What is a “Real Man?”

November 2, 2014

Due to shifts in public funding in South Africa, with many other funding avenues exhausted, for the first time in a long time, Beth Uriel is truly facing closure before even the year end. Beth Uriel has supported countless young men in their journey from boys to men, and it would be a travesty to see them close their doors. I wrote this piece to support their REAL MAN campaign, created to help drum-up financial support and general awareness around the issues they work with on a daily basis.

Hypocritical Halloween

One night in 2008, like many of my fondest nights spent in Cape Town, I was sitting around with a group of friends, enjoying food, laughter, and communion. Halloween was quickly approaching and, though I don’t know how we arrived at that very moment, my friend Lindsay―manager and head social worker at Beth Uriel―dared me to go as a fairy for Halloween. Without thought, I agreed.

Though I rarely turn down a fun dare, both Lindsay and I knew it wouldn’t even take something as formal as a dare to get me to dress as a fairy, on any night, much less Halloween. Dressing as a fairy was really inconsequential to me, especially considering my past. I grew up constantly playing dress-up―also involving every friend and family member I could coerce into dressing-up in some random costume I had made―and my childhood pictures are hard evidence of that fact. I would say I am dressed in some costume that I had made or acquired in approximately three out of five of my childhood photographs―cheetahs, robots, ballerinas, chickens, clowns, cowboys, flappers, monsters, Paula Abdul’s backup dancers, punks, miscellaneous unidentifiable people and creatures, and beyond.

As a kid, I never felt any more or less “masculine” dressed as a clown or cowboy or princess. I just liked dressing-up. My mom still tells stories of how one of my favorite parts of playing baseball was getting dressed-up in the uniform, making sure every piece of apparel was perfectly in place, including ensuring that my batting gloves hung out of my back pants’ pocket in the most perfect and stylish way, a type of behavior our sexist socialization might consider “sissy” or “effeminate” or “wrong.” At the time, I―maybe innocently―didn’t see it that way. I just wanted to look good.

I was never a “normal” boy. I am not a “normal” man. I was, and am, just me.

So, on Halloween of 2008, I joined my Beth Uriel family members―some who went as a Flower, an Angel, Cotton Candy, a Tahitian Purple People Eating Bird, Dwight K. Schrute, and a Piece of Bubblegum Stuck to the Bottom of a Shoe―dressed as a fairy and we went out trick-or-treating around Cape Town. Like most Beth Uriel outings, we had a blast that night. Though many people were completely unfazed by my costume, it was interesting to see different people’s reactions to me dressed as a fairy, many who projected their own fears onto me. Whether well-intentioned or not, many of the comments I received reminded me of Toni Morrison saying, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

“Oh no! Why?!”

“Wow. That’s brave,” with a hint of disapproval.

“That’s gay!”

“Are you doing this for LGBTQ rights?”

“Men aren’t supposed to dress like fairies!”

“That’s awesome,” with a condescending shake of the head.

“But really, why are you dressed like a fairy?”

fairy

Whether they realized it or not, most people’s comments said more about them than they did about me. I was just dressed as a fairy, and though I was not ignorant enough to think that there would be no reaction, I didn’t really care what people thought about it. I just wanted to be a fairy for the night, no strings attached. As I said, definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.

Halloween has historically been a hypocritical time, where we seem to have no problem with little girls dressing as boy characters, but completely lose our minds when little boys want to go as girl characters. Just this weekend, my social media newsfeeds were flooded with images of little trick-or-treaters, many of whom were little girls dressed as this season’s most popular guy characters. I even saw a picture of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy dressed―looking flawless, I might add―as the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t see one single comment in protest to them dressing her as a male icon. However, I could only imagine the uproar that would have occurred if Blue was a boy, and they would have dressed him up as Janet Jackson. And some people reading this would quickly retort, “That’s different!”

But really, apart from our skewed sexist socialization, apart from the fact that at some point people randomly decided certain fabrics and colors should be worn by certain types of people, what is the difference?

