By Shekinah Mondoua

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I began to question the masculinity of African-American men as toxic. At one point I found myself constantly attempting to live up to the standards presumed from my Black male counterparts. Acceptance from my Black male friends was something that I sought out more than accepting my own self.

It might be best to start this conversation with my experiences at 15 years old. I had just left the private school scene and was entering the public school environment that I had once inhabited. The sights, the rhetoric, the style of the students were drastically different from how I last remembered them.

Girls that I knew had now become full-blown women, men that I once recalled to have toothpicks for arms now sustained muscles that were covered in art, and everybody had adopted a new way of talking which is known as DMV (DC, Maryland Virginia) “lingo”.

It took quite some time for me to adjust and adapt, which showed just how out-of-touch private school had made me with my former grounds. One of the major topics that I saw catch the attention during my assimilation back into public school life was how everyone was uncovering their sexuality.

Virtually everybody was sexually active, one way or another. This concept was so foreign to me, considering how committed I was to saving my first sexual experience until marriage. While the sexuality between both the young men and women in my school was being uncovered, I observed how gender operated to determine one’s sexual journey.

Men were praised for accumulating the most “bodies” (meaning the number of people somebody has slept with). The more bodies the man had, the more acclaim he got from his peers. In some instances, women would be more willing to mess with the man who had the most bodies because it showed he had experience.

Meanwhile, women were criticized for having sex with multiple men. The more bodies a woman had, the more slander was thrown her way. Rhetoric such as “slut”, “thot”, or “hoe” were passed around as if these women were deserving of these labels. They did not question the logic behind why men can have multiple partners and women cannot. That was just how it was.

When my friends asked me, I told them I was a virgin. Then the question became how was I still a virgin, with the tone escorting that question being affiliated with a level of shock. This shock gradually transitioned into straight disgust.

Instead of truthfully stating that I was saving myself for marriage, I made up an excuse about an imaginary woman refusing to “put out.” My story got a resounding “MAN WHAT? THESE GIRLS BE TRIPPING!” from my audience and progressively transformed into a suggestive “you just gotta start finding the easy joints bro. The dumb joints who would let anybody hit.” My mind had no intentions of finding these “easy joints” but just to solidify that I was “down” with the idea of fornicating with women, I made sure to tell my fellas to “put me on.”

At the moment, I did not think much of this incident. Sure, I had just compromised my integrity to fit in with my associates. But I mean, has not every teenager done that at one point in their lives?  What made my case any more different or immoral than–say a 16-year-old white girl lying to her friends that she smokes weed?

And ultimately that was the problem.

The problem was that I saw no problem with what I said about my fallout with that imaginary woman. I viewed my comments as a normality between men in the African-American community. These are discussions held frequently and I was just taking my part in it. This is what I was supposed to say. I have heard my barbers, my peers, and random men in the streets use such explicit tongue to describe women or their encounter with them. It was just my turn now.

Nearly four years since this incident, the problem with my choice of words and my perception of women has become quite clear to me. But some of my brothers today would see no problem with the rhetoric I utilized. They would find no problem with the subliminal way we use Black women as mere accessories to decorate our ego’s. And sadly, they see no problem with the way Black women are treated today. That is because quite simply, Black men cannot see the problem because they are the problem.

I genuinely feel as though a lot of Black men feel they have a deep admiration and respect for Black women. After all, they have been raised by them.

They have seen the efforts of their mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, and it has put the struggles of the Black woman in perspective. They have heard snippets of Malcolm X’s Who Taught You To Hate Yourself speech and recognize that Black women are the most negated, disrespected demographic in the United States. They have heard that, as Black men, it is our job to protect Black women at all costs. But somewhere along our quest to define our masculinity, we have lost sight of being in-touch with Black women and have shifted focus to utilizing them for our own selfish gains.

I see a lot of Black men getting fed up with Black women voicing their disdain with us. Phrases such as “Black men hate Black women”, “all men are trash” and “Black men must do better” are infuriating the Black male population.

