In Churches I Learned Patriarchy; In Prison I Became a Feminist

Like any Black man, I’ve had no choice but to learn how to navigate racism. But as a man, I’ve had to intentionally educate myself and correct my own sexist behavior.

Men often fear critiques of patriarchy, but I want to keep learning about feminism, which I understand to be the fight for women’s right to self-determination. I was taught to believe that a woman’s central purpose is to serve men’s needs — a message that came from both religious and secular sources. But I am learning that I can challenge that message.

With a feminist framework, I can see that my socialization into gender roles started early. My parents, mass media, the education system, and the church were all part of training me — sometimes overtly and sometime subtly — to believe that because I was male, I was superior to women. I remember being taught that boys and girls should be different in terms of their manners, clothing, toys, music, and activities. To my stepfather, even hanging around women too long was suspect.

When I was 3 years old, I found a pair of high heels while playing in my mother’s and stepfather’s closet. I was a curious kid who was always exploring the world, so I put them on and began walking around the house. My mother thought it was cute and funny. My stepfather saw nothing humorous about it and got so angry that he literally knocked me out of the shoes. He told me, “Boys don’t wear those shoes, girls do.” I enforced the same rules with my younger brothers as I got older.

My stepfather was clearly in charge of our household. He was the breadwinner and disciplinarian, and nothing happened without his consent. I learned the basic masculine/feminine stereotypes: Men are tough and are the providers. We don’t cry or show emotion; we are unwavering and always rational; we command respect; and we should rule. Women are weak and have to be provided for. They are emotional, fallible, irrational, and their purpose is to serve men. With this philosophy, disrespecting women becomes inevitable.

Growing up, I never knew how my mother felt about my stepfather’s treatment of her, how invisible she may have felt when he was in charge, or what it must have been like to love a man who never truly loved or respected her. I don’t know all the details, but I know that she endured violence.

At the same time that I was learning male-dominant behavior at home, I was hearing a message from the church that was different on the surface but similar underneath. Men should treat women with respect and care, I was told by men in the Baptist tradition I was raised in, because men are rightfully in charge at home. That kind of male dominance is part of God’s plan. I saw that idea embodied in the operation of the church, where men were in leadership roles as pastors and deacons, and women were in “helping” roles such as teaching Sunday school or cooking for the church gatherings. This kind of “benevolent sexism” might seem better than the “hostile sexism” that dominated on the street, but male dominance of any kind inevitably leads to abuse.

I learned sexist behavior before I understood what it was, and it’s not surprising that I grew up to be a teenager and young adult who played the tough guy and saw women primarily as objects to satisfy my sexual desire. But another part of the story is the sexual abuse I endured as a child at the hands of my birth father, which also contributed to treating women as sexual objects. Because of the shame I felt around being abused, I wanted to prove to myself that I was a “real man” so that no one could challenge my masculinity.

Seeing things differently

What would it take to break this cycle of abuse?

While I’ve read books about this topic, I think that men can also learn about sexism from talking with the women we know. Through phone calls and email, I asked my friend Na’Quel, a community organizer and a Black woman, to talk honestly with me about feminism and her experience as a Black woman.

“I notice in organizing spaces, in community, and at home that our issues are always up for debate instead of being listened to and treated with care,” she said. “We are often asked to choose between our race and gender when the two often work simultaneously to shape our experience.”

As an example, she said that most conversations on mass incarceration, policing, and prisons focus on the experiences of men. Black women and girls are also criminalized and incarcerated, but their struggles are discussed much less often. Na’Quel also told me how people’s fear of “the angry Black woman” is harmful in the workplace.

“Being a Black woman, I have a lens that is automatically intersectional,” she said, “but any critique or criticism I give that is meant to benefit the work and those we serve can be seen as me being angry and negative.”

I asked Na’Quel if patriarchy in the Black community is the same as in white communities.

“I believe patriarchy is global, and a lot of it is rooted in colonization and white supremacy,” she said. “Women and men of all races and cultures are affected by sexism and patriarchy and carry it out.”

Moving forward in a new way

In her classic book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, the cultural critic and Christian-Buddhist feminist bell hooks writes: “There can be no freedom for black men as long as they advocate subjugation of black women. There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate the subjugation of women.” She goes on to assert that freedom as a “positive social equality that grants all humans the opportunity to shape their destinies in the most healthy and communally productive way can only be a complete reality when our world is no longer racist or sexist.”

hooks was open about her spiritual commitments, which should remind us that spirituality need not conflict with feminism.

As a prisoner, I have been supported and accepted through my darkest days by women. It has been women who have lifted me up during my lowest moments and pushed me into the light while they stood in the shadows. They have organized in legislative buildings, sponsored programs, raised money for projects, answered prison calls, and visited me.

As liberation is the goal of many different religions, I find it difficult to label myself and have been learning from many faith traditions. For example, I have joined some of the Native prisoners here in their sweat lodge ceremonies and felt that liberating spiritual power. Feminism is one component of my ongoing development from a personal, spiritual, and political standpoint.

Previous ArticleNext Article