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Young Men of Color, Sexism, and the Face of a Feminist

It was not until I was twenty years old, at my first men of color workshop (the first RC men’s workshop I attended), that I could take on1 the identity of a feminist. Over years of being raised in RC, immersing myself in our young people’s movement, and becoming aware of how sexism and men’s oppression had hijacked my mind, it never occurred to me that I could be a feminist.

After Rudy Nickens2 spent months proudly proclaiming to me his solidarity as a feminist—softening me up for his Men of the Global Majority Workshop, at which a panel of women of the global majority gave us a picture of their struggles—the feelings I had allowed me to find out that I want to be and am a feminist. At that workshop, for the first time, sexism was presented to me by women who resembled my African-heritage mother and the other women of color I grew up around.

My mother taught me about patriarchy. I also went to African-heritage RC workshops at which we worked on sexism, male domination, and men’s oppression. However, these events were geared toward our communing as people who shared a culture and were targeted by racism, with sexism being a lower priority. Sexism did not look to me like a struggle for my people. I knew women of color were being stomped on, and I knew most men, namely white men, were part of it, but I did not understand how I was learning to perpetuate it. I could not see sexism as my issue.

Looking back on my years in RC young people’s work, I remember us young men of color resisting the idea that we were oppressors. We knew sexism was ugly and real, but we couldn’t see our role in it. Two factors that contributed to this, and that interfered with my grasp of the concept of feminism, were that most of our fathers were gone and that feminism looked white.

I was raised by a single mother. (Most young Co-Counselors of color I have met—and I have fought to find as many as I could—were raised with their fathers absent for most of their lives.) I appreciate and treasure my relationship with my mother, and I learn so much from her. My affection for her often manifests as worry, but it is love. The basis of our relationship has always been my dependence on her. How can you see someone you depend on, who is also an agent of young people’s oppression, as someone you can dominate?

My dependence on my mother strengthened and became more complicated when my father left. Because he left, my brother, my mother, and I bonded in a particular way. My brother and I became more dependent on our mother and also more protective of her. (In some ways we became more independent, as we tried to be men in our father’s absence.) Because I felt dependent on and protective of my mother, it was a stretch to see how I could ever be her oppressor. Because we were family, I viewed her struggles from the frame of reference of a young person whose life she managed and from the perspective that we were both targets of racism. There was not much room to see how sexism had hurt her or how I could have been sexism’s weapon.

In RC as well as in the wide world, the face of feminism is a white woman. White women and we men of color are presented with an interesting collision of oppressions. We are both oppressed and privileged while trying to prove to ourselves that we are wholesome and good.In my experience, this has felt like competitive “madness.” In middle school, I would tear my hair out3 trying to make my white female friends understand how I was consistently singled out by our racist teachers. In turn, they would get mad at me for saying things that I, to this day, still do not understand to be sexist. To top it off,4 when I told my mother that these young white women had accused me of being sexist, she explained how women of color were excluded from, and vilified by, the twentieth-century feminist movement. Thus feminism was set in my mind as something owned by white women and something that I did not want to and could not be a part of.

Despite this barrier between men of color and white women, Rudy tells me that we are set up to be incredible allies to each other if we fight for it—that there is a space between our plights and privileges where we can relate to one another. Once we can see that the liberation of white women and the liberation of men of color are neither mutually exclusive nor in a race against each other, we have the potential to be good counselors for each other. This is now something I fight for every day.

I have always had strong white female allies, but the “us versus them” material5 held me back. I clung to it in the face of RC’s abundance of white women compared to people of color. I gave up on fully having white female allies, and, further, I gave up on feminism.

No matter how you look at it, a man of color has never been the face of feminism. Rudy Nickens has become the big, black male face of feminism in my mind. Also, President Obama is a useful public figure for me to reference my feminism by. He is particularly relevant to me as a biracial African- and European-heritage man raised by a single mother, though all men can learn something from him.

Today there is no dispute in my mind: I am a feminist. The handful of times I have shared this new identity of mine, it has caught people off guard. At my college, a Gay man of color told me I did not get to be a feminist. A black woman I met seemed to think feminism was not a thing for black people.

I do volunteer recruitment with a student activist group working on LGBTQ6 issues. A couple times a month I get up in front of classes of over four hundred students and tell them I am an ally to LGBTQ people, a heterosexual like many of them, and a feminist. I think they mostly do not know what to do with me, even though I tell them exactly what they can do to stand up to fight discrimination. Outside of RC, people seem confused about what I mean when I say I am a feminist.

Frankly, I am not entirely sure what I thought the word “feminist” meant when I was growing up, other than female-biased white women opposed to sexism. All I knew was that it was not me, and that stopped me from putting my full effort behind eliminating sexism.

In this past year, since that life-changing Men of the Global Majority Workshop, I have had a great time playing with this new word, this F-word, “feminist.” As a person of mixed heritage who is often perceived as racially ambiguous, I have always felt like I did not belong anywhere. Longing for a solid identity, to not be half this or half that, for there to be no question that I belong with my black and white brothers and sisters has left me with a deep sadness inside. Choosing feminist, the first identity I have ever felt like I had a choice in taking on, feels untouchable. When those rooms of college students gaze with glassy-eyed confusion at my self-proclamation as a feminist, I do not feel insecure in my identity. I do not waver as I did in middle school when my white friends questioned my blackness, ignored my whiteness, and denied my encounters with racism.

The word “feminism” no longer makes me feel uncomfortable and unmanly. It is now a reminder of the closeness and mental liberation I want for myself. Before, I could never let myself truly want and hope to form close relationships with white women. Now I see that I actually have always wanted those relationships and that giving up on these women has been holding back my life.

For me, being a feminist means actively discharging the material that has separated me from white women, and catching myself when I try to protect women of color or am over-dependent on them. It means sharing this wonderful F-word with as many men as possible and letting other young men of color know that sexism is our issue. It means fighting to become smarter about my domination patterns and spending as much time as I can with Rudy Nickens, whose face I keep in my mind to help me remember the reality that all of this is possible and that I am wonderful and I’m a feminist.

Drew Frye
Santa Cruz, California, USA


1 “Take on” means adopt.
2 Rudy Nickens is the Regional Reference Person for Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska,    USA.
3 “Tear my hair out” means become extremely frustrated.
4 “To top it off” means to add to this.
5 “Material” means distress.
6 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00