A Black Man Ain’t Nothing: Male Privilege and Suffering In Silence

My Dear Readers:

I have dedicated this year to exploring the harm that male privilege inflicts within the African-American community. I am very much aware that male privilege is alive and well in all communities regardless of race.  However, in this blog, I intend to focus on the culture of silence that exists within the African-American community.

In the blog Just World Trauma And the Loss of Individual Responsibility (4.27.15), I wrote about the sexual assault of a young woman by three young men in broad daylight on a beach as she lay unconscious. I remain troubled by two questions that I posed in the blog:

  • Why would these men engage in behavior in which they know to be morally wrong and outside the value system of the communities from they come from?
  • Why would these young men engage in behavior that would not only result in criminal charges, but ultimately result in incarceration and lifetime registration as sexual offenders?

In the earlier blog, I suggested that the men involved in the sexual assault were engrossed in a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink.”  When a person is engaged in groupthink, individuals surrender their personal responsibility and allow the group’s collective behavior, which may be dominated by another member, to become the norm and the acceptable direction for themselves.

However, I believe that the reasons (not justifications) for the behavior of these young men extend further than groupthink. Instead, I believe that the young men were responding to historical trauma.  Furthermore, I would suggest they were acting in the manner of “male privilege,” which is a response to historical trauma.

Historical trauma is best described as “the intergenerational transmission of responses to cumulative massive trauma associated with historical events that affects a given culture, group, country, religion or ethnicity.” Historical trauma and its intergenerational transmission is one of the many traumas that can frequently impact African-Americans, in some cases, on a daily basis.

All African-Americans are descendents of people who were traumatized by slavery, so it is safe to say that all African-Americans have unresolved issues of historical trauma due to being descendents of slaves and the ramifications of segregation.  Both of these systems—slavery and segregation—were supported by violence (lynching, beatings) or threats of violence (burning of crosses).

There are six factors that tend to lead to the intergenerational transmission of cumulative massive trauma.  These include:

  • Economic exploitation
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Physical coercion: killing, threats of physical force, police violence, promotion of chemical dependency
  • Exclusion from power, including the use of the law to invoke control, denial of voting rights, lack of representation
  • Control of ideology, culture and religion: forcing of a religious system, control of language, and:
  • Fragmentation within the culture: promoting a select few from the subordinate group and giving them special benefits, the creation of competition and envy.

Historically, the African-American community simply weathered these challenges like the sturdy oak tree sways to and fro during intense and mighty storms.  In this case, the intense and mighty storms are the ongoing assaults of racism, oppression and discriminatory treatment by institutions of the majority, formal and informal while state, local and federal governments stood idle and silent.

Male privilege in this case presents itself as communal protectiveness of black men.  It is a legacy of slavery, the years following the Civil War, and racial violence that had occurred since that era.  Male privilege in the African-American community was a communal response during a period from 1870 to 1968 in which 3,959 blacks; mainly males were subjected to lynching.  Historically, due to lack of governmental protection, and repetitive violent assaults, the black community developed a method of encirclement and strategy of “silence” when it came to responding to inquiries from whites about black males.  The black community, through its many years of racism, oppression and discrimination, has learned that the system, and often the white people within it, are not to be trusted.

Consequently, the black community, specifically women, are expected to protect males as well as not expose the community to shame, disrepute, embarrassment or humiliation. As the males are protected from the system and the community is not exposed, rape therefore becomes a privilege that thrives and solely for the enjoyment of those men who take advantage of it.

In statistics provided by the federal government, we can see the reasons why the community seeks to protect black males:

  • Although people of color make up 30% of the United States’ population, they represent 60% of those in prison.
  • The prison population has grown by 700 % from 1970 to 2005.
  • The incarceration rates disproportionately impact the African-American community.
  • 1 in every 16 African-American men is incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.
  • One in every three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
  • Black males were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorist.
  • African-Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and
  • Almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police

This protection of males as a value in the community is reinforced and therefore passed from generation to generation.  However, what this creates is actually a culture of silence—not only as a barrier in which information is not shared outside the group, but it limits the information that is shared within the group.

Communal protection of males from the harshness of the criminal justice system begins early in a black adolescent’s life, and for good reason.  According to the Sentencing Project, even though African-American juveniles are 16% of the youth population:

  • 37% of their cases are moved to criminal court
  • 58% of African-American youth are sent to adult prisons.

Children become the agents of intergenerational transmission, are taught to maintain family secrets. This may result in the willingness of the family and community institutions such as churches to sacrifice individual members in order to maintain the secrecy of the larger group.

