Terry Crews shed light on the culture of black hypermasculinity and its effect on issues such as domestic and sexual assault
Terry Crews, known for his acting career and activism within the #MeToo movement, came to Penn last semester to discuss a range of topics including toxic masculinity, domestic violence and abuse, and his experience as a sexual assault survivor. What I found to be the core of the conversation was intersectionality; specifically, how Crews’s identity as a black man intersects with his experiences with sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement.
The beginning of the talk centered around Crews’s childhood growing up with an abusive father. I was left thinking of how race and toxic masculinity have created cycles of abuse within black communities rooted in violence against women. For example, during the talk, Crews described one of his earliest memories of his father, drunk, beating his mother as hard as he could, in the face. Coupled with each punch, Crews’s father made sure to tell her, “You should’ve shut up! You should have kept your mouth shut!” Essentially, Crews’s mom, as a black woman, was put in a position of responsibility for the abuse she receiving.
Sitting in the audience, I could imagine the scene. I could feel Crews’s helplessness, anger, and frustration. Crews would later explain how he resented being unable to help or protect his mother, and especially resented his feelings of weakness. Here, he highlighted an aspect of abuse that many still do not seem to understand: “Abuse is about control. If you couldn’t control your wife, your kids, your girlfriend, you were seen as weak.” To be “weak” in a predominantly black urban community like Flint, Michigan where Crews grew up was to be less of a man; abuse of women, therefore, became inexplicably linked to manhood. Crews grew up watching his friends and neighbors mistreat women as an assertion of power, rejection of weakness, and frantic attempt at maintaining control.
What Crews encountered was the insidious ideology of black hypermasculinity. In an article titled “Unharm Our Sons: Black Fathers, Masculinity, and Mental Health” Jeff Baker deconstructs how generations worth of trauma stemming from hypermasculinity has caused black fathers “to teach their sons that… “real” men do not acknowledge their susceptibility to debilitating emotions like fear, pain, and sadness.” Baker further explains how hypermasculinity is tied to gender socialization or “the process through which children learn about the social expectations, attitudes and behaviors typically associated with boys and girls.” Essentially, black boys are taught to disown emotional vulnerability as something feminine and weak, both becoming synonymous.
The second Crews’s father raised his fist for the first time, Crews began receiving his lessons in hypermasculinity.
So how does this manifest in relationships and families? According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “black women are two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their White counterparts.” In a Times magazine article highlighting this disparity, author Feminista Jones explained that while black women only make up 8% of the population, we are 22% of homicides that result from domestic violence. Additionally, domestic violence is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 15 and 35. This is not to say that black women are the only victims of abuse, but to illustrate how we are disproportionately affected. Unfortunately, this problem extends to the treatment of black children; according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, black youth are three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect, not including the crimes that go unreported.
Even though Crews never became physically abusive towards his wife, he admitted to the profound effect of being surrounded by the ideology that “it’s a man’s world” and that, as a man, any form of weaknesses is shameful. An example of this is an experience Crews recounted where his wife urged him to get a job after leaving the NFL. He explained how he was still of the mindset of “I’m the man of the house, I can do whatever I want!” and ignored her urgings. Only after cheating on his wife did Crews begin attending therapy to try to work through how his childhood and upbringing affected his relationship with women.
Considering the statistics, how many other children in black urban communities grow up in Crews’s situation? How many of those children grow up to model the abusive tendencies of their father’s and eventually their friends?
As the talk progressed, Crews went on to describe his sexual assault experience and activism within the #MeToo movement. Blackness was once again brought into the conversation. At a Hollywood party in 2016, Crews was inappropriately leered at and twice groped by talent agent Adam Venit. Crews explained: “I was going to punch a hole in this man’s head… and then a little voice said, ‘You are the only black man in this room.’” Crews points to how it would have looked for “giant Terry Crews” to beat up Venit in front of a room full of white celebrities, how his wife would feel if police responded by shooting first and asking questions later.
When questioned about why he did not come forward sooner, he first explained how he reported the incident to the agency and was even promised immediate action, only for the agency to do nothing. In terms of the emotional process of coming forward, Crews also shared with the audience his feelings of shame, which further contributed to his conflict about coming forward. During the Q&A period of the talk, Crews confessed to the audience how some days he would feel overwhelmed with shame for what happened to him. He had to look in the mirror and repeat to himself. “I will not feel shame. I did nothing wrong.” Knowing what I now know about black hypermasculinity, I imagine coming forward and placing himself in a position of emotional vulnerability was incredibly difficult.
As a man, a past professional athlete no less, Crews received countless comments denying his story on the basis that he was big enough and strong enough to fight against Venit. Not only does this mindset ignore how Crews’s identity as a black man prevented him from taking immediate action, but also fails to consider the position of power Venit had over Crews in that moment.
Crews is not alone in his initial decision not to come forward about his experience with sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. On college campuses, 90% of victims do not report. In order to support survivors with experiences like Terry Crews within the #MeToo movement, there needs to be space for the people who cannot come forward. This means looking at sexual violence through the lens of intersectionality: race, socioeconomic standing, sexual orientation, and gender, just to name a few.
At the end of the hour, Crews thanked the crowd for giving him an opportunity to talk, suggesting that it was his “therapy session.” Now, it is our responsibility to continue looking critically at the culture we have created, the “cult of toxic masculinity” as Crews calls it, and what needs to be done to ensure future generations do not grow up believing, as Crews did for much of his life, that abuse and violence against women “is just the way of the world”.
(Illustration: Sophie Lee)