Archive for May 19th, 2010


The “Good Fight”? : A Man’s Relationship to Violent Imagery

May 19, 2010

A while back, I wrote a post (here and at Racialicious) that covered my tendency to channel emotions like anger and frustration into my art and teaching, using those so-called "negative" feelings as fuel for anti-oppressive works. I made references to being "violently peaceful" and how I often thought of my words as verbal punches against oppression.

My readers had a lot of different thoughts on that piece, positive and otherwise, but one Racialicious commenter’s words, in particular, really stuck with me. In short, this commenter basically touched on – what should have been – an obvious point: that my piece, although I intended it to be applicable to women as well as men, came from a very "standard" masculine point of view; a male culture that is taught to embrace violence in many ways. With that in mind, my intentions meant little in regard to the fact that I was really playing up to a "masculine" ideal and quite possibly dismissing half of the world’s population. (*1)

Let’s just say I’ve been digesting and working over these thoughts for months now (doing other things, too, of course), and I think I’m finally ready to write about it.

This post is going to examine the culture of violence in one man’s life (mine), with a focus on this question: "How does a man of color struggle against oppression without using violent imagery?"

There are probably a ton of readers out there that have an immediate, obvious answer to this question, but it’s one I’ve had a very hard time answering for myself. Why? Because I grew up in the States. As a male. And the media and people around me very much encouraged me to make violence a part of my identity.

From the very beginning, a concept of manhood was pressed on me (by my environment, not my parents) that made fighting and imitation-violence a major focus. Toys "for boys" were GI Joes and other fighting-type "action figures." The movies aimed at me (and that I enjoyed) generally involved shooting and fighting. The "manly" heroes were generally the ones who could beat up the most people.

When I was a little kid, I thought ninjas were the sh– (I actually kind of still do). I’d run around all day, trying to walk like a ninja, throwing imaginary weapons at faux enemies, and then jump-kick and punch them to an early demise. I would then make some sort of Bruce Lee-esque "whaaaa!" and move on. (*2)

As I got a bit older, "Big Trouble in Little China" became my all-time favorite movie. (*3) I moved from ninjas to a different form of martial arts bad-ass-ness – imaginary swordplay and pretending to be able to shoot lightning at attacking hordes.

I also started reading a lot of fantasy novels involving magic and knights and battles and wars – and, in my daydreams, I would put myself front and center as the most-skilled warrior of all. I would spend hours outside with my favorite stick, attacking weeds and battling to victory.

I watched a lot of action movies. I played "Sniper" with my b-b gun. My friends and I created a game we called "Hostage Situation," in which one or two of us would play cops trying to deal with "terrorists" who were holding a couple civilians hostage. (*4) It involved a lot of shooting and killing of each other. And we loved it.

In elementary school, I got into a few fights.

In middle school, I got into a few fights.

In high school, I got into a few fights.

I never really felt like I "started" any of those fights (even though, in hind-sight, some of my actions led to them), but I found myself in them, nonetheless. Because I was encouraged to "stand up for myself" and not let other people "push me around." No matter how much bigger than me somebody was, if I felt like I needed to stand up, I stood up, and I wasn’t going to back down. And "not backing down," in my mind, usually meant getting ready to throw blows.

I played football through high school- a cornerback, my strength and willingness to really hit somebody stood out to my coaches, opponents, and even some college scouts. Asian kids can’t play football? Every week it was my goal to prove that that was a load of B.S., and I took out some of that pressure on opposing players (always cleanly, but hard). And I enjoyed it. It felt good. The rush that coursed through me after I knocked some other guy on his ass? Beautiful.

But high school ended, and I had to make a direction-changing (at that point) decision – in picking between two colleges, I had to choose either to continue playing football at one school, or to focus on academics at another school. After a lot of deliberation up until the midnight deadline, I chose academics. And, with that, my little "outlet" for violent tendencies disappeared.

