On Being A Sensitive Black Man

Hear no evil. Young African man in shirt and tie covering ears with hand while standing against grey background

I am sensitive because I am blessed to have a mother who validated the continuum of my emotions—a mother who encouraged me to acknowledge my hurt. When I am not OK, I can ask for help.

I am a sensitive black man.

Being sensitive became a badge of honor after a conversation with a male friend.

I told him about the organized stalking I had been experiencing. Abuse that included workplace bullying, harassment and cyberbullying—the culmination of which led me to experience depression and consider suicide. His response: “Don’t be so sensitive and take things so personally.”

His dismissal of my experience left me gutted. I wondered: How many men choose to suffer emotional issues in silence due to fear of being marginalized?

Psychologist Aaron Rochlen reported that many men who experience emotional problems are unlikely to seek mental health treatment. His research specifically targets traditional masculinity as a major reason for their avoidance of treatment.

The idea that men who experience mental illness are “too sensitive” is not new. This is part of the way boys and men are socialized by hegemonic masculinity. According to author bell hooks, “In patriarchal culture, all males learn a role that restricts and confines. When race and class enter the picture, along with patriarchy, then black males endure the worst impositions of gendered masculine patriarchal identity.”

Indeed, as soon as little boys are in their cribs, they are punished for expressing emotion outside of anger and rage. To be a male in the United States is to be socialized away from feeling and connection with other people.

If a little boy cries he is told “big boys don’t cry” or worse, “don’t be a sissy.” Boys are indoctrinated into a culture that reinforces homophobia, sexism, and inflames violence.

I recall my father forcing me to fight the neighborhood bully when I was 6. This was one of many experiences that taught me that fear is not an acceptable emotion. I also learned that the only way men solve problems is through violence.

In his defense, my father was trying to teach me to stand up for myself. Like his peers, he was conditioned to believe that young men needed to use violence or they would be too weak to deal with life’s challenges.

My father felt that as a black man under white supremacy I had to be ready for mistreatment in every walk of life. He was preparing me for a world determined to undermine my existence and I needed to toughen up to survive. In her 2004 book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, author bell hooks reported that black American parents instill such values in their sons out of fear that they will be “too soft” and unable to adequately handle the difficulties of a white supremacist society.

My father’s cruelty was nothing compared to the racist-patriarchy in the United States. I have defended myself by educating myself and forming close relationships with anti-racist allies. Not by becoming violent.

Author Jeffrey Nall reported that males are introduced to this repressed idea of manliness at a very young age. The author went on to name several examples of the ways society indoctrinates both boys and girls into patriarchal culture:

“Just walk through the toy aisles of a mainstream department store. There you will find aisles filled with pink baby dolls, household items and the like, beckoning girls to enact roles as mothers, helpmates, and homemakers. Boys on the other hand, are being prepared to wage war through endless marketing of war toys, war games, and military dress up.”

As I revealed in my 2010 article published in the journal “Psychology of Men and Masculinity,” I emerged from childhood a disconnected person. Unable to verbalize the complex feelings I experienced. Disconnected from that part of me yearning to reveal tenderness, sadness, and at times, hopelessness to the world.

I was also disconnected from my family. Some elements of mainstream psychology would have us believe that boys emotionally separating from their mothers is an achievement. Male children with appropriate attachment to a female caregiver are derogatorily labeled “momma’s boy.” The idea that boys should be disconnected from the one person providing unconditional love is patriarchal nonsense.

I am not alone in my experience. There are many men who have been socialized in comparable ways. For that matter, women are not immune to this education. Male supremacy is literally beat into both genders. Consider this report from author Gary Smalley:

“Many boys emerge from adolescence with a strong sense that being strong and unfeeling is the ‘masculine’ thing to do. It doesn’t take much, even from well-meaning family members, to give a boy the message that emotions and feelings are only for girls.”

In thinking about relationships today, men are stereotyped as not requiring emotional security. There is an old adage that a male needs only “beer, sex, and the remote” to satisfy him.

Many males yearn for empathy, compassion, and validation, which come from emotional closeness, but we’re discouraged from engaging in the level of emotional sharing which is required for such intimacy. Author Harris O’Malley revealed that the restrictive code of traditional masculinity inhibits male-to-male emotional sharing despite their emotional needs.

According to author bell hooks, every male has at some point suppressed his emotional self. He has worn a mask in order to hide his insecurities. Never realizing that by expressing our most “sensitive” self, we are liberated.

“If black boys and black men do not allow themselves to feel, then they are not able to take responsibility for nurturing their emotional growth; they cannot access the healthy parts of themselves that could empower them to resist.”

To be clear, hegemonic masculinity is not simply male failure to express vulnerable emotion, it’s built on the idea of female subjugation. In this context, male abuse of females is ignored or justified. Male sexualization of females is dismissed as “boys will be boys.” The voices of men are heard over those of women. In a patriarchal society, male lives—especially rich, white male lives—matter more than female lives.

Being a sensitive Black man is about more than expressing hurt and fear while being receptive to my impact on others. It also means being aware of systematic issues and the insidiousness of gender-based oppression.

I unapologetically use the word “sensitive” as part of my reclamation project. I reject the inflammatory way it is often used today. Sensitivity is not the opposite of strength, nor does sensitive mean “out of control.”

  • I am sensitive to the feelings of people around me. Sensitivity recognizes that emotional reactions do not exist in a vacuum. I impact others and they impact me.
  • I am sensitive to issues of oppression, and I am committed to confronting subjugation where ever it strikes.
  • I am sensitive because I am blessed to have a mother who validated the continuum of my emotions—a mother who encouraged me to acknowledge my hurt. When I am not OK, I can ask for help.
  • I am sensitive because I am confronting the demonic representation of black men in movies and television. We are often depicted as cold and violent or hypersexual. Rarely are we shown as in touch with the continuum of emotional responsiveness.
  • I am sensitive to my own internalized oppression. I am aware that I, too, have bought into ideas that marginalize women, GLBT individuals, disabled, and those economically oppressed. I join with other men who believe we must take responsibility for that oppression we perpetuate first. Only then are we equipped to fight the oppression we see.
  • I am sensitive to workplace bullying, domestic violence, sexual abuse, organized gang stalking, and all forms of abuse. I realize that abuse anywhere is abuse everywhere. In order to live in a better world, we must fight abuse in any form.

The new, sensitive masculinity means caring for ourselves and each other. It allows access to our deepest fears and greatest hopes. This masculinity brings us closer to those we care about. Making us better fathers, romantic partners, brothers, and sons.

Sensitive masculinity is liberating. It really is great to be a sensitive black man.

Bill Johnson II is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and freelance writer. He is a columnist at TheGoodmenProject.com and has previously published on masculinity, mental health, and relationships. He is dedicated to becoming a more sensitive, compassionate, and loving human being. In his spare time he is working on his dance moves. You can contact him on twitter @drbill2012 or by email at sensitiveblackman@gmail.com.

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