What is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity appears to be a topic of increasing public interest, depending on which online spaces you frequent. As a Twitter user, I straddle the academic online public sphere and the racialized virtual space of Black Twitter. While toxic masculinity is a topic germane to academics interested in gender or sexuality, the concept appears to be contested within the Black Twitter public sphere. So, what is toxic masculinity?

Dr. Terry A. Kupers defines toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence” in their 2005 article on toxic masculinity as an impediment to mental health interventions in prisons. From this definition of toxic masculinity we learn:

  1. Constellation of socially regressive male traits –  Rather than masculinity in and of itself as toxic, a common misunderstanding, there are a set of specific behaviors that work together to define a type of manhood and the way people can express it in very narrow ways that cause harm at an individual and collective level
  2. Foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence – Toxic masculinity has specific goals. These goals include a) domination of a single social group above all others; b) the perpetuation of anti-women and anti-LGBTQ values and behaviors; and c) the expression of symbolic, physical, and terroristic violence.

Is There Such Thing as Black Toxic Masculinity?

The answer to this question is complicated. To date, there are not any scholarly projects that take up of a unique racialized toxic masculinity. So where does the idea of ‘Black toxic masculinity?’ come from. My guess is that users of social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube developed this concept as a red herring. A red herring is a rhetorical strategy wherein people introduce a concept or an idea to distract from relevant or important questions. Observations of the ways Black toxic masculinity on these platforms suggests that critics of Black feminism use this term to allege that Black feminists and LGBTQ persons blame Black cisgender, heterosexual men for social problems produced by white supremacy and colonialism.

How do Black feminist and queer scholars address masculinity?

On the contrary, Black feminist scholarship and Black LGBTQ scholarship tends not to center Black cisgender, heterosexual men because these perspectives developed out of standpoint theory. Standpoint theory is the idea that marginalized people generate unique knowledge based on their experiences outside of privileged social positions. So, it’s unsurprising that those most concerned with Black toxic masculinity are cisgender, heterosexual Black men and the women who identify with them.

So why did this red herring emerge? I speculate that this red herring is meant to distract from certain social facts that reveal the ways intraracial violence and inequality is perpetuated by Black cisgender men. Black cyberfeminism informs us that Black women have been using the internet and social networking sites like Twitter to generate and share Black feminist thought and activism. In this context, social media has become a somewhat fruitful space to discuss this intraracial violence and the ways toxic masculinity encourages Black people to embrace and adopt certain behaviors that cause further harm among the most marginalized of the Black community.

What Do Scholars Say About Black Masculinity?

From a critical race theory and postcolonial perspective, it’s useful to recognize the ways colonialism and white supremacy provide the social context in which this intraracial violence emerges. However, the specific concern of Black women and LGBTQ persons is the ways Black people can act as agents of these social structures through the perpetuation of toxic masculinity. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that toxic masculinity is a set of behaviors that someone can perpetuate regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or gender. Black toxic masculinity should not be defined as a critique of Black, cisgender heterosexual men but rather an acknowledgment of the ways Black people can and do adopt toxic attitudes about manhood and masculinity perpetuated by broader society.

What Does Black Masculinity Studies Look Like?

A landmark text in Black masculinity studies is Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America written by educational psychologist Richard Majors and sociologist Janet Mancini Billson. Some Black feminists have examined the social construction of Black masculinity. In We real cool: Black men and masculinity, bell hooks addresses myths about Black masculinity, going as far back to gender relations between enslaved afro-descendant people on plantations. Riche Richardson offers an analysis of representations of Black men from the South in her book Black Masculinity and the U.S. South:  From Uncle Tom to Gangsta.

Most recent scholarly explorations of Black masculinity tend to focus on masculinity within specific areas. For example, my advisor Rashawn Ray uses critical race theory to discuss the ways Black and White men perform masculinity as members of college fraternities. Brandon A. Jackson and Adia H. Wingfield also look into the ways Black men leaders in college encourage respectable masculinity among new members to combat negative stereotypes. Additionally,  scholars today also reflect on Black queer masculinity as Eric A. Jordan and Derrick R. Brooms did in their essay on the film Moonlight.