Street Smarts? The Distortion of Masculinities of Color – Part III – Respect



My Master’s Thesis Community Formation at Goleta Barber’s (2009) was almost exclusively an examination of the construction of masculinities in the homosocial space of a barbershop. Over two years, I engaged in an ethnographic study and followed up with oral histories of the barbers I frequented. I learned a lot about the similarities along which masculinity is constructed for Mexican and Chicano men who grew up around the same time as I.

One of the themes that emerged from this ethnography was the concept of “respect”. In my study I focused on the positive aspects of respect as dignity in how it was used to generate a sense of self worth in contradiction to the dominant society’s message based upon the legacy of genocide, that we, men of color should kill ourselves. Even with this contradiction, there remained a distortion of the idea of respect that I identified with fear, or better said the ability to make others fear you. It was a concept of respect that was based upon male domination.

This distorted ideology of “respect” which emphasizes fear and domination is reinforced by the repressive state apparatus of law enforcement and ideological state apparati such as educational institutions, male culture, and the media. The most effective of these are the film industries (including pornography), the music industries, and consumer culture.

In a sociological study with youth of color in Oakland, Victor Rios found that youth learned to “code switch” into this performance of “acting hard” to in order to survive in the streets and specifically to resist “the violence of the state and other institutions that criminalize and punish them” (Rios, 2006: 48). The “respect as domination” modality of masculinity is based upon intimidation and maintaining a constituted power based on hierarchal social relations and is supported by patriarchy, racism, homophobia. As such, it is often embodied by the hegemonic masculinity as practiced by men involved in law enforcement, the military, and sports teams.

In a white supremacist patriarchal society such as the United States of America, dominance is the realm of straight white men. When men of color embody this masculinity, it at once reinforces the patriarchy against women but creates a racial conflict because brown men cannot embody whiteness. This conflict usually requires the confinement and premature death of men of color because by embodying the dominant masculinity, they are transgressing the hegemonic order of white supremacy. This is one reason why young men of color are systematically shot to death by white law enforcement officers who fear for their safety, and why there are so many men of color who are incarcerated to keep the threat to White Supremacy at bay. The historical legacy of the reality of Lynching is a tremendous amount of confusion for young men of color about what it means to be a man.

It is important to note that this ideology of respect as dominance is heavily marketed to youth of color through consumer culture and the media. Its negative effects are observable through the misogyny of mainstream market driven “gangsta rap” music, music videos and films. Bryant Keith Alexander (2006) argues that these capitalist constructions of racial masculinity advanced through material culture shape the dominant and distorted view of Black masculinity. This is an observation that can be applied to the construction of Latino and specifically Mexican and Chicano masculinity.


The possession of a White woman is a marker of success

The pinnacle of male dominance in this type of distorted masculinity is the possession of a white woman. In the film Scarface (1983) the white woman who is the object of desire for the main character is Elvira Hancock, the girlfriend of the drug kingpin that Tony Montana replaces. In the sequence where she becomes his object of desire, Elvira Hancock descends in a custom built elevator inside the kingpin’s mansion. Her status as a “trophy” to be used for pleasure is reinforced by her transfer to Tony Montana through the murder of the original kingpin.

Chapter three of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) is dedicated to the psychology of the fixation by men of color upon white women, “By loving me [a white woman] proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man.” (63) It is my opinion that Scarface (1983) plays out this fantasy as Tony Montana replaces a white kingpin, but with a not so subtle message that any man of color who desires to be a white man by taking a white woman as a lover will meet an early death.

