The Incident: A Wreck At the Intersection of Toxic Masculinity and Race
Guest Post by DCG DADvisor Neil Tift
Outreach Project Director of Native American Fatherhood & Families Association
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story was written in the summer of 1993. Sadly, it is still relevant in today's conversation about race, masculinity, and how we raise our sons.
“Small boys become big men through the influence of big men who care about small boys.”
~ Author unknown
I walked in the door ready to question my son about some trivial problem that I thought required immediate parental attention. He was sitting on the couch holding an ice bag to his head. Zach didn’t look like the usual jovial gentle man-boy I have been proudly raising for 17 years. Then I saw why.
His left eye was closed and badly bruised. His left ear was mangled. His lips were three times their usual size. Two front teeth were dislodged. His nose was a shape I had never seen before. His face, neck, and arms were bloodied and scraped. And his breathing was labored and shallow. My initial reaction was to run to him and hold him to try to make it all better, but I couldn’t find any place to touch that wouldn’t seem to hurt him even more.
The next few hours were spent cleaning him up, calmly asking lots of questions about what happened, and determining what had already been done to attempt to treat his injuries. To make a long story short, Zach was the victim of a hate crime. He had been jumped, beaten, kicked, and brutalized because he was a different color than three young men who were out to hurt someone on a dark street that Saturday evening in south Minneapolis.
I tried to help him the best that I could. As I struggled to comfort him and offer the loving response that any caring father naturally offers their battered child, I became aware of the torrent of emotions within me to figure out what I was really feeling. Rage, pity, anger, sadness, revenge, frustration, and impotence came to mind.
Why Zach? One of the most tolerant and accepting kids I know, whose best friends are Chief, who is Ojibwa, Johnnie, who is Vietnamese-American, and Harry, Jay, and Elijah, who are African American. But then I realized that this response implies that it’s OK to attack kids who don’t have friends of color.
Why Zach? Although he is 6’ 2” and a big strong kid, he is a gentle adolescent who enjoys babysitting his little brothers and his favorite job was working at a summer camp for children with special needs.
Why Zach? Someone who is so good and decent and caring that he will share anything he has with someone in need. Then I realized that this response implies that terrible things should only happen to bad and uncaring people-like Osama bin Laden or Dick Chaney.
I was aware that Zach might start experiencing nightmares or flashbacks as a result of this incident. But I found myself having nightmares of large, angry, Black young men hitting Zach with baseball bats, then kicking and stomping him as he tried to crawl away. What made it so painful was this is actually what did happen. The large scabs on his elbows and wounds on his head attested to this fact.
...models of male socialization need to continue to be examined and redefined. A key barrier to growing healthy boys is to impose a narrow understanding of acceptable male emotional expression.
As I came to grips with all of this, I was truly fortunate to have a circle of healthy friends, men of different races with which I could call to help me process these horrible conflicting feelings. I called one of them on Sunday and he listened and helped calm me down. I met with another friend on Tuesday to help me get a grip on how to respond in a relatively calm way. As I sorted some of these through and talked and cried and ranted and wondered aloud, I came – stumbled, really – to several conclusions.
Random acts of violence are just that – random. Stranger-on-stranger crimes select those who look vulnerable, not those who don’t like my son. They probably weren’t attacking him because of the individual that he was, but because he was there, alone, and looked different from them.
The racial component really bothered me a lot. I didn’t want to develop racist attitudes and feelings toward anyone. My wife, Denise, Zach, and I had shared our home with a Black family for five months, recently, until they got back on their feet. Over half of the teenagers traipsing through our home to wish Zach a speedy recovery were adolescent boys of all races and backgrounds. My daughter is Latina, and two of my grandsons identify as African American. So I wasn’t too worried that our family would suddenly turn racist. But I was having trouble coping with the potential repercussions of this incident.
For several weeks, I had nightmares that kept me from being able to sleep soundly and I found myself resenting that. My temper was quicker and louder responding to trivial things that typically didn’t get to me.
I also found myself trying to be more protective of Zach. I tried limiting some of his normal routine to allow him to heal but also to keep him safe. I felt terrible that I had not been able to protect him from this vicious level of violence and hate that was so one-sided.
I looked for programs in our community that would offer us help to deal with the grief and loss that we were experiencing. But in the entire Twin Cities, I found no organization, no social service agency, no professional assistance for men or fathers trying to cope with such a sudden and violent incident. And there were none.
First, I couldn’t protect him and now I couldn’t locate help to get him through the healing process. I felt I was failing him as a dad.
Then I came to realize that more than race, income, neighborhood, or age, it was really a gender thing. It had to do with messages about male initiation, acceptance of violence in some circles, and how we glorify fighting and engaging in brutal battles.
What are we teaching and telling our boys, our sons, about masculinity and virility and self-image, about “being tough” or coming of age or fitting in?
We lionize men of action who tell us to settle our differences through the use of fists or martial arts or weapons of destruction, rather than through negotiation or non-violent communication. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damm, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, and Steven Segal do not portray images of mediation or cooperation. They illustrate conflict resolution through annihilation and destruction. I don’t know if these are rationalizations or reasons. Perhaps I will never know.
It merely confirms what we have been realizing of late, that models of male socialization need to continue to be examined and redefined. A key barrier to growing healthy boys is to impose a narrow understanding of acceptable male emotional expression. For example, when we tell our sons not to cry, that doesn’t stop the hurting, it only stops the healing. If we require our boys to repress and mask their sensitive feelings, this will result in expressions of secondary feelings that come out as anger, rage, jealousy, manipulation, aggression, or worse.
Men have to show boys that our range of emotions is healthy and normal, and we must have rules to guide our emotional responses. We must teach tolerance of diversity and acceptance of differences. That rites of passage to manhood are positive and affirming, not destructive and vindictive.
As I was able to proceed through my healing process, I found myself working even harder to talk to young men and fathers about the critically important responsibility we have to shape the future of our communities. We must do this by promoting and modeling non-sexist, non-racist, non-violent behaviors that value the unique potential of us all.
We men, as fathers and brothers and sons, must decide that this is the time and the place to raise boys who will make wise choices to live as grounded and respectful young men.
Neil Tift, MA, and his wife Denise have been foster parents of children and then adults for the past 25 years and provide training to foster parents and ADH providers. He is a family mediator, college instructor, parent educator, game developer, birth father, adoptive father, foster father, and grandfather. For more than 40 years, Neil has worked with at-risk clients, and he has established programs for low-income fathers in Minnesota, Maryland, and Arizona for the past 30. Currently, Neil is Outreach Project Director for the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association in Mesa, Arizona.