Q&A: Social Scientist Discusses Hypermasculinity and Black Men

January 14, 2011  |  

The way hypermasculinity is referred to in academia and the media, it seems to put men in a limited box. For example, either they are aggressive and overtly sexual, or they are possibly looked at as being feminine or homosexual. What’s the consequence of this?

I think one of the problems we have is that black men don’t have room to partake in the fullness of masculinity that I think white men are able to. There are things that I do that I think don’t come off as hypermasculine or butch. So people would look at me and say, ‘I wonder if he’s gay? He doesn’t play sports, he’s not really aggressive, he’s not hitting on women all the time…what’s his story?’ They expect me to do all those things as a black man. Or, I don’t do any of those things as a black man and though people don’t automatically go to ‘is he gay?’ they just say, ‘oh, he acts white.’ Why? Because the way that I do masculinity doesn’t look like gay masculinity—that would be even more extreme—it looks like white masculinity.  But it certainly catches people’s attention and they say, ‘you’re not the average black guy.’ We make the average black guy hypermasculine.

Usually when we’re talking about masculinity it really sort of starts with white men. Then we’ve had to expand it because people ask, ‘what about black men, or working class men, or gay men, or Hispanic men?’ What winds up happening is black masculinity is something different than white masculinity. Then we start to [visualize] black masculinity as having a particular look that doesn’t look like white masculinity. I argue that black masculinity has very masculine approaches and very non-masculine approaches that look very different from the way white men do masculinity.

It also depends on how we’re measuring masculinity. If you ask someone what’s a man and they say masculinity is a man that takes care of his family. Well, a lot of social circumstances prohibit black men from being able to take care of their family, which means that we’re not hypermasculine and we’re not masculine in that case, we’re hypo-masculine—we’re not fully masculine. What you see in literature is that black men are either too masculine, too hypersexual, too hyper-aggressive, or on the other hand, they’re hypo-masculine. We don’t talk about black men as just masculine.

In your chapter, you write, “one can see scapegoating clearly with regard to the concept of hypermasculinity.” Can you extend on this idea?

One of the reasons we tend to use labels is to say that those people aren’t us and when there’s a lot of social problems in the world, it’s great to say not only are those people not us, but those people are the problem. I think what hypermasculinity does is enable people to say that the problem for the black community are those black hypermasculine men. It makes it easier to categorize a particular group and say that’s not us. That’s where the scapegoating becomes easy because we can actually label them and say it’s those hypermasculine people.

What needs to be done to start changing the discourse around hypermasculinity?

We need to get people to be vigilant about the use of the word. We’re not trying to change the fact that some black men do have something that looks like excessively masculine behavior but what we don’t want to do is to use [the term] hypermasculine to sum up what it is we think we are talking about. We have to be more cautious in our use of the word and not just slap it on as shorthand for a particular kind of masculinity.

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