The #MeToo and school shooting era: protecting women and girls from toxic masculinity

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Depressed outsider student torturing from racist school bullying
image via bigstockphoto.com

One day on the playground when I was ten, an older boy, who was a noted for having issues, tried to boss me around and then called me a “whore” when I refused to play along.  My mom had recently explained the concept to me and told me how men use the word to diminish women, and so the comment pushed me into a full-on rage fit.  As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not a particularly quiet person—especially when faced with injustice—so we both ended up in the Principal’s office for “fighting.”  This boy clearly knew he was caught, so he tried apologizing in that insincere way people do when they’re just trying to get out of punishment.  This only enraged me further, but in hindsight, it was the Principal’s behavior that should really have made me mad.

I flashback to this moment often in the #MeToo era, especially as of late. The recent premiere of 13 Reasons Why Season 2 on Netflix, a show that tackles the life of teens in American high school, specifically confronts bullying, sexual assault and harassment and reflects the challenges of young people navigating these issues without the emotional tools or support to deal with these issues productively. As the events leading up to the school shooting over a week ago at Santa Fe High School in Texas continue to unfold, a familiar story emerges that the teenage attacker’s first victim was a girl who had rejected his advances.  It was not dissimilar from Nicholas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter, who was known to be a troublemaker at school and in the neighborhood. His troubling behavior with violent inclinations  was left tolerated for a long time before he was finally expelled as noted by one fellow girl classmate who was the subject of his abuse.

These of course are some the worst of the escalations of those whose behavioral issues are not addressed aggressively. Some teenaged boys make to it to manhood before those behavioral issues manifest outwardly  like Omar Matten, the Pulse Nightclub shooter was a man who was abusive to his wife had as those who knew him remembered many moments that displayed aggressive behavior with inclination toward violence

But not every boy who learns in school to be verbally or physically abusive to women ends up being a mass murderer—the vast majority end up taking their bad behavior with them into the workplace.  Many professions where men are still over represented in leadership suffers from this syndrome that psychologists have called “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity upholds narrow ideas about masculinity such as that it’s good to be sexually aggressive, a competitor, and solve problems through physical or verbal violence.  If a boy avoids conflicts, doesn’t aggressively seek sexual conquests, then he is not seen as a “real” man.

When this boy now a man in the workplace’s formative experiences teach him that this overly aggressive behavior works, then he tends to reward that behavior in others, or even to believe that it’s a key to being successful.  If someone (male or female) complains about the bad behavior, they find themselves labeled a “troublemaker” or “not a good fit,” and they can get forced out.

When these men make inappropriate sexual comments or physical contact, they try to pass it off as “just a joke” or “just being sarcastic.”  The woman who are usually the victims of such lewd behavior are often told they should not “overreact” or they avoid saying anything in order to protect their careers.  Such is the case of many men taken down in the #MeToo era, like Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein or TV host and journalist Charlie Rose or political tech staffer Clay Johnson, whose careers ended over accusations of sexual harassment and assault.  Though sexual harassment or assault may have been the offense that ultimately brought them down, many such men were also accused—often for years—of verbal harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

It’s important to note, masculinity in and of itself is not bad, but when taken to the extreme it can be toxic. It can be learned at home from parents who think it’s normal (or desirable) for a boy to behave this way or from media images that extol this false vision of “manliness,” and it can even be learned in school from teachers and coaches who this it’s desirable behavior.

Or it can be learned from a misguided elementary school principal.

Which brings us back to that boy on the playground and his abusive behavior. We were sat down by the vice principal, a woman, and while he was told that calling names was not appropriate I was told that I needed to be big enough to accept his apology. I was forced to shake his hand and make friends and leave that to the end of it. It never sat well with me, but I was only 10, so I went along with it to get out of that office. And only now, years later, can I really express why that vice principal was wrong.

What does my thirty-something self wish that my 10-year-old self had been able to say?  What should a young women in a similar situation do at school today?  They should look that adult right in the eye and say, “No. He’s not my problem. He’s your problem.  He’s his family’s problem. And you need to address how he acts out and treats girls before it gets worse.  Help him fix this before it’s too late.  And don’t ever—EVER—ask me again to apologize for standing up for myself.”

It should not only be incumbent on us women and girls to say no and stand up for ourselves, it should be enough, but it’s not always. It’s also incumbent on our schools, workplaces and community to be accountable to creating an environment were this type of behavior is proactively stopped in its tracks and happy and healthy girls and boys can thrive and grow up to be productive adults capable of healthy interactions and relationships.

Not Just Another Fairy Tale: Britain, Race & A Royal Wedding

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Harry & Meghan, Christmas Day 2017. CC by 2.0

With the pending nuptials of Prince Harry and bi-racial American actress Meghan Markle, the royal wedding fever is reaching a high pitch in a new unusual community: the African diaspora in the US and across the globe.  I confess that as a thirty-something, American-born daughter of African immigrants who were once subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, I find myself less interested in the romance and the “fairy tale” nature of the event than the history and significance of the moment.

Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over the Commonwealth of Nations—formerly the British Empire—the majority of which is filled with people who look more like Meghan than Harry.  On her mother’s side, she is the descendant of slaves and of a slave trade, which massively increased Great Britain’s wealth and that of the royal family. As of Saturday, she will be a new member of this same royal family.

That is no small thing.

Even when I was very young, my parents exposed me to their memories of what British rule was like in East Africa. My mother remembers the excitement when the Queen visited Uganda during one of her Commonwealth tours, but also the segregated transportation she had to ride whenever she and other black Africans came to the city.

In my parents’ nation, the British were perhaps less physically violent in the colonial government they set up (other nations weren’t so lucky) but no less forceful in its assertion that their way to live was superior. In school my parents did not learn of their own history and geography but rather of everything British—hardly useful in rural east Africa. My father told me the story of the Scottish headmaster at his school who tried to enforce a rule that all the African boys must wear kilts and use Anglo names rather than their own.

My parents’ British education focused on British authors and history to an extent most modern Americans schools do not.  In fact, my parents were so dismayed at the lack of depth in my elementary school reading assignments that they brought me Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and many other English luminaries to read. Additionally, my mother encouraged me to watch these stories come to life in film. It was through them I was introduced to Britain not just in the cursory American teaching of Britain playing the role of colonizer that the Founders threw off through Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

Britain was brought to life for me in many positive ways through its contributions in the arts and literature. I was also a girl who read fairy tales and therefore intrigued by real life royalty. However, it was also from my parents and school I learned of Britain’s dark racist history. In college, I learned that the Brits were major players of the massive Transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated 3.4 million Africans were carried on British ships to territories the British had violently seized from the indigenous people who already lived there.

It was also in school where I formally learned how my own family’s life came to be under the Crown. It was Prince Harry’s great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, who presided over British participation in the so-called Scramble for Africa in the late 19th Century, which took my parent’s homeland under British ‘protection’ in 1894 to guarantee British commercial investments in the region.

Her representatives on the Continent cared little for the interests of the Africans they colonized and focused on extracting maximum financial gain.  They were ruthless in their efforts to keep control of the millions of Africans who surrounded them—turning tribe against tribe; importing troops and foremen from India and elsewhere; asserting white rule oftentimes violently and suppressing many black Africans’ attempt to rule themselves; forcing an Anglo-focused education onto young black Africans;  and taking lands without the permission of the Africans that had long lived there.

The result: many ethnic conflicts on the continent trace their origins to explicit policies of the colonizers and caused issues of political and infrastructure development that linger to this day.

Throughout history, black Africans and people of color generally were pawns for Britain and its royal family whenever it was convenient. Historically, they have been greatest arbiters of the theory that black Africans were inferior and “less-than.”

The recent season of the Netflix series, “The Crown” touches on this in portraying Elizabeth’s visit to Ghana to meet with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s President and a fierce critic of colonialism.  Nkrumah stage-managed the event to emphasize that he saw no need to appear subservient to the European monarch, and certain parts of the British press are portrayed as being scandalized that she was willing to dance with an African leader after dinner.

Reverberations of this sort of prejudice are still felt in another former British colony, the American colonies, to this day. The American Revolution only truly won independence for white colonizers in British North America; the surviving American Indians and the millions of Africans who had been brought to Britain’s colonies in chains were not so fortunate.

Growing up in the American South in the 1980 and 1990s, I did not have to look far to see the legacy of this racist worldview.

White royalists still do try to say the racism of the past is no longer a problem in British society, citing the queen’s recent hiring of a black equerry to bolster their case. Even so, Harry felt compelled to have his personal office send out a statement denouncing the racist and sexist commentary online and in the media against Meghan when they started dating.  When Harry’s mother , Prince Diana was newly divorced, she dated Hasnat Khan, a British South Asian doctor and later Dodi Fayed, a British Egyptian, the media coverage was noted for having racist undertones.

Why? Because royal families, especially in Europe, especially in Britain, came to power and held it by asserting specific bloodlines (of class and later race) that gave them the ‘right’ to rule.  It’s an assertion British society has in turn bought and upheld over the centuries, and this has kept the Windsors around and from suffering the fate of other monarchies.

This assertion was dramatized in last year’s film “Victoria & Abdul” about Queen Victoria’s friendship with her adviser from India, Abdul Karim, and her family’s contemptuous view of the friendship in part because of his South Asian heritage.  This assertion is turned on its head with the mother of the future King, Princess Diana dating outside of her race or Harry’s marriage to Meghan.

Knowing all of this, I find it fascinating the wedding is forcing some interesting conversations in Britain during the current day struggles with Brexit, rising nativism and Windrush Generation politics for the government. As someone whose family has been affected by this history, it’s become important—almost a radical act– to assert our own heritage and humanity proudly.

And it’s fascinating to watch that play out in this royal wedding.

