By Kevin Powell
My heart is heavy and I am not quite sure where to begin. Please let me state the obvious: We live in a society that is soaked and rooted in violence. There is simply no escaping that fact. This week alone we’ve watched as protestors continue to put pressure on Missouri officials to do the right thing in light of the vicious police murder of unarmed teen Michael Brown in August. President Obama has just announced yet another war (what else can it be called?), this time against a terrorist group called ISIS. Different president same script when it comes to international affairs. And the video of pro football star Ray Rice literally knocking out his then fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator has been so explosive that it has created a viral reaction of tweets with hashtags from women like #whyistayed and #whyileft. That coupled with the National Football League and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, clumsily and embarrassingly doing all they could to manage this crisis as if it were just another public relations maneuver, not the horrific pattern of abuse by its male players against women coast to coast.
But this is also not only about Ray Rice, or Roger Goodell, or Darren Wilson, the Ferguson cop who so casually blew Michael Brown’s life away. It is about how we have been socialized to define manhood in the United States, from the time we were boys. This is about violence as an extension of our manhood. This is about sexism, a system of power, privilege, violence, and recklessness as evil and awful and cancerous as racism.
When I was a boy being raised by my poor, single mother my introduction to the way most men were and are came via my absent father. While my mother has never stated that my father ever hit her, it was clear early on he had a pattern of extremely abusive behavior. No, he never married my mother, but he lied on several occasions that he would, sometimes he was there, and sometimes he was not. Then, finally, when I was eight, he cursed and yelled at my mother on a phone call, adding for good measure that she lied to him, that I was not truly his child. Mind you I look like my father in so many ways. My mother is a senior citizen now and, to this day, she remains devastated and hurt by what my father did. His name cannot be mentioned without her cursing in disgust and rage.
Add that experience to the fact that I, an American boy, grew up hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive, and full of the myths and stereotypes passed around my community like family traditions: Boys do not cry. Boys fight for their honor. If boys do not fight then something is wrong with them (insert homophobic dissing and references). That reality, combined with a massive and steady diet of ridiculously sexist images and ideas about women and girls, in film, television, books, magazines and newspapers, in our religious institutions, and in our school systems where women and girls barely existed in any single course, meant the die was cast early: Women and girls are caretakers. Women and girls are there for the pleasure and sexual favors of men and boys. Women and girls are not remotely close to being the equals of men and boys. Women and girls have no real history and have basically contributed very little to our nation, to this planet, if anything.
No man, no boy, escapes this indoctrination unless he happened to have a parent or parents who taught him otherwise. Little wonder that boys like me ran around grade school grabbing the body parts of girl classmates because we believed that is what we should do, with no punishment whatsoever. Little wonder that young men like me ran around our college campuses having sex with young women here, there, everywhere because we were told that is what we are suppose to do, “to prove our manhood.” And little wonder that a man like me, 23 long and sorrowful years ago, pushed a live-in girlfriend into a bathroom door when she had the audacity to challenge me on my backwards behavior.
So we make a huge mistake to simply focus on the tragedy that is the relationship of Ray Rice and Janay Rice, or to even focus solely on the NFL, as saturated with violence as it is. The big elephant in the room that we need to discuss is an American and global epidemic of violence and abuse against women and girls in every form you can think of. No, I have never put my hands on a woman again, thanks to my spiritual journey, years and years of therapy, a commitment to healing and change, and becoming a very public and consistent advocate against gender violence. But have I said things to women in the years since that could be said to be emotionally or verbally abusive? Yes. The difference is I think about this every single day of my life, for I am clear that I as a man benefit from gender privilege merely because I am a man. Which means I need to think long and hard on how I conduct myself vis a vis women and girls, for the rest of my life. And I do, and I will—
I think about this as I reflect back on how poorly the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the entire Baltimore Ravens organization have handled this Ray Rice-Janay Rice “problem.” How this boys club moved so quickly and aggressively to control the story, to portray the man and the woman as equal partners in that elevator “fight.” How Ray was able to sidestep prosecution and a criminal record because of the support of this boys’ club. How Janay, like so many women and girls before her, was depicted as somehow “provoking” the situation with her behavior. No, there is absolutely no reason why a man or a boy should ever put his hands on a woman or girl. Not one. But when you have power and privilege because of your gender you can easily say things like “She provoked me” or “She should not have come to my room or apartment” or “She should not have dressed like that”; anything and everything to turn the victim into the perpetrator.
