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Opinion Why we need a new masculinity

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Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about intersectionality. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Jamil Smith is a senior editor at New Republic and the host of INTERSECTION, a biweekly podcast focusing on race, gender, and identity. Find him on Twitter at @JamilSmith.

I am accustomed to situations that require me to be chameleonic. Not to physically change color, but to be flexible with language, movement, and behavior. Those abilities proved essential growing up black in largely white surroundings, as I sought to stave off inevitable marginalization. Learning how to code-switch was my introduction to the concept of intersectionality, years before law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term.

Growing up black isn’t just about skin color; it’s about gender as well. It’s about how you internalize what the world tells you about your manhood and your sexuality, and eventually how you feel about yourself. All of these aspects are important in creating the exterior you present to the world. Code-switching — shifting from one exterior to another — pushed me to understand and how various identities could intertwine, and how oppression and bias still managed to thrive in so many arenas.

As a person of color, the ability to adapt to foreign surroundings was a skill I learned early. It is often necessary to camouflage all traits save one: being a man. Maleness never required any sort of concession or compromise, even when I was among more women than men. My experience still reflects the reality of our nation, but it is a privilege that can lead to an underdeveloped sense of empathy and a disregard for the welfare of those who don’t share it.

We frequently point to race as the quintessential American dilemma, but we cannot forget that structural sexism is still rampant. Too often, though, men are busy portraying themselves as marginalized: painting themselves as targets of false rape allegations, exempted from the favor that women allegedly receive. Being called sexist, or even a rapist, has somehow become worse than experiencing sexism or rape. Men and boys can be found all over the internet lamenting the “feminization” of spaces that their own entitlement has told them they possess and control. The vile reaction to the trending Twitter hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile this past Wednesday demonstrated the toxic notion of manhood it sought to critique.

Who is going to talk these guys out of their self-delusion? Certainly not our media, which consistently places men at its center and enables their self-victimization. Nor will our still-unbalanced institutions, which remain reservoirs of bias despite creeping progress towards gender equality. I don’t expect enlightenment from those who perpetuate the injustices levied upon women and girls, from settings ranging from the workplace to the college campus. But it is particularly important that men who are already marginalized due to their color, sexuality, or disability grasp the urgency of intersectionality.

No system of oppression is more widespread or enables more crimes than sexism. But the patriarchal structure of our society isn’t sustained merely by gender bias; racial bias helps, too. So does the hatred directed at LGBTQ communities, as does economic inequality. Even as we men begin to “get it” and take steps to erode sexism, we have to remain conscious of its disproportionate effects on people of color, on the poor, and on those who aren’t heterosexual. As our society moves towards a drastically different racial and social demography, it grows more essential by the day that men and boys wear an intersectional lens, and see how sexism goes far beyond gender. Doing so will allow us to add depth to a conception of manhood that has become poisoned and lazy. Only then can we become more effective allies. That is something to which we should all aspire.

Explore these other perspectives:

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Why intersectionality can’t wait

Brittney Cooper: Black lives matter — all of them.

Latoya Peterson: Intersectionality is not a label.

Lauren Sudeall Lucas: Why Equal Protection may not protect everyone equally.

Alyssa Rosenberg: How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ wins at illustrating identity