American Culture Is Inflicting Pain on Our Boys

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Twelve days after my brown-skinned boy turned 21 in this country to which we immigrated, another brown-skinned young son of immigrant parents, from a country that borders mine in South Asia, shot 49 people dead in Orlando, most of them also brown-skinned males from immigrant families. And before any right-winger swoops down to make a ridiculous statement about how this is a “brown” or immigrant problem, I will declare—as a social scientist and as a mother—that this is a struggle for all of us raising boys in America. Our boys are hurting and we are asking them to “man up.”

We are pushing our president to use tough talk (“say ‘Radical Islamism’ now!”), we are measuring our presidential candidates by their small hands and big walls, we are “straight-washing” the attack in Orlando on the LGBT community, we are serving our rapists the briefest jail sentences so they may quickly return to their true calling of being athletes and champions, and we are doing nothing to change a gun culture that’s led to so many tragic murders.

I will especially say this as an immigrant mother—it is not easy to raise a young man in America’s culture of masculine dominance. I sought in America a personal refuge from the culture of violent patriarchy in my own country, India. I wanted to shield my son from the privileges of patriarchy he would automatically receive there as an upper-caste male, while the women around him were subjected to sexual assault or verbal and physical abuse at the hands of men he looked up to. In America, though, he has grown up alongside a generation of boys with rage—from the Columbine shootings in 1999, the year before we arrived here, to the massacre of 20 six-year-olds in Sandy Hook a few months before my boy left for college, to the murderous rampage of a college boy, Elliot Rodger, who felt turned down by girls the year my son turned 18; each milestone in my son’s life was marked by the violent end of others’ at the hands of young men.

Barely weeks before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a raging George Zimmerman, my own 17-year-old had the police called on him by a neighbor as he tried to enter our home through an open window because he had forgotten his keys. A white American friend quickly advised him to wait for the cops with his hands visible, dressed in nothing but a T-shirt and jeans, definitely no hoodie. When Zimmerman was acquitted for “standing his ground,” my son and I were traveling in India, where I woke him to give him the news. He held back tears. I wanted him to cry openly.

The fast-growing religion of hyper-masculine, gun-toting hubris is gaining ground worldwide. The day after one of the worst mass shootings in modern American history on June 12, a group of men in my home country pledging allegiance to the right-wing Hindu Sena that propelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi into power now celebrated the birthday of U.S. presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, laying a 15-pound cake before a poster of Trump holding a double-barreled gun, proclaiming him a “messiah” and a “savior of the world.” Trump’s brand of hyper-masculine certainty expressed as unflinching rage, typified in the statement “Ban all Muslims,” has struck a chord with men in my homeland, who saw the Orlando shooting as Islamic terrorism while also declaring their cultural loathing of homosexuality. In Russia, Trump has found admiration akin to that reserved for the hyper-masculine Vladimir Putin. The English-language news site The Moscow Times states: “Both are anti-mainstream and self-confident people who don’t feel constrained by political correctness.”

While the Indian instance of birthday worship for a distant white savior seems laughable, not much is different in America. As a social scientist studying political communication, I have documented how journalists over decades look desperately to source and quote the authoritative white male, especially in times of crisis such as the aftermath of 9/11 and during anti-war protests.

As a mother, therefore, I have tried to counteract these things, pushing against my own conditioning to be a “quiet, likable female.” A female who knew exactly what Indian activist Soni Sori did “wrong” in speaking out for tribal rights, for which she was sexually assaulted in jail in 2011 and recently assaulted with a chemical substance that left her face burned. Or the “mistake” that Sandra Bland made when she talked back to a state trooper in Waller County, Texas. I have worked to make sure that my son heard my voice—my loud voice, my angry voice, and, especially, my voice of clear and urgent reason—during private or public events of insult or assault on women or on innocents in mass shootings. And, I have listened when he said he didn’t want to spend time with friends who may not be too different from Stanford rapist Brock Turner, who took a picture of his victim’s breasts and shared it with his buddies on his swim team. Turner’s pleasure did not lie merely in what his body was doing but in the approval of his friends at what his body could do—be male, dominate, bring back a trophy.

Here’s the thing: I have also taken a deep breath and asked my son questions that carry great risk and pain. After the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon by a 26-year-old white supremacist last year, the FBI learned, via the website 4chan, of a similar threat of attack at a Philadelphia-area college. After reading the news, I called my son, who was going to school near Philadelphia, to ask him to hide out in his dorm room. He dismissed my fears. I then asked him, “It wasn’t you that posted that threat, was it?”

He responded with reasonable outrage and I flinched at the hurt I inflicted on my son. But, also, he understood. Over the years, I have urged other parents to talk to their sons and ask them about alienation, fear, masculinity, rage, and what it would take for them to resort to violence. I have asked this because I know families like Turner’s, who would see little fault in their 20-year-old son’s “20 minutes of action.” You and I know wives like the two who were married to 29-year-old Omar Mateen, both the wife who escaped his violence and the wife who drove him to Pulse to scope it out. Friends of 19-year-old Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev swore he was the kindest kid ever. The men and women in a Black church in Charleston thought the 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof who came to their bible study was a pleasant-natured friend. These were the ordinary boys among us, born in the same decade as my son, until they raped us or killed us.

Last week, as my son went back to college after a brief visit home, he told me he felt some sadness, that he would miss me and that he would call me if he got lonely. He said this in the presence of his friend, a young man who had recently rejected his Mormon religion for what he felt was its inherent misogyny and homophobia.

In front of me were these two college men, both heterosexual, smoking cigarettes with swagger and talking about sadness, loneliness, and loving their families. I felt fortunate to be a safe space in which they could speak with tenderness of such things that most of our hetero-normative culture would discourage in males. I want more such safe spaces everywhere they may go. Pulse may have been once such safe space in the eyes of Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, the 49-year-old mother who liked to go dancing with her gay son, until it, too, wasn’t. Until a man walked in with rage and guns, until she took a bullet for her son.

Somewhere, like so many of our boys, her 21-year-old son is hurting.

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