Those who consider themselves allies and male feminists need to learn how to listen to the communities they claim to support.
By Sherronda J. Brown and Lara Witt
It’s been more than a week since Terry Crews apologized for tweeting that children who grow up without both a maternal and paternal parent will be “severely malnourished.” This bizarre comment came after a conversation about a piece written in response to Barack Obama’s lecture at My Brother’s Keeper spiraled out of control. It began when Crews took offense to the essay, written by Derricka Purnell, which addressed the respectability politics in Obama’s lecture that largely critiqued, without nuance, things popular in Black and hip-hop culture. What Crews took issue with was two-fold: 1) the fact that anyone would dare to critique what Obama had to say, because if a “successful” Black man doesn’t teach these boys then “the streets” will, and 2) the fact that it was a woman doing the critiquing, because apparently women don’t know anything about masculinity or gender cultivation.
With a single tweet, that came amidst a flurry of hot takes on gender and parenting, Terry Crews attempted to position himself as a authority on who is and who is not allowed to speak to and about boys and men, Black boys and men in particular, and he also made himself into an easy scapegoat. The reality is that there are many people who think this way, about gender and the permissions we’ve been told come with them. We all know or have met or were raised by people who would espouse these same beliefs, and many came out in droves to loudly show their support for Crews when he expressed them, even insisting that he had nothing to apologize for despite the fact that his words had been harmful to non-normative families, especially queer families, and caused a Black woman to be harassed for her writing.
Cis and hetero people who have not done serious work to unpack what they think they know about gender and sexuality still have a very gendered, heteropatriarchal view of the world. Accepted paternal and maternal roles only exists because society created and classified them. Even people who are seemingly progressive and open-minded in other ways continue to hold tight to this understanding of gender and the role it plays in child rearing. Not only is this way of thinking a reinforcement of the harmful gender binary, but it is also an American Nuclear Family perspective, which itself is the advent of colonialist, white capitalist heteropatriarchy. This kind of family structure is not inherent or natural to humans; it is conditioned, like most everything else we learn about ourselves during the gender cultivation of our childhood. To suggest or insist that children cannot thrive in a family that does not align with these heteropatriarchal expectations is not only insulting, but outright wrong, and there are people proving this with their families every day.
It is worth noting that Crews’ apology for his “severely malnourished” comment came only after a conversation on set with his “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” co-star, Stephanie Beatriz. Many of us know this story all to well—a queer person doing heavy lifting to help cis/straight folks unpack their detrimental views, often at high cost but little benefit to us. Instead of being able to simply focus on her job, Beatriz had to take time out at work to dole out intellectual and emotional labor she should not have had to. Behind every “ally” and/or “male feminist”, there is an exhausted marginalized individual, usually a queer person of color.
Crews publicly announced himself as a “male feminist” last year after speaking up about his sexual assault in solidarity with women involved with the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements gaining momentum in Hollywood. During this time, he has often been a good example for men invested in combating rape culture, especially in the moments when he has had to defend his decisions about how he handled the assault. It was the community he is now casting aside that supported him most vehemently against the victim-blaming, gaslighting, and attacks from mostly cis hetero Black men unwilling to think critically about the realities of sexual violence and its intersections with race. It was Black women and LGBTQ+ folks who most consistently and tirelessly stood up for him, and it was this same community who so gingerly tried to call him in about his problematic comments, only to be ignored even while he continued to declare his support for us.
Those who consider themselves allies and male feminists need to learn how to listen to the communities they claim to support. They need to be able to accept and acknowledge the fact that they are not qualified or prepared to speak on particular subjects with the nuance required to make the conversation productive, especially when marginalized communities reach out to offer them guidance. They are often not equipped specifically because they are not a part of these communities and have not shared their experiences. Part of being in alliance with marginalized folks means learning to identify the moments when being quiet is best. It means acknowledging when you’ve been wrong about something and having the integrity to remain a diligent student. Crews is now proposing a mass exodus of Black men from these kinds of public conversations, an apparent attempt to create a space for them to speak without being heard by would-be interlopers, and he is doing this in response to being told he was wrong.
