This past week, a white man in Las Vegas took a whole mess of automatic weapons and surpassed the Pulse Nightclub slaughter as the most deadly mass shooting in recent U.S. history.
After Pulse, I had to write. I was still part of a small Christian sect with toxic theology, and I told Mennonites exactly how their beliefs and behaviors were contributing to the deaths of my queer communities.
As I watched the death toll in Las Vegas rise to 20…no, 50… no, 59, I thought about the culture and ideologies at play here, too. As of the time of my writing this, there isn’t a manifesto or connection to any group or ideology that explains this white man gathering up his weapons, entering a hotel room, and setting out to execute a crowd of concert-goers.
So Many Cis-White Men
Three words ran through my head the day of the shooting and the day after on a loop. Toxic white masculinity. Toxic. White. Masculinity.
I commented it on every friend’s Facebook post about the shooting. My feminist friends were saying it too, a variety of ways and with a breadth of emotions, from fury to grief to a dull aching acceptance.
Alicia: “At what point will our media and our politicians start naming these gross acts of violence as the acts of terrorism that they are? At what point will they rightly name these white men as terrorists? They are not “lone wolves”, they are part of a fraternal order of American men who intentionally wage war on our collective sense of safety and security as they yield to the fragility of their toxic masculinity as well that of their whiteness.
This isn’t surprising, it’s systemic. It’s not an anomaly, this is an increasingly common occurrence that we have the ability to thwart by pushing for interpersonal and legislative accountability on a number of fronts.”
Stephanie: “White supremacist capitalist patriarchy turns men into abusers, rapists, warmongers, and murderers.”
Em: “Protect America? Disarm white men.”
Today, as I was returning from a lunch meeting, I got a notification ping letting me know that a white man had responded to my comment that “Toxic White Masculinity must end.” And it got me thinking.
His first response was less than creative. I’ve been called man-hater hundreds of times in much more unique ways (hard to beat the “left hand of satan” troll).
The responder said: “How? Genocide? Forced castration? 84th-trimester abortion sanctioning?”
What a jokester, mocking me by insinuating I want to murder men and use a sharp instrument to remove the testicles of those assigned male at birth. Hilarious. And ironic, because joking about mass murder is a bit of an example of toxic white masculinity in itself. But we’ll get to that.
After his first response, he seemed to realize his comment probably wouldn’t goad me into the argument he was hoping for. He tried again.
“I want details. You’ve piqued my curiosity. I’m no expert on this issue so I defer to you.”
Oh, white man with the two first names, flattery will get you everywhere.
What is “Toxic White Masculinity” anyway?
I’ll share my response because I will admit to throwing around academic versions of terms that have much simpler explanations. I said:
Cool, I’ll take a bit of time and share a few things, but it would definitely help your education a lot to google around for some readings on masculinity. If you just type in “toxic masculinity” there are going to be some good resources right off.
Alright: Masculinity is different from men. So, don’t worry, no one’s coming for men or their genitals of any variety.
Masculinity is all the ideas about what being a man means that we’ve decided as a culture are true and important and necessary.
So: being a man means being strong, violent, aggressive. Being a man means being in charge. Etc. etc. etc. Those are just a couple typical examples.
I’m saying, let’s do social and emotional learning starting with the wee ones on up into adulthood about how there are lots of different ways to be in the world. Kind, strong, generous, outgoing, open, quiet, spirited, etc.
It isn’t essential for men to be any of these specific things in order to be “worthy” men.
When we demand certain things of someone because of what gender we need them to be, and in the case of manhood, when we punish it with ridicule, shame, violence, degradation, humiliation (see frat rituals, team rituals, etc.), it creates a toxic masculinity that is bound up in and enforced by violence.
Thus, a man picking up a weapon and using it to violent ends is not an unpredictable outcome.
It is, actually, the most predictable outcome of white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy taken to its natural conclusion.
He’s just being the most extreme man he can be.
Glad I could help.
Did I get a little glib? Is this a very 101 explanation? Did I find it necessary to throw in the term white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy? Yes to all three.
What’s a PGH Queer to do in the face of mass shootings?
However, what it really got me thinking about was how we can work to undo Toxic White Masculinity right here in Pittsburgh.
It can feel a little overwhelming when we’re looking at an embedded cultural concept like Toxic White Masculinity. But there are a variety of small and large choices that we can make every day that can have impacts.
I’m going to share some things that I have in my toolbox, acknowledging that I’m a white queer AFAB survivor of violence and the tools and choices at my disposable may be different from yours.
- I always compliment tiny AFABs on their amazing strength, fierceness, courage, bossiness, and smarts. I compliment the lil AMABs on their kindness, listening, gentleness, cute fashion, and hugs.
- I have real conversations about gender and race with kiddos I’m close to. I talk about difficult stuff, and I challenge them to consider their gender and race when interacting with their peers and when thinking about what is “fair.”
- If a community member shares with me they have experienced violence rooted in Toxic White Masculinity, I believe them, and show up in support in the ways I’m asked to.
- When I am told I have caused harm rooted in Toxic White Masculinity, I believe it, take accountability, and work to change and repair the relationship when possible.
- I intervene if I see Toxic White Masculine violence or aggression unfolding. I speak up. I stutter if I have to.
To be clear, I mess up a lot. I get defensive. I’m imperfect and wired for struggle, as the shame researcher Brene Brown would say. But I think we in queer communities need to both show up for each other and hold each other accountable.
If we want our communities to involve meaningful connections, we have to build trust. And the only way to do that is to acknowledge we’re infested with Toxic White Masculinity too. In ourselves, in our friends, in our spaces and events. And to hold accountable and take accountability, work to make changes, and show up for each other.
Otherwise, we’re just recreating the same systems among ourselves.
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