Interesting thing is, I found myself in the middle trying to break up fights throughout college – never getting into one, myself. I was the cool head. I was the one pissed off at my stupid (usually drunk, but not always) friends trying to "be a man" by getting into it with some other idiot. I was throwing my "friends" out of strangers’ parties because they were trying to start sh– with people for no reason. When a group of my friends loaded up the car to head over to stomp some frat kids for threatening another friend . . . I went out for pizza. I found myself hanging out with groups of female friends more often – because, with them, I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of crap.

I’d like to say that that’s all there was to it. That, from then on, I was this enlightened, non-violent guy who went around defusing fights. But that was hardly the case.

Because I still had it in me to "never back down." There were a couple times when I was breaking up other people’s stupid fights when one of the guys involved would run their mouth and threaten me. In those cases, I never swung, but I definitely puffed up a bit, did the "glare" and responded with less-than-peaceful words. It was ingrained. It was in my blood. I couldn’t "let" somebody talk to me like that. I wasn’t going to get punked by some fool who I was keeping out of a fight. And afterwards? I hate to say it, but I’d imagine kicking that guy’s ass, in detail.

Ultimately, I was glad that I hadn’t actually fought, but there was a part of me – always – that kind of wished I had.

And I struggled with that. Still do. Because I have absolutely zero respect for those guys who have to prove themselves with violence. Guys too insecure to just let people be. Who pick on smaller, physically "weaker" people. Who prey on others. Who even joke about laying a hand on their partners. Who ruin lives due to a need for some sort of never-achieved "masculinity."

And yet . . . I still have these little violent daydreams . . . some f—-er drops some racist ish in a conversation, and I gleefully imagine breaking his nose. Some guy puffs up on the subway with somebody half his size, and I fantasize about knocking him out. I watch a movie, and I get all pumped up when the protagonist gets violent revenge on the enemies that killed his family . . .

It’s in me. This secret affair with violence – while I’m walking through the world, consciously trying to eliminate the violence of oppression; trying to teach my kids peaceful alternatives to physical fights; mentoring kids in the arts, so they can engage their emotions instead of just letting them out. How can I reconcile these two extremes? Because I honestly, fully believe that changing the culture of violence in the lives of kids of color (especially) is a huge key to leveling the playing field. I whole-heartedly believe in being a male role model who celebrates non-violence and defines manhood by being confident enough to let somebody puff up without needing to do anything about it.

But then I play some competitive football and hit somebody . . . and I revel in it. I watch (and enjoy) violent movies. I put aggressive passion into my poetry and other writing.

And I talk about anti-oppression work as if it’s a war. That’s the kicker for me. The other stuff is mostly internal work that is going to take me some time to deconstruct and move away from – but at least I have no need or inclination to actually act on it. But when I think – and talk – about oppression? I think violently.

I think about "fighting" oppression. I think about "choosing my battles" in order to save my strength and more effectively "fight back." I talk about being on "the front lines" and "battling" it out. I talk about "hitting back" against oppressors, "knocking the privilege out of people’s mouths," "bringing the top down," "blowing up" stereotypes.

Even when I think about oppressed peoples standing up for themselves (which is positive and necessary), I’m still using the "can’t back down" mentality that got me into all those physical fights as a kid. I get stubborn and dug in. That ignorant, sub-conscious racist guy I work with? I’ll show him what’s up.

And it’s all making me start to wonder. Because I largely think (and explain myself and the world) in metaphors and analogies. I come up with a strong metaphor for a situation that is difficult, and I use the mechanics of the metaphorical situation to help me solve the problems of the literal one.

What does that mean? Well, say dealing with racism is walking through a windstorm. You’re constantly buffeted by gusts and little crap that’s being flung through the air – but if you put your collar up, get a forward lean going, you can still make some progress and be somewhat unaffected by it. But then some bottle cap gets flung up and hits you in the ear, and it really stings. And that’s the last straw – that’s it – that pain from such a little thing just makes you lose it, and suddenly you’re cursing this windstorm, tearing up, frustrated, and you just stop moving forward and kind of wallow in how much you hate dealing with this. You want to quit.

