Once upon a time I seriously considered not having children. “Why bring an innocent life into this world of tragedy and pain?” I reasoned. Now, as a mother-to-be, the thought of what this world has to offer my child still scares me, and yet the thought of what my child has to offer this world fills me with hope. I also wonder what I have to offer and what the culmination of my life experiences so far – I’m only in my mid-twenties – can bring to bear on raising another human being.
As someone who identifies as a black feminist, I’ve always had no doubt in my mind how I’d raise my daughter, should I have her, and much of this is put into practice as I interact with my many younger female relatives. But what about my son? Now that I’m 99% sure that I’m having a black boy, the thought of raising him has got me thinking. I don’t fully know what it’s like to grow up as a black man in this world, so amongst the figuring out of parenthood in general, here is something else to learn about.
Black feminism in particular has been accused of dividing the black community and tearing apart the black family, but I know that my understanding of it has many important lessons for raising a son. What follows is by no means a definitive exploration of black feminism and black manhood, but are my first thoughts as I consider why my son needs feminism.
#1: For His Mental Health
According to The Mental Health Foundation, the most common form of death for all men under the age of 35 in the UK is suicide while less than half as many men seek support for mental health issues as women. Research from both the leading mental health charity, Mind, and the Samaritans suggests that stereotypes about what it means to be a man in our society have an effect on men’s mental health and self-esteem. Many feel the pressure of the Alpha Male archetype, where any form of emotion other than aggression is seen as a form of weakness, and expectations from others about acceptable forms of masculinity often linked to control, domination and invincibility are not conducive to good mental health for both those who willingly subscribe to these ideas as well as the men who do not. In tandem with those pressures, the NHS acknowledges that disproportionate exposure to social inequality and racism can also have a detrimental effect on the mental health of black men, while black men are seventeen times more likely to diagnosed with a psychotic mental illness that their white counterparts, according to Lambeth Council’s ‘Black Health and Wellbeing Commission’ report from June 2014.
On both fronts black feminism provides a tool with which to understand and challenge narrow perceptions of masculinity and the racist society that they exist within. The intersectional nature of black feminism also addresses the social constructs that perpetuate racism and inequality and that contribute to negative outcomes experienced by black men within the mental health system, such as more drastic responses to signs of mental distress such higher rates of seclusion, physical restraint and section orders. Feminism also challenges gender expectations perpetuated by patriarchy; questioning what it means to be a woman also requires addressing what it means to be a man and ultimately harmful stereotypes about womanhood and manhood are called into question. This isn’t about exchanging roles or replacing one set of expectations or ideals for another, this is about allowing people to embrace the full spectrum of possible expressions of identity without being confined by the narrow expectations of others.
#2: For His Personal Safety
Police brutality is nothing new, and neither are the statistics showing the disproportionate amount of deadly force used against black and brown people compared to white people. Personal experience of the institutionalised nature of racism in the police force has me concerned about what experiences await my son, but I am encouraged and inspired by the very vocal activism of (black) feminists in exposing injustice and holding the police and lawmakers to account for state-sanctioned violence against black and brown men and women. While so often the media is saturated with news about black victims of police brutality in the US, the names of men and women in Britain who have suffered at the hands of police brutality and misconduct is tallying up, with Sheku Bayoh being the most recent. The mainstream media rarely covers these cases in depth, if at all, but from Ferguson to London, black feminists in particular are some of the most prominent voices amongst the rallies and discussion, bringing the issue of abuses of power and accountability to the forefront of public consciousness.
Though still an uphill march in many respects, there is still hope amongst the heartbreak and I’m grateful that my fellow feminists have shown me that.
#3: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
It is no secret that white feminists campaigning for women’s suffrage and other issues in previous decades were as racist as their patriarchal white male counterparts. Mainstream feminism in general has often been criticised for being exclusionary and only caring about the concerns of middle class white women. However, for a society to be more equal it must address not just the gender disparity, but that of race, class and other lines of classification and separation. This is where intersectional feminism comes in. Oppression will never truly be eradicated if it’s not addressed at every level – the revolution won’t be real if it doesn’t have wide-reaching effects for all “minority” groups. As Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, has put it “a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors” (p. 287).
My son will be born into some forms of privilege relative to other people’s situations but also without the privileges afforded to others within our society. While there is someone at the bottom of the heap – whoever they may be – it is always easier for the powerful to sell you the “well, at least you’re not [even more oppressed section of society]” line as they continue to press their heel into your neck.
While feminism is still greatly misunderstood by some in terms of its objectives and who it benefits, ultimately it offers hope for both myself and my unborn son. This is a hope that our society can progress beyond its distortions and reveal a future that is quantifiably better than any past or present that any of us have experienced thus far. A world that is safer and fairer for women will naturally be safer and fairer for us all, and that’s why, as bell hooks famously put it, “feminism is for everybody.”
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
This article was edited by Melanie Singhji
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- “Complicit No More” (mediadiversified.org)
- Black British feminism then and now (mediadiversified.org)
- I too am Black and a Feminist: On the importance of Black British Feminism