Respect is gained through domination: Interrogating Rape

The legacy of the denigration of black women and the placing of white women upon a pedestal has its roots in the violent history of Slavery and later Lynching in the United States. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an anti-lynching advocate proclaimed that it was a blatant lie that black men raped white women. She argued, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women” (Wells-Barnett, 1985: 12). Further she would go on to say,

The miscegenation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women. White men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of virtue, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.(Wells-Barnett, 1892: 5)

Wells-Barnett later said,

The whites of Montgomery, Ala., knew J. C. Duke sounded the keynote of the situation — which they would gladly hide from the world, when he said in his paper, “The Herald,” five years ago: “Why is it that white women attract negro men now more than in former days? There was a time when such a thing was unheard of. There is a secret to this thing, and we greatly suspect it is the growing appreciation of white Juliets for colored Romeos.” Mr. Duke, like the “Free Speech” proprietors, was forced to leave the city for reflecting on the “honah” of white women and his paper suppressed; but the truth remains that Afro-American men do not always rape (?) white women without their consent. (Wells-Barnett, 1892:5)

The framing of desire in terms of the story of Romeo and Juliet by J.C. Duke suggest that at the turn of the 20th century, desire served a function beyond the private property trope. Though the language is unclear, as no one could ever consent to rape, Wells-Barnett offers a glimpse of the complexity of the issue, a complexity that to date we as a society have not been able to resolve.

In the 1980s, former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver embodied the confusion made possible by the socially (re)produced misogynist distortion of masculinity of his times. Even though Cleaver understood Fanon’s critique of black men seeking White approval, in Cleaver’s distress, because of his own patriarchy and the trauma of genocide, he wrongly came to believe that perpetrating sexual violence against women would lead to his own liberation.


Rape is never a means of liberation. This is precisely why Audre Lorde so eloquently asserted, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Audre Lorde, 1984). Lorde later asked, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” to which she observed, “It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable” (Lorde, 1984).

This is why addressing hetero-patriarchy and the multiplicity of oppressions experienced by all is crucial towards projects of liberation. Otherwise you have distressed individuals claiming that pathological violence that breaks the fabric of community is “revolutionary” when in reality, it maintains the order of the systems of oppression. We men must make the decision stop raping other people and support each other to understand that we are never as alone as we feel.

Your word is your bond.

One of the most quoted lines of the film Scarface (1983) in popoular culture is the following, “All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one. Do you understand?” (Scarface, 1983) At once this line reinforces the primary mandate of capitalism as advanced by the film, which is to fuck. It also creates a pseudo honor system, upon which “respect” is reduced to an act of domination. This is not of course, immediately clear, other films that followed, however expand upon this divorce of respect from human dignity and towards an economic transaction based ideology of respect that is more suitable to capitalism and by extension hetero-patriarchy.

The film, Blood in, Blood Out (1993) plays out this understanding of respect by similarly to Scarface (1983), chronicling the rise of a prison gang leader. The alternative title of this film, “Bound by Honor” clues the audience better to the recycled “Street Smarts” formula of Money, Power, Respect. In this context respect becomes nothing more than dominance, which creates a distorted understanding of the purpose of masculinity to be to excude dominance in order for others to respect you, with the subliminal message that you can only gain respect by shedding blood, murder.

This mentality sets young men of color up to fail in society, to be more likely to be incarcerated, and more vulnerable to experience and to perpetrate violence amongst themselves and against women in general. This, rather than resolve the isolation that most young men are striving to escape with the Money, Power, Respect formula, only serves to further alienate them, until they are ready to die.

Ready to Die.

According to Gregory H. Stanton, “the eight stages of genocide are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial”(Genocide Watch Briefing Paper”, p. 2). Multiple populations of people of color in the United States have been targeted and experienced genocide and currently suffer the traumatic legacy of genocide. When it comes to young men of color, this eight stage model is also (re)deployed by the repressive state apparatus of law enforcement, justice system, and the prison system against communities of color.

Edén E. Torres asserts that it is through shame and guilt that Chicana women and children are oppressed, furthermore that “oppression is not simply about political or institutional discrimination, but that it is also a form of mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional abuse,” (Torres, 2003: 40) experiences that humiliate us and that we internalize as trauma. Seattle based counseling elder Barbara Boring, has made the argument that human beings are most likely to act out distress when they feel the most victimized or humiliated. When something seems familiar to an experience we had as children, when we had no control over what was happening, we act the recording out either as victims or as aggressors, this is the legacy of that internalized trauma imposed upon us by genocide and the systems of oppression that keep us in this vicious cycle. This requires that we work together to work past our feelings of victimization and embrace the power we have by simply being alive, of having survived. It means that we have to actively support our communities to not feel alone or isolated, to rebuild the fabric of community by any means necessary.