That’s being a person of color (in the States, at least). So I use this metaphor to explain why "just a joke" is never "just a joke" – because we’re in a freaking windstorm, and there’s so much sh– flying through the air. I also use it to build myself up, to not let one bottle cap keep me from pushing forward to my goals. To find ways to buffer myself against the wind while keeping that forward, positive momentum. Because, once you stop and let your body give up a bit, it’s so much harder to get moving again.

Right. Metaphors. So my problem here is that my metaphor for the struggle against oppression, in general – is a war. Is violent. Standing up for myself is great, but not if I’m thinking in terms of showing somebody else what’s up. It changes the dynamic. If I’m talking about race, and every white person becomes my enemy – how the Hell am I ever going to get enough help to bring real change? If I’m looking at this as a running battle – a war – that means I’m looking to inflict damage on some sort of "enemy." And that comes through in how I speak, how I interact, the particular solutions I tend to find most feasible. And it becomes apparent to that "other side."

And, suddenly, they have good reason to fear me. To feel threatened by me. To get defensive and start fighting themselves.

And then what?

That cycle of violence (even if it’s just metaphorical). Because, ultimately, it goes like this – violence – in any form – only breeds a need for revenge in the victim. That revenge may be aimed at the perpetrator, but it is most often aimed at the nearest, easiest target, instead. Which then breeds the need for revenge in somebody else, totally unconnected to the original crime. And it never ends.

And thinking of the anti-oppression struggle as a violent act (war, battles, etc.) does the same thing. It just creates this cycle of "Us" vs. "Them." Me trying to win at their expense, them getting theirs at somebody else’s cost. The Oppression Olympics. Divide and Conquer. The lack of true unity . . . because we’re all fighting, all stuck in the cycle of violence.

I need a new metaphor. One that accepts no violent imagery. One that rejects it. But, as I’ve detailed above, I’m far too conditioned to think in violent terms – even as I consciously reject violence – to be able to come up with this new metaphor. I would guess that most males (at least in the U.S.) are, too.

And so I turn to the female, non-masculine half of the world to set me straight. I am not creative enough to think differently, but I believe that many of you are. What is a useful, non-violent metaphor for the struggle against oppression that all of us (especially the men) can use as a mental model to finally break the current cycle we’re stuck in?

I need to think differently. I’ve finally worked through to that point. But I’m stuck. I need help.

Ladies? The patriarchal, pissing-contest system we have in place is largely at fault for the state of the world – and it shouldn’t be your jobs to bail us out (again), but I don’t know what else to do on this one. I’m not qualified or capable of finding this new metaphor (which is probably so very obvious to you all) due to my "masculine" conditioning.

So I’m asking you for your help in developing this new model for reducing oppressive systems. This new way of thinking. (*5)

I hope what I then do with it will be more than sufficient re-payment . . .

(*1) Obviously, I’m not going to call this commenter out (even in the positive way I intend), but I’m sure that those who want more detail on the comments in question can puzzle it out for themselves.

(*2) Yes, I am very much aware that Bruce Lee is/was in no way a ninja. Ninjas were Japanese. Bruce Lee was mixed-Chinese – like me. However, as a little kid, I did not have that distinction, therefore the mixed-imitations.

(*3) I wrote a post a LOOOONG time ago about why that movie worked for me (and still does), but for now let’s just boil it down to – I actually had Chinese heroes to look up to in the movie, with a bumbling white sidekick.

(*4) Interesting "historical" sidenote – in this game, we imagined the "terrorists" as white guys like Hans Gruber and the crew in the first Die Hard movie (even though not all my friends were white).

(*5) And by "new," I mean "new for this particular male" – it’s likely common-sense old for some (or many) of you.