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By Marquis Bey
A feminist friend of mine—a 4’10” queer white woman—jokingly mocks my “bro-ness,” that is to say, my proclivity to throw around weights in the gym; my love for hip-hop; my boilerplate outfit for almost every day of the week: DC sneakers, sweatpants, black tank top, and bandana; and my eleven tattoos. It is this bro-ness that initially seemed to proscribe, for her as well as countless others, any adherence to a feminist ideology. Indeed, when one thinks “feminist” the image that conjures up is certainly not me—a powerlifting, tattooed, Black dude from Philly.
The body is the vehicle through which one acquires understanding of the world; it navigates the social realm and filters all experiences. The body is a site of signification. In the words of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “I am my body.” Or, to quote Charles Johnson, the body “is that which reveals the subject to a world, anchors him [sic] in history, thus individualizing him [sic], and makes possible perception and ‘meaning’” (p. 225).
Feminism, as an ideology to which certain bodies are hailed, seems to be codified as primarily white and/or female-bodied. Thus, white female bodies most readily signify feminist. This is by no mistake. As feminism is largely predicated on dismantling patriarchy and male supremacy, it would seem to more easily attract those bodies that are oppressed and marginalized by patriarchy and cisgendered men—women and noncisgendered people. Because of this, too, my maleness signifies hostility. Because I inhabit the corporeal vessel that has historically manufactured the very structures and ideologies that oppress women and trans people, that vessel (my body) signifies and foreshadows, quite validly from a historical perspective, an anti-feminist posture.
While my body can be read as hostile in some spaces and my “bro-ness” may appear to counteract feminist aims, I maintain that my very bro-ness is a fertile site of subversion and can do different feminist work that women and trans people may not be able to do.
First, though, it seems imperative that I outline my particular feminist standpoint as my embodiment corporeally “confesses” a legacy of hostility, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny. To begin, I am of the opinion that men can be feminists. Some female feminists argue that men cannot be feminists; feminism, they assert, is the sole terrain of women. Men are urged to identify themselves as “pro-feminists” or “feminist allies.” Black feminist Joy James “prefer[s] the terms feminism or feminist for female and profeminism or profeminist for male advocates of gender equality.” She is hesitant to concede that men “use of the label ‘feminism’ given that it now requires the qualifiers male and female to distinguish advocates for an ideology associated with females” (p. 421).
While James rightly critiques the whiteness of hegemonic feminist practices and ideologies, and is justifiably wary of men’s presence in feminist spaces, I must humbly say that James’s argument as to whether men can be considered “feminists” is unconvincing to me for a few reasons. First, the underlying logic bolsters a gender binary and effectively erases even the potentiality of trans feminist activists. What constitutes adequate womanness? Do trans people have permission to claim the appellation of “feminist”? Second, James’s assertions equate feminist with woman, making feminism by, for, and of women. Feminism seeks to interrogate the scripts inscribed into gendered bodies. James’s claims imply that “woman” is axiomatic and self-evident, rather than critiquing what it means to be a gendered body. Lastly, James fails to acknowledge that feminism is a practice; it is what one does rather than what one is.
I ascribe to Black feminist bell hooks’ argument that feminism is concerned about (or at least should be concerned about) revolutionary politics, which all people—women, men, trans, and genderqueer people—have a stake in usurping and deconstructing in terms of gender relations. What feminism does is provide the ideological conduit through which to enact change. The main problem with the notion that feminism is for “women only,” hooks suggests, is that it provides men with a political out, effectively branding feminism as “woman’s work.” According to hooks, “Even as [feminists] were attacking sex role divisions of labor, the institutionalized sexism that assigns unpaid, devalued, and ‘dirty’ work to women, they were assigning to women yet another sex role task: making a feminist revolution” (p. 68).
To return the utility of my bro-ness, a college anecdote may prove insightful.
While a junior in college I was the resident assistant (RA) of a floor of twenty-eight guys: twenty-seven were white and twenty were football or ex-football players. As an RA we were required to post four bulletin boards per semester on our floors. One of mine halfway through the Fall semester was a privilege board, donned with Peggy McIntosh-esque knapsack items spanning the big hegemonic identities:
No one asks if I think my sexual orientation is just a phase.