Well, the difference is we live in a society where sexism and misogyny warp the way we see things. We wrongly equate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. We use phrases like, “You throw like a girl,” as an insult, rather than taking it as a complementary comparison to someone like Mo’Ne Davis. We don’t recognize patriarchy and sexism as institutionalized systems of domination, and we don’t understand how the very society in which we live is still controlled by those dominator values. We often blame female rape victims for how they dressed or presented themselves, rather than blaming the rapist. We are convinced that street harassment many women endure is “no big deal,” and they should “take it as a compliment.” Our misogyny runs deep. And for these reasons, and more, we often have difficulty defining what a “real man” is.

What is a “Real Man?”

When Beth Uriel family members reached out to me to write a piece for their REAL MAN campaign, with the prompt, “A REAL man is…” I must admit my mind was flooded with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. For many individuals, it is difficult to separate the idea of a “real man” from our hypermasculine, misogynistic, sexist, patriarchal socialization of “what it means to be a man.” In popular culture, “a real man” has usually resembled a muscular, tough, dumb, burping, farting, chauvinistic, beer-drinking, sports-playing, womanizing, nincompoop. We have seen this image of a “real man” repeated over and over again. I, for one, do not buy-into, or fit into, that stereotype of the “real man.” Still, though I have a deep awareness of what it means to be a “real man” to me, I struggled to find the words to describe it.

Alas, I consider myself a feminist and many of my best examples of what it means to be a “real man” came from women―two things that a hypermasculine “alpha male” would use as reason for the immediate revoking of my “man card,” though I don’t remember ever signing up for one, or even desiring owning such a thing. Some of the strongest, bravest, toughest people I know are women. Likewise, some of the “realest” of men I have known do not fit into the hypermasculine stereotype of what our society has determined it means to “be a man.” That is not to say that I haven’t known “real men” who do, in fact, fit into that stereotype of the hypermasculine man―I simply will not let patriarchal values limit my definition of what it means to be a “real man” by that shallow, constrictive archetype of a “man.”

Patriarchy is no different than any other institutionalized system of domination―it was actively and intentionally created, and it must be actively and intentionally deconstructed. It is oppressive, causing both the oppressors and the oppressed to live in different forms of bondage. Unfortunately, just like with other institutionalized systems of domination (imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, etc.), there is an ignorance and denial that comes with those who benefit from the system. As James Baldwin put it, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” And until we are completely released from it, we will continue to perpetuate sexist ideas of “what it means to be a man.”

In her book Feminism is for Everybody, feminist, academic, and author bell hooks defines feminism as simply, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” In the same work she laments, “Often the only alternative to patriarchal masculinity presented by feminist movement or the men’s movement was a vision of becoming more ‘feminine.’ The ides of the feminine that was evoked emerged from sexist thinking and did not represent an alternative to it. What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity.” This vision of masculinity that bell hooks speaks of is possibly the beginning of what it means to be a “real man”―for an individual to have the courage, strength, self-esteem, and self-love to base his identity on his unique being, who he really is, rather than trying to create an identity rooted in, and fitting into, the societal pressures and stereotypes of “what it means to be a man.”

Nonetheless, I think that definition of being a “real man” has less to do with being a “real man” and more to do with being a real human.

 A REAL man is…

With all of that said, asking what it means to be a “real man” can be as daunting of a query as asking what  means to be “human.” Assuredly, each individual person finds different purpose and meaning in life, in being human. Being a “real man” can look as vast and different and unique as each and every individual man inhabiting the earth. In my experience, from people I have known and loved, here are some examples―including but not limited to―of what it means to be a “real man.”

A real man has a deep understanding that we do not live in isolation from one another, that we are not here by chance or coincidence, and has a deep awareness of how we perpetually co-create each other―living with the knowledge of Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.

A real man makes himself aware of injustices taking place around him, and activates himself in a fight against them.

A real man stands up for what is right, even if he is the only one standing.

A real man knows when to speak and knows when to listen.

A real man knows how to love.

A real man is compassionate and empathetic.

A real man lives with a sense of purpose.

A real man is responsible and takes responsibility for his actions.

A real man wholeheartedly laughs and unashamedly cries whenever he feels like it.

