“We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”—bell hooks
How do we learn patriarchy? That’s like asking how we learn to breathe. In our memories of Black boyhood, we can sense it everywhere. It was all around us all the time—sometimes overt, sometimes just below the surface. Our families were different in many ways, and our experiences unique. But there are patterns.
We absorbed patriarchy from the men and boys in our lives. We watched some work themselves to the bone, as too many Black men do. Some were stoic, never allowing their emotions to show. They couldn’t give us language with which to express our feelings. We were told by them in so many ways that our value was determined by how hard we worked and what we produced—by how tough we were.
In some instances, patriarchy was taught to us by women. For example, one of us grew up in a church in which his grandmother was a lead pastor, and yet the teachings of that church reinforced traditional gender roles and, by extension, male domination— and the “special” place of the male. These firsthand observations and experiences of patriarchy were reinforced and heightened by the media we consumed. From movies and television, to music, to the evening news, messages of sexist oppression—myths, stereotypes, and lies—about gender abounded.
There were some counterpoints. Among the people who raised us were Black feminists who didn’t know or didn’t use that word but didn’t have to. Their values were made clear in the respect they claimed and demanded, and by the things they wouldn’t tolerate. But just as not having the language to express feelings makes it harder to do so, not having the language to name, and therefore to critique, the overarching system in which we lived caused confusion. That confusion lives in the body.
Patriarchy is so ubiquitous and so devious that even people and organizations who oppose it in theory can end up colluding with it. We experience it as a relapsing illness. Some of its symptoms, which are most observed in workplaces, include:
- The belief that there is one right way of doing everything, and we alone know what it is
- Expecting others to just “deal with” conditions and expectations they deem unfair or harmful
- Individualistic rather than collective notions and expressions of leadership
- Fear of vulnerability and intimacy
- Commitment to inflexible hierarchy
- Power hoarding
- Prioritizing performance and production over care and protection
In our work at the intersection of race, gender, and class, we aim to dismantle and transform systems toward justice and liberation for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Centering that vision, we’ve both helped found and build organizations. We have the language now to name and critically discuss imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, and the ways they sustain and reinforce each other. We understand the toxicity of patriarchy’s domination-and-power-obsessed form of masculinity. We know that it results in anger, violence, shame, and soul destruction. It harms both the women and gender-expansive people who are oppressed by it, and the men who lose themselves to it.
But what do we do about the patriarchy we absorbed through osmosis; the patriarchy that we swim in, ignore, perpetrate, and benefit from? How do we flush it from our bloodstream and reflexes, and from the stories baked into our senses of self as Black men and as leaders? How do we heal from the pain it inflicts? And how does our failure to do so vigilantly and consistently undermine our ability to create the transformations we seek?
We both have countless examples from our work of how we have exhibited some of the symptoms of patriarchy to varying degrees. Internalized patriarchy has made it so that we miss or ignore signs.
Both of us can recall asking Black women who are friends and trusted colleagues for feedback on spaces and gatherings that we helped design and facilitate—and being shocked by what we heard. The women shared that although the conversations themselves were thoughtful and invigorating, they had sometimes felt unsafe in the spaces we created. During social events, men came on to them. The women found it demeaning and demoralizing. They gave specific, appalling, examples. Perhaps even more appalling, though, were our failures to presume those possibilities, to be intentional about designing against them, and to be attentive to them so that we could address the harm.
And we’ve both had moments as leaders when we’ve looked around us—again, at the prompting of Black women—and realized that the people we were building our organizations and movements with were predominantly men. We tried to make excuses for ourselves—those were the most qualified people; they were the ones we knew deeply and trusted. But our excuses rang hollow. We needed to do better. We have done better since.
One of us stepped back from leading the consulting firm he founded—Frontline Solutions—to make way for a brilliant Black woman, Melissa DeShields to take over. The other author recently co-founded an organization—Black Men Build—that is explicitly about organizing Black men to love and serve communities, to be critical thinkers, truth-tellers, and teachers, and to transform to meet this moment. The organization hired women in mission-critical leadership positions from the start.
One of the most dangerous symptoms we’ve recognized in ourselves is fear of vulnerability. We understand the work we do as a lifelong commitment. It’s heart work. Yet, we have often approached it in the same way as we watched some Black men approach their work when we were kids. We withheld parts of ourselves. We refused care from others and dismissed self-care as unimportant. But of course care is an antidote to the violence and harms of patriarchy. Lack of care is precisely what we are up against. But, even now that we embrace that truth, and recognize vulnerability and care as core parts of our work, it is still a struggle.
From these and other experiences, we’ve learned that dismantling patriarchy inside ourselves, and healing from it, requires ongoing principled interrogation, both as individuals and in our organizations.
What does that look like? It looks like going to therapy and encouraging and supporting our colleagues in doing the same. It looks like reading Black feminist texts, discussing them with the people we work and organize with, and doing the hard work of making the words live and breathe in our work.
It looks like building reflective practices into everything we do. This doesn’t mean just debriefing. It means holding up the mirror to ourselves. It means regularly naming and interrogating our norms, practices, and policies. What isn’t serving us? How are we upholding the status quo and enabling patriarchy to thrive? What should we get rid of?
It looks like developing shared approaches to offering feedback. It looks like having open, honest, and regular conversations about how power is distributed. And it looks like normalizing care in everything we do.
With patriarchy taking up space in our bodies, relationships, and organizations, we’re cutting off a whole part of our humanity. We can’t breathe or feel fully or freely because we live in fear of being exposed as weak or wrong. In that diminished state, we won’t be able to create a world that is different from what we have now.
If we truly want to do transformational work, we can’t be afraid of the diagnosis. We all have internalized patriarchy. Go get checked out. Run toward knowing yourself. Ask for feedback. Acknowledge your fear and do it anyway.