Meghan (also a feminist!) is proud of her mother’s and her own heritage, and has said so. As weddings are a reflection of the couple, especially the bride, Meghan’s picks for the wedding day are strategically highlighting this. The couple have selected the leader of theUS Episcopal Church, Michael Bruce, the first African American to hold that position, to address wedding attendees, and Meghan personally called Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first young black musician to win BBC’s prestigious young musician of the year award, to play at her wedding.

This royal wedding will be the most diverse in British Royal wedding history, and that’s good. It’s high time the Windsors start to look a bit more like the more than 2 billion people of color who are citizens of Commonwealth countries.

Why Black Panther’s Box Office Success is Important to the African Diaspora

Black Panther, based on the character of the same name from the Marvel Comic Universe has made $1 billion dollars in the global box office and is now the third highest grossing film of all time. This is FANTASTIC for a film anchored by a predominantly black cast set on the continent of Africa.  As Jimmy Kimmel said at the 2018 Academy Awards earlier this year: ““I remember a time when major studios didn’t think a woman or minority could open a superhero movie,” Kimmel said. “I remember that time because it was last March.”

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Image via Marvel Cinematic Universe

There have been a million (or it seems like) think pieces on the Black Panther and what it means specifically to the black community. In the era of Donald Trump, which to many in the black community has been a repudiation of all that the first black President of the United States Barack Obama represented not just in policy but in skin color, Black Panther has been wonderful albeit temporary salve on that would.

I’m an American born and raised African. Both my parents are immigrants from Africa and so while I was excited about Black Panther as  1) a Marvel Fan  and 2) a black person who loves film. I was also excited as a daughter of the continent.

Recently, I read a tweet from someone who reveled in Ryan Coogler standing up and saying after one of the first showings of Black Panther “you never have to be ashamed about being African”. Out of all the statements about the film:  the importance of seeing black people anchoring a major film; the importance of seeing dark skinned black women in diverse roles as sought after and in charge. The statement that I no longer have to be ashamed about being an African resonated with me the most.

As a kid growing up in a part of the American South, in the 1980s and 90s with black African immigrants  parents, I used to try and hide my African-ness as it was. It wasn’t like it wasn’t apparent. While my accent was purely American with even a slight southern drawl. My African-ness was noticeable in  my dark complexion and the uniqueness of my features that held just enough foreign distinctness from my fellow American black people. And if you still missed all the hints from my appearance it was super apparent in my name first and last.

There was the name calling “African booty scratcher”,  and “porch monkey”. There was the side eye about the food you ate on the days you brought food from home to school. And don’t get me started on the on purposeful different pronunciations of my name I heard.

My dad got me an outfit once from Ghana, when he came back from a business trip. It was a beautiful dress and my face was like “hard pass, dad you trying to get my butt kicked even harder in school?!” I was isolated by white and black kids for being something other than the American they knew and understood.

When you’re a kid you really want to fit in, like really, unless you’re super cool with being on your own, you want to fit in or really just not be bothered for being different. There is much to be said about living in the Trump era where there is this constant feeling amongst some about how people don’t like immigrants or anyone that was questionably not white, native English speaking (since white has been what has denoted “American” for the longest).  But growing up in the 1980s and 90s, in the American South were the ethnic and cultural diversity of America hadn’t grown to the level of what it is now, was rough in many aspects.

Now, despite or maybe in spite of what’s happening in the world politically, there is an increase in appreciation of all things American that are notably ethnically and culturally different from what has been traditionally appreciated.

There was movements to dress in African inspired or imported clothing to attend the Black Panther premiere. There has been an increase in support of American born and raised African writers and filmmakers. The love for African actors and actresses (Lupita, David Oyelowo or Chiwetel) and there opportunities for to showcase their talent has increased tenfold. Times have changed. Those who were born in the minority are becoming part of an increasing majority and with more of us comes acceptance.

Either way, I envy those who experience that celebration of the diversity of blackness and the continent of Africa in a way not any black people  I think has really experienced in a generation since the brief “black is beautiful” in the 1970s. These kids today will grow up with the proud sense of self many of us have pieced back together into adulthood.

This is why Black Panther crossing the line of the most popular superhero film of all time and third highest grossing film of all time is important. Not only because of the many more films with majority black casts that will get funded for future audiences but because of the perception of self it will give to a new generation of black kids across the diaspora.

Back To Writing Again…..

2017 was a busy year and a bit rough in making time for writing.

LOTS has happened in politics, film, and culture. Some of it great. Some of it bad.

Some of it I wrote about for other places like about African immigration for Salon; about reproductive rights being very important  and central to economic justice in politics for Rewire or how shocking the events of Charlottesville in the Summer of 2017 were for me as someone who spent formative years there for Mic

However I have may thoughts that I don’t have time to pitch to magazines, newspapers and online platforms that I will post here. I’ll post more diligently than I have in the past because the voices of women in these times, especially women of color, is very important.

Keep an eye out I’ll be back with more thoughts starting next week