A real man has the courage, self-esteem, and self-love to be the unique individual he really is.

A real man lives in the realty that he can shape and mold society, rather than trying to fit into the confining mold society might try to put him in.

A real man plays ball with his daughter or his son, braids his daughter’s hair, dances with his son―sees his children as unique individuals and helps and encourages them grow more and more into who they really are, to pursue their individual talents and gifts.

A real man is a doctor, nurse, teacher, lawyer, lumberjack, ballerina, drag queen, seamstress, chef―a real man is proudly whoever he really is.

Beth Uriel

Since its inception, Beth Uriel has been a part of molding, shaping, and mentoring uncountable numbers real men. One of the things I appreciate most about Lindsay and Beth Uriel’s leadership is that they really get to the heart of who the Beth Uriel family members are, encouraging them to boldly and unapologetically be the very best versions of themselves, and no one else. I have seen all types of young men enter and exit the doors of Beth Uriel―and there are so many more I have not witnessed―and one common thing remains, those young men were given the opportunity to grow in, and even discover for the first time, who they really are. They were supported and encouraged to be brave enough to discover what it meant to be a “real man” in their unique, individual narrative.  The young men of Beth Uriel have become social workers, models, butchers, soldiers, actors, chefs, singers, nurses, and more. They have been challenged not to live up to or fit into stereotypes of what it means to be a “real man,” but to be radical enough to create a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of their unique being forms the basis of their identity. They are and were encouraged to be “real men,” whatever that means to them.

To learn more about the REAL MAN campaign that supports the amazing work of Beth Uriel, visit their website:

http://www.realman.org.za/

Share, nominate a REAL MAN, and donate!

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South Africa’s Big Brother…

June 10, 2010

When I was young I picked on my little brother quite a bit. Sometimes it was warranted, often it wasn’t. But, and he can vouch for this, if someone else picked on him I would be the first person to make sure that person paid with a bit of blood and pain. I remember one incident quite vividly that ended with me kicking a neighborhood kid until I felt his ribs had been taught a lesson. But I think that’s how it is in general, and I do believe it is a global thing: I can make fun of my little brother all I want but you better not even think about it.

Well, lately I have been getting similar feelings about this World Cup. I admit, I was one of the first to express my concerns; will the construction be done on time, why are we building these expensive stadiums when millions of people still live in absolute poverty, will the infrastructure be able to handle an event of this scale, and so on and so forth. But I wasn’t picking on South Africa, it was just genuine concern.

Now I see all these articles, mostly by the foreign press, talking down on South Africa. They over exaggerate the crime, they say uninformed statements about “white people being in danger”, and they general just display their ignorance, much like the big, dumb school bully on the playground. But what I know, this event is happening. People are pumped. South Africans have come out to show their love, patriotism and support for this event. It has been quite moving to see!

So, to all you negative people out there, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!! You bring on your reality with your words. If you continue to speak death and destruction, because you are looking for it, you can be sure it will pay you a visit. So please, let’s all celebrate the good things and focus on the positive. I don’t want to have to figure out how to metaphorically kick the ribs of the foreign media! That just seems really difficult.


Crime Does Not Perpetuate Racism. Racism Perpetuates Racism.

May 26, 2010

Last night’s Sidewalk Talk show topic was racism. It’s quite a heated topic in South Africa at the moment, with recent events stroking the headlines, but in general, I find many South Africans do not want to speak about racism anymore. They feel it’s a tired and worn out topic. They want to “move on, forget the past”. They don’t feel it is necessary to speak about racism anymore because we are a “rainbow nation” in a “new democracy” and racism is “no longer a problem”. But then (say for instance) a political leader gets up and sings a song about killing a white guy, and then a famous racist white guy actually gets killed… you see those very same people, who said racism is “no big deal” totally freak out; the equivalent of hitting a hornets nest with a baseball bat.