Just like White racists in America have turned unarmed Michael Brown, a victim of the national epidemic of police brutality and racial profiling, into a perpetrator, into a thug or monster, just because he was a young Black male. It is the same mindset. It is about power, manipulation, control, by any means necessary.
What troubles me mightily is that we do not see the links between the two, nor can many of us see the irony, while this homegrown American violence is happening, of President Obama announcing military violence against ISIS overseas. It is not that I want a terrorist attack. No, I do not. But what I want more than anything is peace as the first option for us all, whether it is in our love relationships, our police-community relations, or how we deal with international conflicts. Violence is the language of the sick and wounded. Peace is the language of those who want to be healthy and whole.
DIRECT MESSAGE TO THE MALES WHO KEEP ASKING “What about the women who are abusive or mad hostile and disrespectful?” My position is this: Even if a woman or girl exhibits behavior that is disrespectful or harmful to you as a male, you should walk away from it immediately. I do not know why any man or any woman would want to be in any relationship that is not striving to be loving and healthy, unless that man or that woman are not loving and healthy themselves.
But that sort of holistic view of life will not happen, on any front, as long as we are in profound denial about how we engage, the language we use, or how we respond when our alleged power and privilege are challenged. My heart has been doubly heavy as I’ve read one tweet after another, by women and girls both, with those hashtags #whyistayed and #whyileft. Sad and tragic tales of physical violence, threats of being killed, manipulation of children, finances, love, of women and girls truly believing their lives were certain to end at the murderous hands of their husbands or boyfriends.
This is why it was especially difficult for me to listen to yet another rant by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith when he and his TV partner Skip Bayless were asked to respond to the comments of the National Organization of Women’s president Terry O’Neill by host Cari Champion. To his credit Bayless, with whom I often disagree, was measured and calm and said what I feel: Roger Goodell, as leader of the National Football League, should resign immediately. Bayless also noted that about half of pro football’s fan base is women, that the terrible mishandling of the Ray Rice-Janay Rice abuse case sends a clear message that far too many of us men, regardless of background or industry or profession, just do not value the voices and lives of women and girls.
DIRECT MESSAGE #2 TO MALES WHO CANNOT SEEM TO GRASP THIS CONCEPT: Women and girls are equal to men and boys. We should never never never forget that; we need to know that. We also need to know that the lives of women and girls are as sacred and precious as that of men and boys, and we men and boys need to display that mindset in everything we do. My mother was not only the giver of my life, she was also the first leader, teacher, mentor, caretaker, provider, and protector I ever met in my life. At this stage for me to disrespect or hate my mother or any woman or girl is to disrespect and hate life and humanity.
But Stephen A., who got into trouble back in the summer for suggesting that women “provoke” domestic violence, said that Ms. O’Neill was “off her rocker,” that Roger Goodell should not be fired or resign, that Mr. Goodell has never hit a woman (how does Stephen A. know that?). Smith’s angry outburst was so discomforting that you could see Cari Champion physically shift her body away from the screen Smith was on as if he were in the same studio with her. That is the crux of the problem there: where we men think abuse of women is solely our punching or beating them. No, it also includes the kind of verbal and emotional venom Smith displayed where a woman’s opinion is ridiculed and discarded like trash.
Just like some of my White sisters and brothers do not want to hear the voices of people of color. Just like some of my wealthy sisters and brothers do not want to hear the voices of the poor or working-class. Just like some of my fellow straight sisters and brothers do not want to hear the voices of my gay sisters and brothers. Oppression, hatred, and fear are what they are no matter how we try to bend and play games with the truth, with the facts. And power always seeks to protect power when it feels threatened. Does not matter if Stephen A. Smith and Roger Goodell are even friends. What matters is that one man (Goodell) is coming under great national criticism, justifiably so, for his visionless leadership on the subject of violence against women, and another man (Stephen A.), with an equally large and influential platform, felt compelled to protect that power and privilege, at the cost of looking utterly ridiculous and unintelligent doing so.
