Domestic violence is front and center again as news of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension from the NFL made national headlines. And like many things in the media today, this affects our boys.
In case you haven’t been following the story, Rice was let go by the Ravens and put on ice by the league after TMZ release surveillance footage of the former player brutally attacking his then-fiancé. In the video, Rice is seen punching Janay Palmer, now his wife, in a hotel elevator. After she is hit, Palmer strikes her head on a railing and is knocked unconscious for several minutes while Rice stares down at her nonchalantly. Although video of Rice dragging Palmer’s lifeless body out of the elevator leaked almost six months ago, the whole ordeal just hit the fan with the release of the video of the actual attack.
While many have debated who is to blame for the assault (yes, seriously), others have used this as a teachable moment about domestic violence.
The White House chimed in with press secretary Josh Earnest issuing a statement about Rice:
“The president is the father of two daughters. And like any American, he believes that domestic violence is contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society,” the released said.
“Hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that’s true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye, or, far too often, behind closed doors. Stopping domestic violence is something that’s bigger than football – and all of us have a responsibility to put a stop to it.”
While the statement is a strong rebuke of violence against women, it’s also very questionable. Here’s why:
Firstly, the phrase “a real man” is extremely loaded. Notions of masculinity can be awfully limiting, particularly for boys of color, where far too often the definition of “a real man” is one fraught with hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, and oft times misogynistic ideals.
For instance, far too many young boys are taught that “real men” don’t cry, they don’t show weakness, they aren’t vulnerable, and above all else, they’re tough. This has led too many of our boys to assert their “manliness” in unhealthy, and sometimes violent ways.
Don’t believe me? Peep this…
Last year I had the opportunity to interview Baltimore Ravens defensive star Chris Canty for Essence magazine. Canty works with an awesome initiative called “A Call to Men” that champions healthy manhood and works to put an end to domestic violence. One of the biggest obstacles Canty told me he faced when working with young men is getting them to express an emotion other than anger.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered in my work with young men is teaching them to recognize that anger is a secondary emotion that comes from a place of hurt,” Canty said. “As men, we have a hard time saying we’re hurt. It’s often easier, and even more acceptable, to demonstrate anger. Instead of telling a young man he needs to man up, we must teach him to think differently about what it means to be a man.”
My second issue with the White House’s statement on Rice is the notion that men shouldn’t hit women.
Don’t get it twisted. I agree that men should not hit women, but not simply because they’re women. Instead, men should not hit anyone–male or female–because, as humans, they deserve respect. The same goes for women as well.
Teaching little boys not to hit little girls simply because they are girls reenforces notions of patriarchy and sexism. For those who don’t know, patriarchy is “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” In other words, teaching boys not to hit girls solely because of their gender teaches boys that they are superior to girls and can dominate them if they so choose. See the problem?
If not, watch Tony Porter, of A Call to Men, break it down (what he says at the 5-min mark is VERY powerful):
While many of us teach our sons not to hit girls (because they are girls), I encourage you to take it a step further and teach your boys that they have to respect the basic human rights of others and keep their hands to themselves. Full stop, no matter the person’s gender.
Domestic violence is a serious matter, affecting millions of men and women each year. And though some will always place the onus on the victim to not be victimized in the first place (i.e. questions like, “Why didn’t he/she leave?” or “What did he/she do to provoke the attack?”) let’s raise our sons to respect themselves and others enough to not be abusive in the first place.
Breaking the cycle of violence isn’t easy, but if we gave young men more room to express themselves and taught them to honor the rights and agency of others, perhaps we wouldn’t see so many young men killing each other or themselves.