One young black man explains how he believes in feminist ideals but often catches himself falling short.
My introduction to any kind of feminist thought can be traced back to my freshman English class at Hampton University. The first day, I showed up late and sported a Malcolm X T-shirt. My professor was not impressed with my simultaneous embrace of black nationalist politics and CP time, and he took a special interest in me, requiring that I stay after class for the first two weeks of the semester.
We would discuss writing, music, the politics of the day and my being a knucklehead. One day he took me to his office and handed me a book that he wanted me to read. I don't recall the title now, and my lack of interest led me only to skim it briefly, but it was largely about concepts of power and privilege relative to social status.
Upon my returning the book, the professor asked me what I thought, and I halfheartedly replied that it gave me something to think about regarding power when it comes to being rich or white. He poked a finger into my chest, stared intently at me and asked, "And what about for you, black man?" He emphasized "man" so hard, he must have known that I had skipped over that part of the book.
It was the first time I'd ever had to think about the idea of having any sort of privilege. Growing up as a black man in America, I was taught that I was born with a target on my back and that the shooter's aim would become more precise as I grew older. With so much focus given to the idea of black men as an "endangered species," the specifics of the oppression experienced by women at the hands of men never registered.
The following summer, I delved into the work of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Toni Morrison and bell hooks. Up to that point, I hadn't seriously considered the intellectual and artistic contributions of women, especially black women. The closest I had come to embracing a feminist icon was Pam Grier's title character in the film Foxy Brown, but I knew that had to change. It was becoming more and more clear to me that all freedom movements were interconnected and necessary.
I took a feminist-political-theory class my junior year and was introduced to feminist writers and activists of all different stripes. For an uninitiated 20-year-old, it was rather uncomfortable sitting through readings of The Vagina Monologues, but in hindsight I'm grateful. It was challenging and enlightening, but also frustrating and disheartening, to come to the realization that I had been complicit in the oppression of women simply because I was unaware.
Years later, I still have a lot of changing to do. See, it's one thing for me to admonish someone like Chris Brown for violence against women, but it's completely different to analyze my own shortcomings. It's hard to look in the mirror, given what I know now, and admit that I am still prone to think and speak of women with whom I've been intimate as sexual conquests rather than as full and equal partners. They are no longer women; they become sources of bragging rights, tales I can share to prove my sexual prowess. So many of my ideas surrounding manhood are still linked to sexuality and a sense of "ownership" of women's bodies.
Even though I know that street harassment is a serious issue, when I spot a woman I find attractive, I have a tendency to let my eyes linger on her frame longer than is necessary, with little regard for how uncomfortable she may feel. I'm aware that as a heterosexual man, I cannot allow my sexual desires to reproduce the type of oppression that women have historically been subject to, but the line between appreciation and objectification becomes blurry in moments when my libido is doing the thinking instead of my brain.
It's a learning process. I don't anticipate ever knowing everything, but I continue to be inspired. I have become friends and regularly converse with women who live the tenets of feminism. I follow the work of Salamishah Tillet and her organization, A Long Walk Home, dedicated to ending violence against women and girls.
Writer Jamilah Lemieux and her popular blog, the Beautiful Struggler, constantly force me to rethink gender roles and essentialism, patriarchy, images of black women in the media and the meaning of feminism for a new generation. I've also learned to take cues from black male feminists and anti-sexism activists such as Mark Anthony Neal, R. L'Heureux Lewis and Byron Hurt on what it means to be an ally and how to rethink masculinity to reflect feminist values.
As impressive as all that sounds, reading the work of people who embody these ideals is the easy part. The more daunting, and perhaps more important, task comes in applying theory to the reality of everyday life, one in which I have been socialized to adopt sexist ways of thinking. I constantly fall short of my own ideals.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "Man's unhappiness ... is due to his having first been a child," an idea she attributed to René Descartes. She explained that this is because a child finds "himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish ... and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit."
No matter how unjust or reprehensible, what we are introduced to as children seems the natural order of things, since it existed long before we did and is firmly established. We are then socialized into certain patterns of thinking. Sexism is such a pervasive part of our culture that we absorb it simply by growing up. Even those among us who wish to see it eradicated are still products of that sexism, and as such are prone to replicate it without thinking.
It sounds like a weak excuse, but it's true. We have all internalized sexist thinking, and it takes more than reading a feminist essay or two to achieve a complete reversal. I am working every day to recognize where I am deficient in my own thoughts and behaviors, and as difficult as it may be, I know that it is worth the effort.
Fully embracing feminism makes this a better world because it provides a blueprint for both women and men to become whole human beings and work harmoniously toward justice and equality. My struggles are my own, but hopefully my journey into feminism will mean that for the next generation, perhaps for my children, that struggle won't even be necessary.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.