I have a secret to tell you: I don’t care about manhood. I don’t care about what it means to be a man or what we need to do to “redefine masculinity.” I don’t care how masculinity can be kinder or gentler if you just put a rose on it. I don’t care.
What I do care about, however, is behavior change. I care about the steps we can take to change ourselves and to change the institutions that try their best to force boys and gender non-conforming youth into the narrow confines of toxic masculinity. I care about the embodied, in-person work, of teaching men, and masculine-of-center (MOC) people on what we can do to stop the harm we inflict on others and ourselves.
What I do care about, however, is behavior change.
Don’t get it twisted, I still believe the conversation on toxic masculinity is important, and I will continue to be a part of it. But if we don’t move the conversation from rhetoric to skills building and advocacy, we will miss the mark.
This is because unlearning patriarchy requires tools that help us embody alternate models of power, move through gendered trauma and unlearn dangerous coping mechanisms. This work also requires community. We need networks of men and MOC folks—guided by the work of Black feminists—working together to hold each other accountable and to stop harm.
I am not the first to assert this concern. Embodied anti-patriarchal work has been in motion for decades. Organizations like Men Stopping Violence, The Brown Boi Project, Men Can Stop Rape, The Challenging Male Supremacy Project and most recently, BEAM, have been focusing on skills building, behavior change, and mental health support for the community while still holding space to have conversations on masculinity.
A common thread in many of these organizations’ approaches is that they decentralize men, MOC folks and masculinity—working to put women and femmes at the center of the work. This forces men and MOC people to grapple with the impact of our behaviors and choices, and not just pontificate on our own anxiety about giving up our privileged, power-hungry-obsessed practices.
It’s not enough to tell us, for example, to learn how to communicate our feelings assertively. How do you do that if you never have? You need practice! In addition to practice, you need a community of peers to hold you to that standard. In BEAM’s Mental health and Masculinity trainings, for example, we review communication styles and practice them. We role-play how to interrupt scenarios informed by toxic masculinity. We take inventory of our own toxic behaviors and we examine alternatives. We assess how our mental health is shaped by oppression and privilege; because our allegiances to patriarchy are often connected to traumatic experiences. We make plans to hold each other accountable and determine who we will call when we are in need of help. In addition, we move from individual behavior change to structural transformation—challenging patriarchal systems on a local, state and federal level. This is the type of work that Men Stopping Violence and The Challenging Male Supremacy Project have put in practice for years.
The conversation on redefining masculinity matters to many people, which is why we cannot abandon it. We need to be mindful, though, of the liberal tendency to have endless conversations that don’t move us toward behavior and systemic change. We also need to be mindful of the different ways people unlearn unhealthy concepts—while some can take an idea and translate that into changed behaviors, some of us need a more hands-on approach. We all learn differently.
It is also important that this work not be centered on heterosexual people or solely about cisgender men. Black trans men’s masculinity has to be a part of the dialogue. Black gay men’s sexual and physical violence must be understood as a re-inscription of patriarchal norms. Gender non conforming folks who are read as cisgender men by the broader culture must have space to interrogate their complicated relationships to patriarchal conditioning and behavior. Masculine of center women and studs have to be held responsible for how they enact patriarchal violence against femmes and queer women.
So let the debates continue, but let’s make sure we are spending as much time together working on skills. Let’s unlearn together, fu$# up together, and do what we must to become better human beings. Let’s make behavior change our focus and new systems our benchmark, regardless of whether we can ever fully “re-define” masculinity or not.
Interested in training or skills building? Here are some great resources to consider:
Power and Control Wheel (LGBTQ)
Power and Control Wheel (General)
The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks
No Ashes In the Fire:Coming of Age Black and Free in America A Memoir By Darnell Moore
When They Call You A Terrorist By Patrisse Cullors
We Real Cool by bell Hooks
Brother to Brother: Writing By Black Gay Men by Joseph Beam/Essex Hemphill
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith
Yolo Akili Robinson is a writer, yoga teacher and the Executive Director and founder of BEAM.