Men of Color and Masculinity

June 5, 2017
Jeremy Lin, adapted from a photoshoot for Adidas.

By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya

Recently, Brooklyn Nets star Jeremy Lin said to the New York Daily News, “A lot of times we have Asian girls go for non-Asian guys but you don’t see a lot of the opposite. You don’t see a lot of the opposite; you don’t see a lot of non-Asian girls go for Asian guys. When they said ‘Yellow Fever’ growing up, it wasn’t all these white girls going for Asian guys. It was the Asian girls going for the white guys.”

Although Lin was relatively thoughtful throughout his interview, his answers nonetheless reinforced a damaging myth: that Asian American women have more advantages than their male counterparts.

Lin represents a segment among men of color who have become obsessed with embodying a superficial and regressive “masculinity.” If our goal is to dismantle patriarchy, we must form a deeper, layered understanding of “masculinity” and its relationship to Black, Brown, and East Asian American men. That radical reexamination of the “masculine” must account for the marginalization that many men of color feel, while not absolving them of their role in perpetuating misogyny.

MEN OF COLOR AND WHITENESS

In Masculine Domination, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how institutions and norms are developed to benefit men. Whether through the church, the educational system, or the state, we are socialized into accepting patriarchy as truth. “The strength of the masculine order is seen in the fact that it dispenses with justification: the androcentric vision imposes itself as neutral and has no need to spell itself out in discourses aimed at legitimating it,” he wrote.

Michael Kimmel, director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, traces the evolution of American masculinity since the colonial era in Manhood in America: A Cultural History. The men that Kimmel describes are — throughout American history — paranoid about women snatching away their manhood. For example, during the industrial era, as more fathers worked in factories, women held the responsibility for raising children. Suddenly, male intellectuals worried that boys would be indoctrinated with “feminine” values, and wouldn’t grow into “independent” men.

But neither Kimmel nor Bourdieu adequately center men of color in their scholarship. Had they done so, they might have realized that for Black and Brown men in the U.S., the main concern isn’t solely to do with women. Rather, men of color are also preoccupied with surviving a society dominated by whiteness.

Recently, I devised a questionnaire to begin to assess the relationship between men of color and masculinity, and circulated it to several of my men of color friends. Kemal Hinton, a friend of mine from the D.C. area who identifies as African American, responded with the following: “I cannot think of one problem within the US toward men of color that has yet to be solved. Every day I leave my house, I am racially profiled by every person I meet.”

Preston Anderson, who also identifies as Black, elaborated, “We exist for white people in a white world…and like Sisyphus, we engage in futility trying to find some sort of fulfillment in the deeds and in the articulation…but we can’t…we won’t. Instead, we need to be opting for a Blackened world in which we reject both the Hell we’re in and the authority of those that have put us here.”

Indeed, this sentiment that men of color are often stereotyped was echoed across the majority of my respondents – many of whom are African American or South Asian.

“Stereotypes seem to stand taller than truth and actual talent [and] ability,” said Faizan Wajid, a friend of mine whom I grown up with in the suburbs of New Jersey, “Black men aren’t seen as trustworthy, Latino men aren’t seen as being ambitious, East Asian men aren’t seen as leaders, South Asian men aren’t seen as respectable.”

Throughout U.S. history, African American men suffered intense levels of prejudice and targeting. “Blacks on their way to work were pulled from trolleys and pummeled,” Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton observe in American Apartheid, referring to racial violence that erupted when Black men attempted to move their families into better neighborhoods during Jim Crow segregation. “Rampaging bands of whites roamed the streets for days, attacking blacks at will. Although most of the rioters were white, most of the arrests, and nearly all of the victims, were black.”

9/11 ushered in an era of heightened state profiling against South Asian American and Arab American men, whose bodies are stridently condemned. Civil rights lawyer and former Executive Director of the social and civil rights organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Deepa Iyer, expressed, “The state viewed members of these particular communities as potential threats who were worthy of suspicion. Through national security and immigration policies, the state targeted individuals from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries, as well as those who practice Islam, for purposes of investigation, scrutiny, detention, and deportation.”

The relationship between men of color and racial discrimination also extends to white women and their complicity in the current racial order. Indeed, white supremacists historically and currently rationalize their racism by citing the threat of sexual violence against white women posed by the male Other. Specifically, this faulty racist logic is used to commit racism against not just Black men, but against the entire Black community – including racialized sexual violence against Black women. In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis concludes, “For once the notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality. If Black men have their eyes on white women as sexual objects then Black women must certainly welcome the sexual attentions of white men. Viewed as ‘loose women’ and whores, Black women’s cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy.”

MEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR

The connection between men and women of color is unique, forged by a similar set of struggles and frustrations. However, the majority of those who answered my questionnaire admitted that Black and Brown men are also obstacles for women of color.

“A great deal of the most revolutionary work is being done by women,” Preston said. “Our egos get caught up in this and we get in the way because being better or more important or more recognized than women is more important than being free.”

Daniel Miller, another friend of mine from Georgetown, said, “Men of color can help women of color by respecting and loving them, and treating them as their equals.  Men of color also need to be sensitive to the plight of women of color and need to be supportive.”