Aurora Levins Morales reminds us that “the oppression of children is the wheel that keeps all other oppressions turning,” she asserts that “without it, misery would have to be imposed afresh on each new generation, instead of being passed down like a heritage of disease,” and ultimately that “it is through the agency of former children that the revolutionary potential of each generation of children is held in check” in our society (Levins-Morales, 1998: 51). Thus, I examine here the primary message of the films, media, television, music, video games, and material culture targeted at young men of color, that we should be ready to die.

When I was 13 years old, a rapper by the name of The Notorious B.I.G. made his debute by releasing an album titled Ready to Die (1994). The album starts with a skit of the artists birth and ends with a skit of a suicide with the rest of the tracks a chronicle of a young heavyset man of color trying to follow the Money, Power, Respect formula.

Christopher George Latore Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.) met an early death on March 9, 1997 near the neighborhood where my extended family lived in Los Angeles. He was shot to death at the age of 25. For a young man of color, who was susceptible to the messages I was bombarded with, I too developed an early death complex, believing I would not live past my 30s, or better said, that I didn’t deserve to live past 32. I was a straight A student, with perfect attendance, honor roll, an athlete, a well disciplined worker thanks to the farm that I grew up on, but I still believed in the inevitability of an early death.

Almost all of the ideological state apparatuses engaged in this essay have the final message that men of color should die, in fact the final commandments are exactly this, preferably by killing themselves. This is the the masculinity and identity that many of us have internalized, it is the reason that many of us are incarcerated, and it is the reason that so many of us are in the military, and it is the reason that so many of us kill ourselves just to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.

We have to change the drive for money back into desire for life, we have to change our belief in a predestined and eminent early death to a hope that is open to human dignity and zest. To do this we must follow in the footsteps of our comrades in the south, who as I write this have just prevented a Narco-Corrido concert from taking place in my family’s ancestral homeland of Michoacan (Sedillo, December 16, 2013). This of course took place in the context where the youth of this very community have taken control of local radio station and have refused to play Narco-corridos that glorify the misogyny and violence that has sought to displace their communities and disappropriate the community of their forest commons. Like Cherán, we too must be ready to live.


One thought on “Street Smarts? The Distortion of Masculinities of Color – Part III – Respect

  1. to me, one of the most destructive actions in the usa against our Mexican familias has been mexican men marrying white women. but while saying that, I know that many familias Mexicanas wanted their sons to marry white women. In fact it was considered a source of pride if such happened. And I will be perfectly frank, to this day when I see and visit with the partners in these marriages, there is no completeness of identity between these couples.I am talking about xicanos of the 1960s-70s who got a higher ed degrees and became professionals in their fields. They then completed their attainment of power or white privilege or acceptance by marrying white. some of these couples have been married for decades. I wonder about them as I see them with no sense of love between them much less respect. Instead, what often floats to me from them is that they have accepted this position of marriage as a profession. What I know of the some of these white women is that they were heavily into the civil rights causa, that some spent much time in Latino countries learning the language and cultura. what i know of the xicanos is that they came from oppressed backgrounds.

    granted, I have married mexicanos and divorced both of them. so what do i know about good marriages. Yet, all of my senses tell me and I know they tell others that there is a vast world of difference between the level of soul-life-intimacy reached by Mexicano couples with each other and by that reached between Mexicano/white couples. I also know that we all know that, we just do not express it because how do you prove that that lack of intimacy not only does not exist between mexicano-white couples, but simply can not exist between them because cultura is the soul we are born with. And only another person with that same dna can know and identify down to the marrow our connection with another mexicano.

    just my thoughts, no way to prove I am correct in my thinking/ lots of ways to prove I am wrong.

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