Over on FreeThoughtBlogs, Crommunist wrote a post this morning about what happens when the (black) masculinity myth came into conflict with the intense storm of emotions that emerged for comedian Anthony Griffith as he was losing his baby daughter to cancer.
Go read the post. Go watch Anthony’s video. I’ll wait.
As Crommunist points out, Anthony’s story touches on so many facets of what it means to be a man, and more specifically a black man. The expectations. The isolation. The utter and complete dissonance between how he felt and how he was “supposed” to act. A man in the depths of pain. And shame.
Shame of having to worry about things like get his car repossessed and getting evicted.
Shame of feeling like his pain is indulgent when he’s “not the only one” losing a child.
Shame of not knowing what to do.
Shame of appearing weak. Of being weak. Of crying.
And resolution for him came in screaming at himself “man up, nigga”, and thus putting himself back in the tiny box of acceptable male emotional expression. Which is arguably smaller for black men than it is for white men.
The article ends with the conclusion that the world would be a better place if men were able to more freely express their emotions. If therapy wasn’t seen as a thing only for well-to-do white folks. And it’s hard to disagree.
But I am left wondering “so how do we get there?” How do we even start creating “a world where it’s okay to be vulnerable and to need help” (to quote commenter mythbri)? It seems like an gargantuan (and perhaps impossible) task.
I think we have to start small. In our own little worlds, our own spheres of influence. In our own heads and hearts, foremost. We first need to start to accept vulnerability within ourselves. And taking a close look at how expectations about our gender/race/class/etc. informs how we process and express pain, sadness, loss, helplessness. (This. This is hard. This work never stops. But it is oh so powerful.)
In relationships with others, we can start looking out for what Dr. John Gottman calls “sliding door” moments. The moments where someone (a romantic partner, friend, coworker, anybody) is reaching out to us. Sometimes it’s an overt plea. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a look or a hesitation before changing the subject of conversation. In each of those moments we have a choice: to open the door to the vulnerability, or to shut it and walk away. Shutting the door is easier, and if we walk away enough times, the reaching out stops. So often we fail to even notice these sliding-door moments. Because we’re sitting in our own shame. Or our conception of the other person just doesn’t allow for them to be vulnerable in our eyes (they’re our boss, or our parent, or someone we turn to when we need strength). At other times we turn away deliberately because we are unwilling or afraid to open up to a potentially raw, intimate, uncomfortable conversation.
We can start being more aware about how our gender roles lead us to shame, and the different ways in which men and women are expected to act, especially when we are in struggle. With respect to male vulnerability, I think women have a important role to play. And I say this not because most a lot of vulnerability plays out in romantic relationships, the majority of which are heterosexual, but because women’s expectations of men (by mothers, daughters, sisters, female partners) often play directly into how men deal with vulnerability. Brené Brown explains here how the expectations of men and women operate differently when it comes to shame.
We women can so easily be hypocritical: we usually say we want (to date, to be friends with, to raise, to have been raised by) a man who is sensitive, open, and in touch with his feelings, but we are often quickly repulsed when a man comes to us vulnerable. And then we wonder why they shut down. We often forget that as women, it is far easier for us to “get away” (in the sense of social acceptability) with crying, with reaching out for help (a hug, a therapist, a tear-filled couch-moping session), with admitting that we don’t know what to do, with expressing feelings of insecurity (not too much, mind you, lest we be branded as “crazy”, “neurotic”, “unstable”, “oversensitive”, etc.)
We (not just women, everybody) can commit to sitting with men in their times of pain and putting aside our own discomfort. We have been socially conditioned to see a man’s vulnerability as weakness, when admitting vulnerability is perhaps the most courageous thing anybody can do.
We can commit to not using phrases like “man up”, “be a man”, “take it like a man”, which all serve to put men right back into their tiny box of limited acceptable emotion.
We can choose to not use words like “weak”, “pussy”, “sissy”, etc. to refer to someone who is no longer conforming to the mold of male stoicism.
We can dare greatly and choose to share our own vulnerability with others.
And we have to accept that we will fuck up at all of the above, probably often, sometimes badly, despite our best intentions. But I think we have to make the effort. It’s the only path I see towards a more empathetic world.