You see clips of people on the news, black people lined up on one side with white people on the other, shouting, screaming, threatening, trying to get at one another, smacking and hitting each other if they get close enough. “It’s just better if we live separate! Let them stay that side, and we will stay on this side!” one white girl said, quite frustrated. These feelings and emotions, to that degree, cannot be caused by one event. No, no! Those feelings and emotions are there, maybe only appearing in subtle ways, or coming out in the safety of same-race-company, but they are there. These type of events don’t cause these feelings and emotions; they merely stir them up.

And that’s why it’s important to keep the dialogue about racism going, whether we feel like talking about it or not. And that’s why I did a show about it last night.

So… last night on the show there was quite a bit of input from the listeners, which I am always happy about. One listener sent a text message saying that he felt crime perpetuates racism. I both partially agree and strongly disagree with his statement. The part of me that partially agrees, sees that people allow crime to perpetuate racism. I have personally spoken to several white people, just after they or someone they know has been a victim of crime (the perpetrator being black or colored), and the racist things that came out of the white people’s mouths after that experience were totally mind blowing to me.

They even make excuses and say things like, “I am not normally racist but…” with a terribly racist statement to follow. But the thing, maybe they don’t realize, is those feelings (about the other race) were already there. Maybe they were hiding, or not even known to the person, but they were there. And that negative experience just stirred them up and brought them to the surface.

But that person was already racist, and that situation merely validated feelings they already had, and put them deeper into their mindset, and more outward with their opinion. Because frankly, when it really comes down to it, who cares what color the person was that robbed you?! A stolen laptop is a stolen laptop, no matter if it was stolen by an albino Nigerian midget, or a white person who stained his skin dark brown using coffee grounds. The laptop is still gone, and you will more than likely not get it back.

Some (white) people come with the rebuttal that most crime is done by coloured and black people. Fair enough, most crime is also done by men, but you rarely hear a lady talking bad about men all of the sudden after being robbed by a man. And we know women don’t need an excuse to speak poorly about men! And yes, if we look at the South African history, and the current social issues that are directly linked to the past, and the lack of true repatriation that has occurred, then yes, let’s talk about the link of race and crime, but I guarantee you the conversation will not go the direction you (white person with that particular rebuttal) would want it to go.

So yeah, when the listener, and other people say that crime perpetuates racism, I hear what they are saying, but I actually strongly disagree, and tend to even think that statement in itself is slightly racist. Crime does not perpetuate racism unless you allow the race of the victim and/or perpetrator come into play, and unless it is a race-based crime, the race of either person is insignificant. Crime does not perpetuate racism. Racism perpetuates racism.


My South Africa

April 10, 2010

My friend Lindsay had to go to home affairs yesterday to sort out some paperwork for her newborn baby. Right when she left she called me to share a funny experience. It was too classic not to pass on…

Like may institutions in South Africa, as you enter Home Affairs you have to go through a big medal detector, after you have handed over your wallet, cell phone, keys, loose coins, and bags to the security guard, and before you risk a possible search and or “wanding” by the next security guard. It’s pretty standard practice. Everyone is used to it by now.

So my friend Lindsay was waiting in line for her opportunity to walk through the plastic-gateway-to-where-ever, but the line was being held up by the gentleman in front of her. He was scruffy, unkempt, possibly homeless, pretty dirty, maybe in his mid-fifties, and just had the general look of having been beat down by life. The man walked through the medal detector and it beeped. The security guard motioned for him to walk back through to the other side, whilst reiterating the need for the man to empty his pockets.

Pretty agitated at this point, the man said, “I don’t HAVE a cell phone, wallet or keys!” as he threw his hands into the air. The security guard insisted that something was setting off the detector. At that note, totally frustrated with the bureaucracy of Home Affairs “cell phone, wallet and keys checking system”, the man reached in his pants, pulled out an object, threw his other hand in the air as if to say “this is no big deal and it’s definitely not a cell phone, wallet, keys, or coins”, and huffed, “All I have is this!” as if to prove his point that the security guard was being ridiculous, and possibly even discriminating against a poor man who has nothing, cruelly rubbing it in that he does not own a set of keys or a cell or a stuffed wallet.

At this point Lindsay looked at the item the man was holding and she could not hold back her laughter.

The item that set off the medal detector was a six-inch butcher knife.

I love this country!!