Crews’ call for Black men-only spaces to discuss issues that affect Black men (and we’re going to assume cisgender/heterosexual Black men because his politics and recent statements have been homophobic, trans and queerphobic), ignores how power dynamics play into our relationships to each other. Pretending that the issues that affect Black men don’t also severely impact Black women and queer folks mirrors the tired rhetoric of “race first” which positions Black men as the neutral arbiters of Black existence and doesn’t uproot interlocking oppressions. Cisgender and heterosexual Black men, although experiencing the brutality of white supremacy and its many iterations, hold privilege in relation to Black women and queer Black people. It’s why Sojourner Truth, Angela Y. Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, The Combahee River Collective (CRC), Moya Bailey, Trudy and other Black feminists and womanists describe and write about the existence of interlocking oppressions and the need to analyze our relationships through the framework of intersectionality. On sexism, the Combahee River Collective stated, “We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” Teen Vogue columnist and political scientist Jenn M. Jackson put it most succinctly in her response to Crews’ tweet that, “Black women have fought the hardest for the rights and dignities of Black men. Historically, we’ve endured injustices in the name of liberty for men in our communities. Keeping us out of this critical dialogue is not going to move us toward holistic solutions. We’re all here.”
Crews’ statements illustrates how crucial Black women and queer folks are to community discussions, even on the issues that affect Black men and boys. Keeping queer and trans Black people and women out of intra-community discussions would perpetuate many of the issues Black activists faced in the 1960s—uprooting the oppressions Crews is familiar with requires an understanding of the ones he and other Black men are not. That is why it is crucial to decenter the male paragons and the cis/het male experience as the most human or most neutral, because non-patriarchal ideas and experiences need to be viewed with the same consideration and respect as the ones which dominate the discourse.
As a self-proclaimed feminist and ally, Crews’ so-called support of women and LGBTQ+ folks wavers when they challenge his perspective and perceived authority as a cis/het Black man. It is that kind of conditional allyship that continues to show just how deeply entrenched patriarchy, misogynoir and queerphobia are. While it is true that Twitter is not always the best place for dialogues on any kind of oppression, it is also true that Crews’ statements open him up to critique, particularly when his beliefs actively harm marginalized people. It is only natural to feel defensive but it is also part of the learning process to feel discomfort. Many of the responses to his tweets weren’t so much call-outs, but call-ins which requested that he allow himself to feel the natural discomfort that comes with being challenged on oppressive perspectives which need to be undone to make way for inclusivity, empathy and compassion—something that is sorely lacking in comments that claim that children who aren’t raised within traditional, cis/het families or without the presence of a male father would end up as “malnourished”. How we express that discomfort can either look like a growth or can turn into regressive statements and more deeply entrenched oppressive beliefs. Learning and growing are worthwhile endeavors—but not at the expense, emotional labor and harm of LGBTQ+ folks and Black women.
This isn’t about shaming Terry Crews, or anyone else who has made similar mistakes. This is yet another call-in, as well as a gentle reminder for ourselves. It is tempting to simply state our beliefs online without taking the time to learn whether or not the ideologies we were taught and continue to hold are harmful to marginalized people. No one is free of the grips of white supremacy, patriarchy and queer/transphobia, and this means that all of us have to work on our internalized biases and harmful politics. It takes years of work which includes research, reading, listening, reflecting and building a sense of self-awareness that becomes the voice of anti-oppressive critical thinking. Crews is not alone, but as a very public figure and person whom many respect, he needs to invest some time in learning from those whose perspectives he has long-ignored.
List of useful resources:
- The Combahee River Collective Statement
- How We Get Free, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
- Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis
- Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
- The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
- A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris Hill
- Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC by Faith S. Holsaert (Editor), Martha Prescod Norman Noonan (Editor), Judy Richardson (Editor), Betty Garman Robinson (Editor), Jean Smith Young (Editor), Dorothy M. Zellner (Editor)
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