The Devil Goes to Charleston

Nine lives were ended too soon in Charleston last night. They were taken by hatred, by the barrel of a gun, in a house of worship, on a night dedicated to better understanding the intersection of faith and those now stolen lives. In their wake is a torrent of sorrow and white hot rage, a kaleidoscope of confused emotion that will probably never get properly sorted out. How does anyone make sense of the senseless?

I could write (again) about gun control and the fact that firepower allowed this young man to kill more people more quickly than he might have been able to otherwise, about how whether he got the gun legally or not doesn’t change the fact that the current gun regulation regime makes these tools of destruction too accessible to too many. But I’m really tired of writing the same thing over and over. I know you’re tired of reading it.

I could write (again) about the inherent danger of inhabiting a black body in this country, where — by police violence or structural violence or the violent inclinations of a man with vitriol in his heart — your life is at risk based on a genetic composition of melanin with ties to a history of endangerment. But others will give voice to this fear that is not mine, that I cannot ever fully comprehend, with far greater eloquence than myself. I’ll leave those words to them.

I could write (again) about the disparity in the way this story is already being told, the framing taking place by reporters and pundits and politicians to cast these acts as deranged instead of arranged because this man’s melanin composition is fair and his dress is straight out of White suburbia, about the fact that he will not be called a thug and only a select few will call what he did an act of terrorism, though inspiring terror was his intent. But I literally just wrote that last week. Last. Week.

The fact of the matter is that the crime that took place last night exists at a juncture where entitlement and weapons and race and a culture of violence intermingle like matches being shaken about in a powder keg. We’re playing with an element whose boiling point is unknown, but we have to know by now that the pending explosion could level entire cities. We must know that.

But whether you’re looking at Ferguson, Cleveland, or McKinney; Chicago, New York, or LA; Aurora, Newtown, Dallas, or Charleston, there is one factor that rears its ugly head more times than we’re comfortable counting: toxic white masculinity.

Toxic or hegemonic masculinity is a gendered perspective that positions men as dominant actors over subordinate women, and glorifies that power as something that must be protected at all costs from anything that could potentially undermine its hold. That means rejecting or attacking anything perceived as feminine, and behaving in an aggressive, sometimes violent, manner to reassert dominance. Feminine need not be female, of course. It is anything that could be perceived as open, vulnerable, or weak in the eyes of the actor.

When race gets added to the mix (and make no mistake — it’s been a constant ingredient for centuries now), toxic masculinity doesn’t just reject the feminine anymore; it rejects difference in any form. Any deviation from the norm — a norm that has placed white males in a position of historic privilege — is a threat that must be taken down. Toxic white masculinity would have you believe that women are trying to steal your manhood, that minorities are taking over the country, that Sharia Law is a heartbeat away. It would have you believe a war is raging. Maybe it is… but it is white males who have claimed the role of aggressor. The rest of us are just trying to survive.

It’s easy to point out the obvious examples of toxic white masculinity, of course. It’s Elliot Rodger raging over his inability to relate to women’s inability to see his worth. It’s Eric Casebolt kneeling on the spine of a barely clothed Black child, self-righteous adrenaline pumping through his veins. It’s Darren Wilson seeing Black and thinking Devil and doing the work of a God none of us recognize. It’s James Boulware wreaking havoc because the system momentarily labeled his criminal behavior appropriately. It’s Adam Lanza, Wade Michael Page, Jared Loughner, Charles Carl Roberts, Jeffrey Weise, Mark Orrin Barton, Dylan Klebold and so many more who felt the need to prove something in one way or another and did so through fire.

Those are the easy ones. Not every example of toxic white masculinity is a mass murder. You’ll find it in the politicians who are anti-choice and believe single mothers should be shamed, because any manifestation of female sexuality outside of their approved constructs threatens their sense of authority. You’ll find it in the pundits insisting that the galling racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a function of flaws in the cultures of People of Color instead of flaws in the system built by the privileged. You’ll find it in the homophobic slurs that litter locker rooms, more putrid than the stench of the discarded uniforms strewn about the floor. You’ll find it in the dad bod enthusiasts who hold up Maxim as the standard by which the female form should be judged. You’ll find it in jokes told by bros young and old about welfare queens and drag queens and everyone in between who is not them, followed by angry missives about the PC police when someone dares to call them out on it.

The cherry on top of this mountain of suffering is that the same toxic white masculinity that causes so much damage to others hurts the group that practices it, as well. It’s just hard to feel any sympathy for them when you know the pain they cause everyone else. Especially today. Especially after last night.

Toxic white masculinity was in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. A boy believing himself to be a man proved the inverse as he attempted to project his power with gunpowder and lead, and nine people paid the ultimate price for his performance. It was nine lives too many past the already nauseating body count. How many more have to die before we stop talking about lone wolves and start talking about a systemic problem?

There will be those reading this who balk at the idea of saying there’s any problem with white men in this country. I can hear the counterarguments roiling in their minds, desperate to defend the norms that give them a privilege they don’t have the language to identify. Before it starts to seep from your mouths, would-be debaters, let’s talk about this.

If you’re sitting there thinking that women or People of Color or other minorities participate in the same kinds of behaviors, you’re partially right and partially unaware of the significance of cultural context when evaluating communication. But for the part where you are correct, it’s important to note that toxic white masculinity, while primarily something observed in white males, is not reserved for them. Women can be misogynists; some gay men can be the worst offenders. Black people can promote respectability politics. And because masculinity is not static or tied to sex, the aggressive behavior associated with toxic white masculinity can manifest anywhere. Like the disease it is, it branches beyond the usual suspects and infects other parts of our world.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Not me!”… you’re probably wrong. But on the off chance you’re not, you really shouldn’t expect praise. So you’re a decent human being? Congratulations, I guess?

I will concede that not all white men partake in toxic white masculinity. I shouldn’t have to say that, but knowing how conversations like these go, I will. The important takeaway from that fact is that toxic white masculinity is not an incurable scourge. It can be dismantled, and that starts with us admitting there’s a problem in the first place. And I mean all of us.

Because complacency here is like not taking your full regimen of antibiotics; that infection is gonna pop back up if you’re not vigilant. When we chant All Lives Matter over the voices of color begging us to stop killing them; when we nod along while politicians insist all Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists; when we keep laughing at the same tired jokes that trade on the suffering of others; when we recognize the problem and see it in action and do and say nothing because we don’t want to rock the boat — we let that infection live on. And the body count climbs.

So say it with me: ENOUGH. Enough lives lost and shattered in the name of a mindset that props up systems which fail us at best and kill us at worst. Toxic white masculinity can no longer be tolerated. Burn it to the ground.

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