An example of this occurred in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.  In September 2012, a member of the African-American clergy pleaded guilty to 22 charges of sexual molestation and rape of boys.  As reported in the media, the clergyman admitted to sexually abusing 10 boys from 1997 through 2011.

The church hierarchy immediately went into protective mode.  The church leadership refused to provide direct assistance to or accept mental health counseling for the boys who were abused and their families. Instead, the leadership suggested its willingness to make cards and brochures regarding mental health services available to the parishioners in the church’s foyer.  To this day, it is unknown whether the sexually abused boys and their families actually received any mental health treatment or other psychological services.

Like these children, black women are expected to bear the weight of and to protect the community.  This is evidenced by the unwillingness of black women to report incest and rape or seek assistance such as mental health treatment or other psychological services. Black women are expected to stay in the protective mode and in doing so resort to “raising their daughters and loving their sons.”  The unwillingness of the family and community to report sexual assault reinforces that rape is a male privilege that will be protected by silence.

There are numerous examples of leadership within institutions of the African-American community who by their actions support rape as a male privilege.  Either maintaining silence or supporting the perpetrator, in either case, isolating and abandoning the individual who was victimized, condones this.

On such example is following the conviction of Mike Tyson of raping a beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, the nation’s largest black religious denomination supported him with a rally and petition drive to keep him out of prison.

At the same event, one well-known minister remarked,

“You bring a hawk into the chicken yard and wonder why the chicken got eaten up.  You bring Mike to a beauty contestant and all these fine foxes just parading in front of Mike.  Mike’s eyes begin to dance like a hungry man looking at a Wendy’s beef burger or something.  She said, ‘No Mike, no.’ I mean how many times, sisters, have you said ‘No’ and you mean ‘Yes’?”

Male privilege, although clearly a benefit for males, can be fully achieved only with the assistance of women.  Sometimes this assistance is voluntary and willing.  The large number of women who were supporting Mike Tyson and cheering the minister making the comments is evidence of this.

Those individuals, including children witnessing this event may come away with the understanding that women can prevent rape by altering how they dress or by acting a certain way.  Furthermore, there is the clear message that women are responsible for the prevention of rape, not that men have a responsibility to not perpetrate a rape.

It is widely known that African-American men are treated harshly by the criminal justice system.  So when a woman decides not to report a man for rape because of the knowledge of what is occurring in the penal institutions, the male is not being held accountable and male privilege is satisfied through the woman’s silence.

Furthermore as there now exists 70% of black households are headed by women without a male figure involved, there are situations in which women knowingly shelter men through protectiveness. It is a combination of exposure to historical trauma and awareness of how black males are viewed by the majority, to minimize an incident in which a sexual assault occurred.

Such minimization by women serve to blame the rape victim for the sexual assault. It is not uncommon to hear the following statements from female relatives of males accused of sexual assault to allege the following:

  • She must have done something.
  • If she had not been out there in the first place…
  • Shameful, look at what she was wearing.
  • She doesn’t look innocent to me.
  • She was probably asking for it.

Such victim blaming comments are ill directed.   This only serves to create the opportunity for males to either escape or avoid accountability thereby once again, benefiting from male privilege.

Concluding Words

As a mental health clinician, specifically a trauma specialist, I often see the emotionally and psychologically wounded who are forced to bear the weight and protect the image of the larger group.  I have listened to those victimized in sexual assault, mostly being perpetrated by people who they trusted.

Male privilege is a failed concept that cannot protect black boys and adolescents outside of the reach of the black community.  Harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests have led to high numbers of black youth coming in contact with the juvenile justice system at earlier and earlier ages. This is indicated in the following education statistics for the year 2009-2010:

  • 242, 000 were referred to law enforcement
  • 96,000 students were arrested and of this number
  • Of those numbers, black students made up more than 70% of those arrested.

It is clear that the three males who raped the unconscious woman on the beach knew what they were doing was morally and legally wrong.  It is doubtful that they considered the impact their behavior upon the young woman or themselves. It is unlikely that they realized by their actions that they would be caught, face criminal charges and if found guilty, become incarcerated and be registered and labeled as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives.

It is also unlikely that they realized that by their actions, they were not only throwing away a college education at a prestigious university and also promising careers and professional opportunities.  It is unlikely they considered any of this. Why? Because they came from a community in which they as males received the protection of male privilege.  In this case, however, the community will now revert to the model of communal protectiveness  and be silent as it seeks to avoid shame, disrepute, embarrassment or humiliation.

“To err is human” is a common expression, but we should not believe there is always room for error. In some cases there is no room for error. None.

-Ten Flashes of Light For the Journey of Life

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues.








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