Sex & Relationships

Why Men Need to Get Over Their Femiphobia -- Fear and Disdain of the Female

The author argues in his book excerpt that a "great deal of the nation’s gender problem has to do with how men think about women."

From the book Can You Hear Me Now? by Michael Eric Dyson.  Excerpted by arrangement withBasic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Femiphobia — the fear and disdain of the female.

We’ve got to grapple with instances of internalized sexism in women where the ventriloquist magic of patriarchy is occurring — women’s lips are moving, but men’s voices and beliefs are speaking.

A great deal of the nation’s gender problem has to do with how men think about women. Such thinking is largely rooted in the belief that God has set up a hierarchy where women fall beneath men in the natural order of things. But I think it’s long past time that we re-examine our beliefs and come up with different ideas about how things work, and how we should behave in light of what we learn.

Black women have been a defining force in our liberation struggles, so we shouldn’t seek to oppress the very sisters who valiantly helped to win our freedom as a people, and as black men.

We must battle those who use the Bible to justify some terrible beliefs about black women. We get awfully upset — and rightfully so — with how hip hop culture demeans and degrades sisters. We are outraged when a rapper resorts to epithets to disrespect our women, and despite my great love for hip hop, I’m sympathetic to that critique. But at the same time, we permit some destructive ideas to flourish in the church. These ideas are harmful because they influence how we act, not only in church, but also in our homes and schools. We’ve got to find a new way to behave so that our children inherit a more positive future.

Black men can love black women by promoting the biblical principle of mutual submission contained in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. Mutual submission means that we act in a way to enhance the interests of each partner in the relationship. The text topples the notion that men should rule over a woman’s life in home or society. Our liberating black religion teaches us that nobody has ultimate authority over our lives but God.

When most of our white brothers and sisters hear the word “race,” they think “black” or “brown” or “yellow” or “Native American.” They don’t think “white,” as if white is not one among many other racial and ethnic identities. Men are the same way. When black men hear male supremacy, we often think, “white guys who control the world.” We don’t think, “black guys who control our part of the world.”

Black men have to surrender our patriarchal pose and our sexist strut. In our homes, that means that we’ve got to listen to and learn from our women as we strengthen our relationships. We must respect one another, encourage one another, sacrifice for one another, and stand up for one another, even against harmful gender ideas we’ve supported over the years.

A lot of black men are afraid to love black women with abandon because we fear they won’t recognize the hurts that black men face. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, black women have been among the most vocal and progressive advocates for black men. Who was way out front on the issue of the prison-industrial complex that affects the million black men locked away, many unfairly, and to warn us about the injustice of incarceration? Angela Davis. Who edited the book that rigorously explored the claim that black males are an endangered species? Jewelle Taylor Gibbs. And who sang a song about the destructive images of black men in the culture and praised us for our moral beauty and our strength? Angie Stone.

We don’t have to disrespect or dominate our women to feel like men.

Black men must be careful not to justify our ugly treatment of black women by pointing to our pain. We must avoid what the scholar Barbara Christian calls “the oppression derby,” where groups argue over who has suffered the most. Black men can’t pretend that our oppression is worse than black women’s. Neither can we take solace in our suffering as a way to excuse our brutality toward our sisters. We cannot have a hierarchy of pain. If it hurts, it hurts. All of our pain is legitimate and real — if it is legitimate and real. So let’s not waste any more time building a totem pole of catastrophe where we cut our niche of misery deeper or higher than black women’s.

In a world where black women are battered by negative half-truths in the media, and ambushed by brutal put-downs from their own children in entertainment, the least we can do is to wrap sisters in the healing garments of reverence and ­respect.

Black men must not be intimidated by the strength and intensity of our women’s speech. Some women have had their voices muffled for so long that they shout when they can finally speak up. We should even encourage them to take “voice lessons” as they join with other women in amplifying their interests and desires.

We can’t lean on male supremacy to resolve conflicts or settle disputes in our homes. Instead, we’ve got to appeal to reason and to prayer, to negotiation and to consultation, to iron out our differences.

A new understanding of black male and female relationships that can truly help our communities should flow from our churches. I believe that the black church is still the greatest institution black folk have, and we’ve got to work hard to keep it that way. That means we’ve got to move beyond the spiritual apartheid we practice. Seventy-five percent of the black church is made up of women, and yet they rarely have access to the central symbol of power — the pulpit. We’ve got to stop dragging our feet and begin to acknowledge just how important black women are to our churches — and to our mosques, temples, ashrams, and sanctuaries of all sorts. We must also realize just how important black women are to our success and survival as a people.

We’ve got to sacrifice the unfair privileges we’ve gained by being men and seek to share power and responsibility with our partners. We’ve got to be willing to argue our case, but also to hear a case argued, as we make critical decisions that affect our relationships.

If I dislike myself, if I dishonor myself, if I hate myself, I will dislike, dishonor, and hate my partner. If I refuse to take care of myself, I threaten the quality of my relationship. If I hate myself I damage the person about whom my partner deeply cares. If I fail to appreciate the gifts God gave me I deny their expression to my partner, and perhaps, the world. If I have a low estimation of myself, I obviously believe my partner’s judgment of me is distorted. That is a weak foundation on which to build any enduring relationship. That means that black male self-hate is hatred of black women. And black male hatred of black women is ultimately self-hatred. So the “bitch” we black men really hate may be staring back at us in the mirror.

Click here to buy a copy ofCan You Hear Me Now?

Michael Eric Dyson, named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans, is an American Book Award winner, a two-time winner of the NAACP Image Award, and the author of sixteen books. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
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