Reversing Toxicity: To All the Boys That Ever Loved

This is a thank you to the women who raised me; specifically, my long-term, long-distance love I almost celebrated 6 years with. On top of the fresh heartbreak, my queer-ass identifies as more than just a man: non-binary/gender non-conforming. I thought that because I actively challenged masculinity and identified as a feminist, I was good.

But shit, if I thought that made me an exclusion to toxic masculinity, I was wrong. If you were raised to be a man in the United States by history, media, or American “family values,” it’s time to unpack who we really are around the women in our lives.

My social justice bubbles have blessed me with the phrase, “Make space, take space.” Growing up as a masculine-presenting, progressive person with ADHD, I never found it difficult to take up space. Lately, I’ve started questioning how much space I take up and what I do to create space for others.

How do I listen?

While I thought I was getting better in group scenarios, I didn’t realize how normal it was for me to dominate conversations in the 5 years 10 months I was with my partner… This black woman had given up hope that things would ever be different.

The trick to communication doesn’t rest in telling our perspective so crystal-clear that it can’t be denied. Recently, I witnessed how my usual dissection of the issue-at-hand with a well-thought out solution left my partner feeling trapped in a situation she knows too well. Exhausted that she would, once again, have to conform to my solution, even though her feelings were not yet heard and validated. Ideally, two people should acknowledge the truth in both sides but I can’t continue demanding to be heard, if I don’t first listen.

My relationship has taught me our learning doesn’t stop after 4 years and a degree. Men have to have to stop being defensive and adapt to what the women around us tell us. There will never be, nor should there be, a threshold we reach as men where suddenly nobody can tell us nothin’.

Truth is media images (movies, series, songs, Insta feeds) are always influencing how we see the world and ourselves. Rev. Michael Beckwith once told me that we’ve been imprinted with an image of who we think we are—society, media, religion, our parents—our life then becomes a process of peeling those images off and finding our inner truth. How? By listening. And in order to coexist in the greatest truth, we have to listen to the experiences of society’s most marginalized before our own. If you’re a man in society, it doesn’t matter how chivalrous or respectful you think you are––your ass still needs to check yourself.

“I ain’t a p**sy, about to let my woman tell me how it is!” I hear you brother. I was also raised by a “Man of the house” but in MY home, we’ll listen. And we’ll only speak of pussy in praise.

Praise by listening to the most influential black women in the world have to say. What homeless women and sexual abuse survivors have to say. Read some Bell Hooks or listen to any of Stacey Abrams’s speeches. I sure as hell hope ya’ll took something away from Angela Davis’ visit to campus. Cuz I did, especially when queen Davis spoke about her era of activism, “we were fighting for freedom for the Black man…but even though so many of those who were involved in the struggle were women, we didn't realize we weren't even writing ourselves into that narrative of freedom. ” Women supported the liberation of man and for us to do the same we must now really listen to her.

Believing that I’m one of the “good” guys, didn’t let me listen, blinding me from real growth. I’m still learning to process the unintentional hurt I’ve caused someone I love. It doesn’t make me a bad person, but it does mean I have to prioritize how she feels over what I “believe to be right.” And if she feels like she can’t speak honestly because I won’t be receptive to criticism, I’ll wait. All I can do now is shut up and listen.

One of the reasons I didn’t make it to 6 years was because I thought I listened with my ears but that’s too passive. I now understand, I listen best by creating diagrams, asking questions to understand the full story, and setting reminders to journal later about what was brought up in our conversation. Real listening happens deep in the brain, so you can either put the emotional labor on your partner to hammer her truth for years until it gets there or make time for you to engage your brain and listen however works for you.

How do you listen?