Black Men and “Toxic Masculinity”

Toxic masculinity- What is it?

I am a black male therapist who works with couples, mostly black couples, who struggle with issues we call “communication problems.” Seeing couples as a part of my private practice and being an African American mental health doctor (PhD), many women of these couples see me as their “last hope.” Their last hope to be heard; their thoughts and words now echoing through the megaphone voice of “The black male therapist”, me, to level out the playing field with their partners. As a former toxic male, who better to go toe-to-toe with another toxic male. (That’s another blog I will write.)

One day, two years ago, me and my daughter were preparing for a summer bike ride with a large group. While waiting in the car, I started to just vent to her about the frustrations I was having with a handful of couples that I had been working with. About 5 black couples, who seemed to all share the same common denominator—A toxic male with, of course, “communication problems.” Moving the microscope in further, these men were appearing to struggle with the same communication style and marital disasters. So, as I was venting to my daughter about the traits of these men, she said to me so poignantly, “Oh dad that’s just toxic masculinity!” “Oh really”, I said… “do tell doctor Mal…?”

She began to break it down… “A man who is very controlling, condescending, disrespectful, full of gas-lighting and passive/aggressive tactics.” I said, …well that the term for it…Toxic Masculinity…?” I said to her, (her age of 15 at the time), how do know this about men/boys?  She said, “that’s all that’s out there….!

I tell this story for two reasons, one, we are still producing these types of men and two, we are still producing these types of boys. What will happen to the institution of marriage? What is happening to male-female relationships?

Pigging back on my daughter’s definition that she rattled off in 5 seconds…toxic masculinity also includes the idea of “manliness” that disseminates domination, homophobia, and aggression. When a man who is struggling with his mental health doesn’t want to see a therapist because he should “man up” or “power through it” would be a classic element that could lead to the development of a “toxic man.”

Another classic example are men who have been infused with the notion that they “can’t cry” or “show emotions.” This is so harmful to their mental health and has serious consequences for society, families, relationships and physical heath. Men have just as many emotions or feelings, (tough exteriors with marshmallow hearts) but we cannot show them or show too much of them. “Toughness, anti-femineity and power” are the foundations of toxic masculinity that have far reaching effects.

As I mentioned earlier, the roots of toxic masculinity may be traced back to the days of slavery. The masculine requirement to “remain stoic” and be a good provider can lead to “John Henryism” in African American men. Stoicism for the black man was a means of physical survival. Marriages for slaves were mostly forbidden and openly loving a woman could result in familial destruction. If his love was found out, not showing emotions when either he or his family are separated and shipped off was an ingrained trauma. Can you image, you love your wife and children but can’t show them loving emotions? Instead, being mean, aggressive, cold and emotionally aloof as a way of self-preservation. Stifling your own emotions and channel this into your work ethic…being a “good provider” but emotionally unavailable. This was the accepted norm in many black families. This term “John Henryism” and the result of forced stoicism, men will use conscious and unconscious avoidance strategies and emotional disconnection as a way to cope with the problems they continue to face related to chronic stress and discrimination.

What are the other reasons why this topic so important? Well, it is correlated to black men’s health. A 2016 study linked “John Henryism” to an increased risk of hypertension and depression. A 2011 study found that men’s beliefs about masculinity were correlated to not seeking preventative health care such as an annual physical. A 2007 study found that men’s toxic attitudes could lead more risky behaviors, such as drinking, drugs and poor eating habits. In addition, they were more likely to view such risky choices as being “normal.” Black men, different from other men, may define masculinity in such a way that prohibits them from talking about their feelings, avoiding conversations about problems or emotions that may increase feelings of isolation and loneliness. All of these things pose huge risk factors for men, especially black men.

In closing, as a black male therapist, I see this toxic demeanor in most, if not all, of the cases I work with. I have dedicated much of my post doctorial research and practice to helping detoxify these traits in many of the black men that I work with. I have started an organization called, “Black Men in” that addresses many of these issues and offers avenues for assistance. Stay tuned for more blogs on this topic from Dr. Chris Allen Shreve, PhD.    

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