by Eric Mata and Craig Elliott
A couple of days ago, we had a conversation about the shooting death of Mike Brown. As a man of color and as a father of an infant son and a white man and a father of two boys, the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, MO have resonated deeply. We’ve been constantly thinking about what could have led to the moment when Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown. We know who killed Mike Brown. But we’ve been grappling with the question of “what” killed Mike Brown.
Further, as we raise our boys and daughter, we have also been grappling with these questions and are our part in them: How do we shift this system of oppression that causes death, pain, and suffering for men and boys of color, and teaches violence as the language of living? How do we raise our boys to be different, to resist violence and aggression and the other mantles of manhood and masculinity? How do our children grow to live a life filled with compassion, love, and justice, and to create community spaces built on those values? These aren’t new questions created by the death of Mike Brown, but they have been given more shine in our lives.
A lot of words have been written and spoken about the role race and racism have played in Ferguson, MO. You can find them here, here, here, here, and here. More recently, people have started to talk about the intersection of race and class and its role in Ferguson. Here is a really interesting piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But it has always felt to us that something was missing. That there is something else at play. Here’s the scenario that played out in our collective head:
- White cop tells black man to move it to the sidewalk.
- Black man says he can walk wherever he wants. (maybe)
- White cop demands answers for the box of cigars and grabs them.
- Black man is pulled into the cop car because he doesn’t want to let them go. (maybe)
- Cop pulls gun and shoots black man.
- Black man pulls away and starts running.
- Cop jumps out and shoots again.
- Black man stops, turns around, hands up.
- Cop shoots again.
This scenario plays out every time we think about “what” killed Mike Brown. Over and over again.
The intersection of race and class put Mike Brown in Ferguson. That same intersection put Darren Wilson in a squad car in Ferguson.
Part of what’s been itching at us, is the feeling that there is something missing from this narrative. A feeling that there was this underlying “thing” which may have played a significant part in the violence that led to Mike Brown’s death. That one thing for us is gender. And more specifically, what we’ve come to understand is that the intersection of race (both whiteness and blackness) and masculinity (maleness) is what caused Mike Brown’s death. (The title of this should’ve given this away). So rather than the diagram above, what we find is this:
If you use a critical race lens, It is easy to see race at play here: the images of a white man killing a black man are built into the historical structures and narratives in our country. But it is harder to identify the ways in which masculinity are at play here, in part because it is man-on-man violence. It is important to acknowledge how the masculine assertion of power, of how force was used for compliance, of how one man used domination to control another man. And how this also happens every day in our homes, our schools, our communities, and in our country.
This sense of domination, this need for domination, is so much a part of our collective consciousness as a country, that it is the foundation for how and why our military acts in our country and in other countries; what sports are popular (and why a player like Mo’ne Davis is “surprising”); what forms of expression are acceptable and which ones aren’t; and what stories are told in our movies, television, and books. While we both enjoy our action movies, they are built upon the myth and cultural narrative of a lone man, who is almost always white, resisting an army/aliens/robots/pathogen against all odds and then “saving” the woman/women/community. We all, collectively, accept this exertion of male violence as good or worthy.
We see men acting as hero aggressors for the common good, and so we, as men, act the same in our real lives.
Darren Wilson was acting out his idea of the white hero aggressor for the “common good,” and when confronted by a black male, Michael Brown, acting out his version of the hero aggressor, Wilson couldn’t handle that. After all, in our masculine stories, there is only one male hero aggressor. Wilson had the means to “one-up” Brown in the race to be the hero. But Wilson couldn’t stop himself–he had to finish the job and to prove beyond a doubt that he, and only he, was the hero aggressor. Wilson did this at the expense of the humanity and life of Mike Brown.
What played out on that street in Ferguson lives at the intersection of male domination and white domination. It also manifested itself in Jacksonville. And Detroit. And Sanford. And Charlotte. And Oakland. We could go on.
We need to be clear that within the context of police violence against brown and black boys/men, how we are taught to be men is a critical factor in why this type of violence exists. We know that when we are triggered, we often respond out of dominance. A white male police officer who is triggered by a young, black male will finds ways to assert his dominance. Oftentimes, the root of that dominance is embedded in how he was taught to be a man.
Darren Wilson stopped Mike Brown walking down the street. He gave a command. When that command wasn’t met, he acted. When a scuffle ensued and Mike Brown ran away, Darren Wilson couldn’t bear the shame he would experience from his peers. So he stepped out of his car and killed him.
Men’s shame is a killer.
But it doesn’t have to be. In order for men’s shame to not be a killer it requires a consciousness that responses to shame other than violence are possible. Doing so requires all of us to take responsibility; to teach our boys, our fathers, our friends that the ways we have been taught to be men is problematic.
As we continue to examine our roles of fathers, understanding our roles in passing on social expectations to our children, the spoken and unspoken cultural narratives of race, gender and class are at play. Our role is to be conscious of and clear in our values (love, community, and justice), and act to create environments for our children to act in alignment with these values. Doing so allows us to create those other choices, and help our children navigate a new world that they are also creating.