We scream that we are their “allies”. We scream that we are also oppressed just as much as the Black woman. We scream that we are their fathers, their husbands, their sons, their brothers. We scream that feminism has steered our women away from us and into the hands of fellow white feminists. Feminists who don’t truly understand the plight of the Black woman better than we do. From one Black man, reaching out to many of my Black brothers out there: we are wrong.

I understand what we are taught at such a young age because I was taught it as well. Black men are told that we are meant to be intelligent. We are told to defend ourselves at all costs. We are told to be strong in our rationale, that compromise is synonymous to surrendering, and empathy equates to being weak. This kind of toxic thinking has limited Black men to a level of closed-mindedness and insecurity. Many Black men don’t realize that they are the problem. If they did it might  open up a door of vulnerability, something that Black men are told not to feel.  Acknowledging that you are wrong means admitting another side is right. The insecurity of Black men will not allow their fragile ego to cope with the guilt.

Yes. Black men have extremely fragile egos. They are conditioned to be “strong Black men” and anything short of that is just equivalent to being a “girl.” These are the problematic gender messages we are taught and adopt from childhood. Anything “unmanly” is feminine, or “gay.” Heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm and with that comes the expectation that we will conquer women.

When I was in elementary school, my father expressed to me that I was a man, and so I am supposed to be “quick”, “fast” when getting ready in the mornings. He told me that I should never ever leave the house the same time a woman would. I carried this mindset well into my senior year of high school. I was conditioned to believe that moving slowly was an attribute of a woman, and whenever I found myself to be sluggish in the morning, I would remember the words of my father haunting me, reminding me that I was “as good as a woman” due to my lackluster effort to get ready quickly.

These sexist and misogynistic takes from men who are identified as role models in our lives have inherently crept deep down into our subconscious and have made us incredibly insecure to be anything short of what we were taught by our predecessors. In men’s hopes of becoming these hard-bodied type figures, they begin to develop fragile egos. A perfect case is that of Steve Stephens, a Black man who committed an act of violence on the grounds that he felt he was emasculated by a woman who rejected him. Stephens went on to kill innocent Robert Godwin Sr. and in the mind of Stevens, he saw this act as the only way he could redeem himself from the embarrassment he had suffered. He had to assert his macho dominance over the innocent in an act of violence since men are often told that physical dominance is the best way to project your manhood.

There was outrage by the African-American male community but it was not predicated towards Stephens. There was outrage over Joy Lane, the woman who had rejected Stephens. Black men found every reason to allocate blame on Lane and believed had Lane not rejected Stephens, then this act would not have happened.

Instead of using this tragedy as the fuel to ignite a discussion about toxic masculinity and patriarchy, we decided to simply categorize this act as another case of somebody with a mental illness. Black men again are not willing to take accountability for our brothers’ transgressions. This man, Steve Stephens, was affected by the same toxic masculinity that we live and breathe. He is a prime example of what toxic masculinity can lead to.

If we don’t take accountability for his actions, it will only set up the inevitable course for such a travesty to occur yet again at the expense of Black women and the innocent.

Black men, it’s time that we recognize that we are a part of the problem.

We are doing more harm than good towards  Black women. These are the women who we identify as our mothers, our sisters, wives, friends, and more. We must acknowledge that although we are indeed oppressed, we benefit from a patriarchal system, designed to evoke sexism and homophobia. Black women not only are discriminated off of the basis of race but class and gender as well (this is called “misogynoir” by queer scholar Moya Bailey).

It is time that we begin listening to the ways we can deconstruct these sexist values that we have subconsciously inherited. Black women are literally losing their lives from the toxic behavior that Black masculinity endows and our biggest concern is them “bashing” us?

It is time to do better fellas. It is time to truly unify with our sisters.  Black women don’t deserve to inhale the poisonous stench that is the shattered masculinity of the African-American man.

Shekinah Mondoua is a young writer from Upper Marlboro, MD. He is currently enrolled at Montgomery College where he is a student-athlete on the boys basketball team and also writes for his schools newspaper. Mondoua is currently a general studies major but intends to switch to an English major once he transfers to his 4-year institution. He hopes that through his passion for writing that he can make an impact in the world. He has been featured on sites such Blavity, BlackToLive, and is currently a staff writer at Affinity Magazine