This, I imagine, is why a dear female friend of mine posted this direct message to me on twitter:
I believe it is because far too many of us men in position to do so refuse to create spaces that allow us to speak freely, openly, about how we define manhood, that many of us — due to fear, ignorance, hatred, or all of the above — are unwilling or unable to redefine manhood in a way that is rooted in peace, nonviolence, and, yes, love. I believe it is because we men have been brainwashed into believing we are somehow weak or “less than men” if we express ourselves, if we say what we are afraid of, what has hurt us, what makes us vulnerable. What we do not get is that such limited and underdeveloped definitions of manhood put us in a prison, a warped male prison, where no one benefits and many are more likely to be injured or destroyed.
Given that the most popular sport in America, football, is so violent that it harks back centuries to the era of brute-like mindless gladiators, you have a recipe for a culture riddled with violence, including against women and girls. You then do not think about the fact that as we set television viewing records every Super Bowl Sunday there is also massive sex trafficking happening in each Super Bowl city, of grown men seeking paid sexual favors from females, quite a few under-aged girls. And when your sport and its commissioner do not fully take seriously the endless head traumas and physical injuries to its players, why would there even be a healthy and sincere regard for the safety of women and girls?
As for my Black community, specifically, this is a difficult scenario because Ray and Janay Rice are African American, and they have become the latest Black celebrities who are the poster children for one bad and dysfunctional behavior or another in the country. Yes there has been media overkill and sensationalism, and yes the American media does seem to get off when it is Black folks putting forth pitiful behavior. But as my sister-friend Rhonda Bayless texted me the other day, abusers come in rainbow colors, not merely one race or culture. Ain’t just colored people acting a fool in America. Duly note the pathetic gun culture and the countless angry White males shooting up this or that public space, just because.
And while Ray may have physically knocked Janay out in that elevator, Commissioner Roger Goodell, a husband and father of twin daughters, has likewise knocked out countless female fans by the way he has ineptly handled this entire saga, before and after Ray Rice. Word, the male prison is real, son—
So the National Football League has become a place as sinister as the National Basketball Association was by the late 1970s, just before Magic and Bird joined and transformed that league. The NBA was loaded with violence and drug abuse. The NFL must decide if it wants to be the National Felons League or the National Football League. It must also decide what kind of real and lasting position it is going to take against domestic violence, just as it has around breast cancer awareness. It must decide, along with the players union, what kind of real programs are going to be put in place to educate every single player, year after year, about how we define manhood, how we regard women, and what a healthy and loving relationship should look like, without forever blaming women for every single infraction.
For Ray Rice and Janay Rice, it is so very obvious to me that both are profoundly wounded and troubled young human beings. I’ve been that person in my own life. Their lives and that incident being splashed across media worldwide does not help. But their thinking they can unite and stick together and work this out, together, is not reality either, based on my experiences of counseling and working with both women and men these past two decades. Ray needs nonstop counseling, and Janay needs nonstop counseling. For the sake of themselves, for the sake of the little daughter they have. Ray needs to rethink manhood and Janay needs to rethink womanhood, and both need to rethink what self-love and love are, what those things should be. Heck, we all do. I can hear the voices of the males I have worked with right now: “I need help.” I can hear the voices of the females who’ve confided in me after being abused: “I need help.”
Sad truth is we all need help. Yet indeed, for the rest of us in America, this is a teachable moment, no doubt. I cannot speak for anyone else but I have been a huge sports fan since I was a child, including football. Between the concussions and other debilitating injuries and suicides and reckless behaviors and the parade of players who’ve been arrested in the past few years for domestic violence and other violent infractions, it makes you wonder how we can actually separate an extremely violent sport from extremely violent behavior? I do not know if we really can, if it is now too late. The league has grown so fast, become so popular and powerful, that it has become drunk and stupid on its own juice. And as someone who states often how much I now believe in and cherish peace, it is very hard for me to support any longer a sport that is so anti-peace, and so anti-justice, when it comes to women and girls.
And while there may only be fewer than 2000 players in the National Football League, their reach and influence is global, touching and serving billions, quite literally. That said, men hurt and abuse because we think we can, because we’ve been taught we can. Perversely, destructively, men get to teach other men and boys, directly and indirectly, how to be men. Thus the questions become what, precisely, are we teaching, and at the cost to who now, later, and forever?