According to a report published in 2012 by the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, “79% of South Asian respondents reported being hit regularly as children compared to 70% of Cambodian, 61% of Chinese, 80% of Korean, and 72% of Vietnamese respondents” and “40.8% of the participants reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year.” Neely Mahapatra, an Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Wyoming, conducted a study of 215 South Asian American women on the subject of abuse/domestic violence. She uncovered a high incidence (94% of her sample) claiming they were the victims of psychological abuse from their male partners. This sort of psychological torment can cause a woman’s health to crumble. In fact, “young South Asian women in the U.S. were found to have a higher suicide rate than the general U.S. population” and “many factors account for this high figure ranging from anxiety, cultural stigma, to greater racial and social issues affecting South Asian communities.”

Within the economic sphere, Asian American women are also at a severe disadvantage. Pew Research concluded that although Asian American men have salaries higher than white men, Asian American women earn significantly less than both white and Asian American men. According to The Washington Post, “compared to Asian American men, Asian American women only make 78 cents on the dollar, which is the largest gender gap among these racial and ethnic categories,” although this in-group gender pay gap varies by Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnicity.

Men of color are – like white men — capable of perpetuating gender norms that denigrate and harm women.  For instance, in their quest for “strong” representation in pop culture, Asian American men (such as Jeremy Lin) end up reaffirming a social system that degrades what is defined as “feminine.” Some Asian American men even mimic the behavior of white Men’s Rights Activists while accusing Asian American women of “emasculating” them.

Rather than dismantle categories of “masculinity” and gender, certain Asian American men seem to only desire replacing white men at the top of the hierarchy. Evelyn Kim, for the feminist and social justice site, Reappropriate, writes, “Elements of the mainstream’s hostile version of masculinity have dominated the discourse about Asian American masculine identity: among the Asian American MRA, the Asian American male pursues validation as an ‘alpha male’ who is defined by his aggressiveness, his physical stature, and his capacity to seduce women. Of course, Asian American men are fully capable of embodying these characteristics. But, we rarely ask: why must this be our community’s prized standard of manliness?”

MEN OF COLOR AND ALTERNATIVE MASCULINITY

When asked about what it means to be a “man”, Daniel explained on my questionnaire that “being a man entails carrying yourself with dignity and respect and treating others that way. Also, taking care of your family and responsibilities at home and in the workplace.” Regarding masculinity, he responded, “It means being strong, confident and not afraid of being who you are despite societal expectations and stereotypes.” His answers represent an alternative masculinity that challenges conventional mainstream masculinity; it is one that many men of color may harbor based on their relationships to whiteness and black and brown women.

Echoing Daniel, others incorporated respect, and equality into their definitions of masculinity and manhood. For some, like Faizan, a “man” was about being a better person, being “someone who listens, thinks, and commands attention to fairness”, and being someone “who stands his ground and gives respect.” Another respondent, Shawn Bush, stated, “Being a man is about growth – not necessarily about man as distinct from woman, or about masculinity versus femininity. Being a man means maturing beyond boyhood behaviors. Being a man means taking your responsibilities seriously, doing right by others, and having self-control.”

Consistently, an alternative masculinity appeared among my survey respondents – and it was a masculinity that consistently opposed strict binaries (i.e. women are meant to stay at home, while men work), but which didn’t discard “masculinity” and manhood completely.

“I associate [masculinity]… with how you can put traits typically considered male to positive use,” Arish Sangha described. “So, if men are aggressive, can you use that aggression to be brave or to defend those who may not be able to defend themselves. I don’t have a problem with this conception of masculinity based around the father/husband role in the family as long as it’s not defined in a way that’s mutually exclusive. So, being brave is masculine, but that doesn’t mean women can’t be or shouldn’t be brave.”

A BEGINNING        

The more we shed simplistic descriptions of masculinity (i.e. Asian American men desiring “strong” role models), the more likely all of us can develop identities and ways of thinking that confront unjust power (such as patriarchy, but also white supremacy).

Further, by appreciating complexity, we can truly grasp the experiences of Black, Brown, and East Asian American men. The reality is that African American, Latinx, and Asian American men share levels of mistreatment by the mainstream, but each group have their own set of stereotypes, and history to engage with. Asian American men are accepted into white society easier than African American and Latinx men. Southeast Asian American men, such as Hmong, could be portrayed as “dangerous”, while East Asian American men, and certain South Asian Americans (i.e. Hindu and lighter-skinned) are assumed to be smarter and eager to “assimilate”. Non-black Latinx and Asian American men may also hold racist views of African Americans. Our political pedagogies must reflect these nuances.

We live in a society immersed in whiteness, class inequality, and sexism. Even as men of color, we still internalize these anti-democratic norms and values. To liberate ourselves and our community, we must become self-aware and learn.

Or, as Faizan put it: We must “listen attentively when spoken to, not every discussion is about getting one’s own ideas across.” We must “seek to represent and uplift each other in whatever circumstance.”

Sudip Bhattacharya

Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University. He’s also a journalist and writer whose work has been published in CNN, Lancaster Newspaper, The Daily Gazette, The Jersey Journal, The Washington City Paper, The Aerogram, and AsAm news. He mostly focuses on issues of social justice, race, and identity through his work, and is a fervent optimist, but not the annoying kind. 

Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest contributor program and submit your own writing here.

 

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