It feels counterintuitive to suggest that straight black men as a whole possess any sort of privilege—particularly the type of privilege created for and protected by whiteness. In America, we are near or at the bottom in every relevant metric determining quality of life. Our arrest and incarceration rates, our likelihood of dying a violent death, our likelihood of graduating high school and attending college, our employment rates, our average net worth, our likelihood of surviving past 70—I could continue, but the point is clear.
But assessing our privilege (or lack thereof) on these facts considers only our relationship with whiteness and with America. Intraracially, however, our relationship to and with black women is not unlike whiteness’s relationship to us. In fact, it’s eerily similar.
We’re the ones for whom the first black president created an entire initiative to assist and uplift. We’re the ones whose beatings and deaths at the hands of the police galvanize the community in a way that the beatings and sexual assaults and deaths that those same police inflict upon black women do not. We’re the ones whose mistreatment inspired a boycott of the NFL despite the NFL’s long history of mishandling and outright ignoring far worse crimes against black women. We are the ones who get the biggest seat at the table and the biggest piece of chicken at the table despite making the smallest contribution to the meal.
And nowhere is this more evident than when considering the collective danger we pose to black women and our collective lack of willingness to accept and make amends for that truth. It’s a damning and depressing paradox. When speaking about race and racism, we want our concerns and our worries and our fears to be acknowledged. We want white people to at least make an effort to understand that our reality is different from theirs and that white supremacy is a vital and inextricable part of America’s foundation, and we grow frustrated when they refuse to acknowledge their role—historically and presently—in propagating it.
When the racism isn’t blatant or doesn’t appear to exist at all, we want them to give us the benefit of the doubt. Because we’ve trained ourselves to be able to sense it—even in minute and barely perceptible amounts—because our safety depends on our recognition of it. We share how it feels to be stopped by a police officer, or perhaps to walk into an all-white bar and have each eye trained on us, or perhaps to jaunt down a street in an all-white neighborhood, and we want them to understand how words and gestures they consider to be innocuous can be threatening, even if there’s no intention of malice.
Although we recognize that not all white people are actively racist, we want them to accept that all benefit from racism, and we become annoyed when individual whites take personal exception and center themselves in any conversation about race, claiming to be one of the “good ones” and wishing for us to stop and acknowledge their goodness.
But when black women share that we pose the same existential and literal danger to them that whiteness does to us; and when black women ask us to give them the benefit of the doubt about street harassment and sexual assault and other forms of harassment and violence we might not personally witness; and when black women tell us that allowing our cousins and brothers and co-workers and niggas to use misogynistic language propagates that culture of danger; and when black women admit how scary it can be to get followed and approached by a man while waiting for a bus or walking home from work; and when black women articulate how hurtful it is for our reactions to domestic abuse and their rapes and murders to be “what women need to do differently to prevent this from happening to them” instead of “what we (men) need to do differently to prevent us from doing this to them,” their words are met with resistance and outright pushback. After demanding from white people that we’re listened to and believed and that our livelihoods are considered, our ears shut off and hearts shut down when black women are pleading with us.
Making things worse is that black women and girls are also black people in America—a fact we seem to forget whenever possessing a bad memory is convenient. The effects of racism—metaphysical and literal—and the existential dread and dangers felt when existing while black are not exclusive to black men and boys. They face the same racisms we do and the same doubts from whites about whether the racism actually exists that we do, and then they’re forced to attempt to convince their brothers and partners and friends and fathers and cousins and lovers of the dangers of existing as black women, and they’re met with the same doubts. The same resistance. The same questions. They are not believed in the (predominantly white) world or in their (predominantly black) communities. And we (black men) remain either uninterested in sincerely addressing and destructing this culture of danger and pervasive doubt or refuse to admit it even exists.
I’m not quite sure where I first heard “straight black men are the white people of black people.” I know I read a version of it recently in Saki Benibo’s “The 4:44 Effect.” Mela Machinko tweeted, “Cishet black men are the white people of black people” over a year ago and apparently received so much criticism for it that she temporarily locked her account. But in a conversation we had earlier today, she shared that her tweet was actually a revision of another tweet she’d read. (A month after Mela’s tweet, it was revised again by @rodimusprime.) I also know that I’ve read pieces and been a part of conversations connecting our (black men’s) relationships with black women to the relationships we have with white people but never quite heard it articulated this way.
Either way, that statement, that phrasing and what they suggest are shocking and succinct: simple, subtle and fucking scary.
And it’s true.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a columnist for GQ.com, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)