeah, but…”

That’s part of the problem.

If a white person tried to lessen our experiences as Black men, we would be furious. We wouldn’t listen to any sort of rebuttal because we know that they can never truly understand what we go through. The same concept applies when we hear from our Black women. Their dual-minority identity means that they face struggles that we will never comprehend, and it’s our job to jump to understand, and not to comment.

Hold each other accountable

I’m guilty of staying silent while some of my friends cat-call a Black woman or use derogatory language towards her. It’s easy to think that since it isn’t me doing or saying these things, I’m not the problem. The expectation we have of our white allies to call out their friends and have those uncomfortable conversations with their racist family members is the same expectation we must have of ourselves. As has been said many times over the past few weeks, silence is violence.

As Black men, we must call each other out on our sexist or misogynist actions, and that might mean even dropping some friends who we know act that way. If we wouldn’t be friends with a white person that is openly or covertly racist, we shouldn’t allow Black men in our circles who degrade and disrespect Black women. Period.

Educate ourselves

“And the frustration that fills her words seems to come from the fact that most people don’t see. Just ’cause you woke and I’m not, that shit ain’t no reason to talk like you better than me.

How you gon’ lead, when you attackin’ the very same niggas that really do need the shit that you sayin’? Instead of conveyin’ you holier, come help us get up to speed.”

Snow On Tha Bluff x J. Cole

Since the protests started, many Black people have made it clear to their white friends that it is not our job to educate them on the systemic racial issues that exist in this country. In this same vein, and contrary to what J. Cole might think, Black women are under no responsibility to teach us about all of the ways that we, and this country as a whole, have failed them. It’s our job to consciously decide to learn about Black women’s experiences and equip ourselves to help them in their fight.

If you need a place to start, here are a few books worth reading:

  • Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by Bell Hooks

“Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.”

Feminist Theory x Bell Hooks

Black Lives Matter. Every Black man would agree with that statement, but unless we’re equally outraged at the deaths of Oluwatoyin Salau, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and others, then nothing will change. Every missed opportunity to stand up for Black women; every instance of disrespectful language; every idea that gets ignored — it all perpetuates the cycle that has kept Black women down for far too long.

Black women have quite literally been saving us for generations. Their work has gone unacknowledged, and it’s time that we, as Black men, have their backs. We need each other, and we won’t begin to see progress until we fight for Black women as hard as they have been fighting for us.

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