I can walk around outside at night and not fear that because of my gender I will be assaulted.
I can sit in the cafeteria with all people of my race and not worry about others thinking why we’re all sitting together.
I can wear what I want and have no one assume anything about my sexual availability.
There were at least a dozen others. Night after night after I posted these statements, I found them torn down. A week later, after working around my residents’ schedules, I called a mandatory hall meeting.
As my residents sat along the wall huddled around me, and the disheveled bulletin board, I struggled to find the words to begin. “Look at this,” I said, referring to the tattered board. “It seems to me that somebody’s a coward. Can’t face this shit so they tear it down and run anonymously from the truths they ripped down.”
I became acutely aware of my body—I am my body—seeing them see me as a Black man. I became aware of how my language, which constructs the parameters of our world and defines our knowledge, is the “House of Being.” I realized I could effect change linguistico-corporeally, that is, through the combination of language exuding from my particular body.
Ten minutes of noting how nineteen Arab Muslims can hijack planes and kill 2,991 Americans over a decade ago and consequently every Brown person with a heavy jacket is “randomly searched,” but white, presumably Christian people can bomb abortion clinics and no white Christian is looked at twice or thought to be up to terrorist machinations planted a seed. Ten minutes of noting that all of us in that hallway never had to worry about being preyed upon for our genders, could be moody, irritable, and angry without it being attributed to our “time of the month,” and could be sure that our reputation would not diminish (and would in fact be aided) with each person we had sex with got my point across.
The following week, one of my residents—a scruffy outside linebacker— caught me just as I was leaving for class and yelled down the hall, “Marquis! Colonialism also dehumanizes the colonizer.” “That’s right! There you go, yo,” I yelled back. The following semester, an ex-wideout from a rural, conservative town in central Pennsylvania found me in the library and asked why, after he held a door open for a female student, she scoffed at him. “Because of the historical implication of that act and your maleness. You effectively inferiorized her, told her—by your action and gender—that she was too weak to get the door herself. It is not you per se that she scoffed at but the sexist legacy that your action signified,” I told him. “That’s what I thought!” he replied. “And that’s why I ain’t even get mad. But you said it a lot smarter than I did in my head.”
In this brief example, I think my bro-ness largely contributed to my ability to reach my male privileged residents. The ideologies that my corporeality signified gave me a presumed rapport with them, allowing me to infiltrate their spaces, thus granting me the perfect opportunity to subvert those ideologies from the inside. To broaden the implications because of what my body signifies, I can go back home to Philly and be on the block spittin’ some bell hooks or Sara Ahmed to other Black dudes and be listened to because of the capital that I carry through my embodiment. Thus my bro-ness, while inimical in, say, a space containing older, white, second wave feminist women, is subversive and anti-patriarchal in a space containing Black Nationalists and hip-hop heads in North Philly precisely because I am granted access to that space.
To be a “bro-feminist,” then, is to enact what Mark Anthony Neal dubs the “NewBlackMan” or what Athena D. Mutua calls “progressive masculinities,” the “unique and innovative practices of the masculine self actively engaged in struggles to transform social structures of domination” (2006, p. xi). Through my masculine self, albeit appearing staunchly hegemonic, I uniquely comport my subversive feminist ideologies in relation to my embodiment. I use my bro-ness as a guise to infiltrate enemy (that is, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, etc.) lines and dissolve it from within.
I put my body to work.
Indeed, our identities do “work,” as Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati have written. My own physical identity as Black, buff, and tattooed does a very specific kind of work: the work of feminism, a bro-feminism, if you will.
Marquis Bey is a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, where he focuses broadly on African American Studies and Gender Studies. His particular areas of concentration include philosophy of race and the co-constitutivity of race, gender, and sexuality. He has a keen interest in the ways in which Black bodies are discursively inscribed with racial and gendered scripts, the historical trajectory of Black feminist thought and articulations of Black male feminist thought, Black sexuality, and African American atheism.