When I first started in EMS, I was struck by how many domestic violence calls we got. Within weeks, it became a regular part of the night, just another bloody dispute amongst the asthma attacks, strokes, shootings etc… I’d like to say there was a moment that shook me out of complacency – the woman whose father had beat her so badly she couldn’t open her eyes but she still wouldn’t go to the hospital or press charges, the decayed body of a nameless girl we found wrapped in trash bags in the backstreets of East New York – but revelations don’t usually come in single sudden bursts. It was a slow and painful movement towards recognizing that the everydayness of men’s violence against women, the sheer normalcy of it, is the most insidious, dehumanizing part. That something must change.
They say that understanding privilege is a process much like accepting death – you cycle through a haze of stages from Denial to Bargaining to Blame and finally Acceptance. But of course, nothing’s ever that linear. As the ugly truth about what men do played out in my ambulance night after night I got angry, I tried to separate myself from all that mess by holding tight to some concept of being a “good man,” I tried to invent some perspective that would make it all a little more okay, make it make sense, rationalize it. My social scientist side kicked in and tried to fit it into some theories that’d water down all that blood but I kept going in circles, bouncing between all the stages, overlapping a few at once and getting nowhere.
Acceptance came when I finally shut up and listened to what women around me were saying, what they’d always been saying, what my own life was telling me: that the physical, mental, spiritual violence that men commit against women is so wrapped in the fabric of society that it seeps into our subconscious, poisons our relationships to each other and ourselves. It’s a matter of life and death, not just because of the enormous amount of men that kill women every year but because of the lethal fallout of the patriarchal mindset, which asks us to make insanely unhealthy choices in the name of ‘manning up.’
Even though it’s the last stage, Acceptance is only the beginning of the struggle. I finally got to a point where I could put words to my process, make some more sense of privilege and responsibility than just being speechless or awkward, move forward. Fell into a collective of like-minded people of color working on intersecting oppressions – true, brave hearted people that I learned along side, laughed with and argued with and stayed up all night unfurling crazy plans with – and we started doing workshops in schools, churches and community organizations around Brooklyn.
We used the Gender Box exercise that they outline in Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which looks at the way we play out stereotypes even today and what forces keep us in those boxes. We broke down how male privilege plays out on institutional and interpersonal levels and how white power plays on images of manhood to turn us against ourselves. We taught in Riker’s Island and the District Attorney’s office, spoke with judges, doctors, business people, priests and gangmembers, but mostly we worked with young black and brown kids, and this is what i learned:
Despite what we’re told, people are hungry to talk about how privilege and power keeps us apart and holds us back. Young men know what’s going on, feel the strain of what they’re supposed to be, but our institutions won’t give them the language of how to talk about it, how to make sense of it, how to survive. What we’re left with is locker room banter and bad tv, an epidemic of crap media culture telling us how to be who we are.
This is what I believe: in our heart of hearts, men are not the monsters we’ve allowed media to make us. We are infinitely wiser, more compassionate and more complex than that. Fighting against gender violence really means ending patriarchy, which for men means finding that place beyond what we’re told we’re supposed to be, beyond “manning up,” and becoming what we really are.