West Indian masculinity is in crisis. I’m not referring longingly to a deviation from patriarchy and I’m not advocating for a return to patriarchal masculinity. What I am referring to is a changing gender dynamic and men’s perception of their own powerlessness in the face of this shifting dynamic. Faced with this perceived loss of their patriarchal birthright to a dominant expression of masculinity, young men feel the need to take this “birthright” by force, relying on violence to do so.
This idea came to me while I was performing a “social breaching” experiment in Saint Lucia a few weeks ago (more on that later!). While out on dates, my romantic interest and I would ask the wait staff whether they thought it was “right” for the woman to pay for the date. We figured we could get some pretty fascinating responses by asking the question every time we went out; being young, light skinned and conventionally attractive probably gave us a good likelihood of getting responses. Every response to this question (which we posed in different ways) was interesting but one in particular stuck out to me.
The waiter was a young, upbeat black male around 20-25 years old. He seemed nervous as he waited on us, nearly completely lacking in confidence.When we posed the question to him, this demeanor s changed. His desperation for approval was replaced with underlying aggression. He responded that he thought it was wrong for the woman to pay because “the man is in charge” and he should “be in control”. Of course, we got this response on one of the days where I had agreed to pay for dinner before hand.
After dinner, the two of us began a conversation on gender roles, specifically the male role of the “provider” that this young waiter had likely internalized. How can a man like that live up to his own ideation of masculinity, when at his prime, he’s working a low paying job that doesn’t have great opportunity for growth? Who can he provide for? How can he even rightfully see himself as a provider in a country where women’s economic power is growing much faster than men’s?
This isn’t me bashing waiters or even this waiter in particular. I’m trying to understand the mindset of a man with a patriarchal mindset who cannot live up to his own ideas of what a man should be. Where does he turn? Where should he turn? Deconstructing rigid notions of masculinity that dictate a man must pay and a man must provide would probably be the most positive solution. However, as a cynic/realist, I think it’s pretty unlikely that would happen. What most likely will happen is that he will fall back on other aspects of “ideal” masculinity to prove to himself that he is a man.
This can be negative like relying on violence to dominate others, especially women in romantic relationships for example. We already know that one of the risk factors for men committing domestic violence is strict belief in patriarchy and patriarchal gender roles. Now, I know nothing of this man personally, and perhaps he has never committed violent acts against anyone. But it is a possibility, and it’s a great possibility considering the general hopelessness men in Saint Lucia obviously feel if we look at the fairly large suicide rate amongst Saint Lucian men.
Yes, masculinity is in crisis, but the way to fix it is not a return to traditional masculinity which cannot possibly survive in a world moving closer to equality. All men, especially those who consider themselves allies to women should take time to consider how they define their own masculinity and what it means in this changing world. What makes you a man? Does your definition rely on something outdated, harmful and/or oppressive? That’s not something that I can answer for you, but it’s something that I urge you to consider or to ask the men in your lives to consider for themselves.