This summer I attended a summer camp, at age 37. I joined almost 100 high school youth in the foothills of the Tahoe National Forest for the annual California Sons & Brothers Camp. Being grown, it was pretty funny to jam myself into a sleeping bag on a bunk bed but being faculty at the camp was inspiring. It was also surprisingly nostalgic. As a kid I grew up at Camp Adventure on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where my mom was the nurse and my dad was the cook. Despite some difficult lessons on race and racism as the only Black kid at camp, I developed a lifelong fascination with survival skills that I’m sure will be my winning ticket in the apocalypse. So it was powerful to spend the week at a camp designed to offer cultural lessons, community building and mentors for so many young people of color. Being immersed in culture is healing for the soul.
The camp is part of a growing movement in this country to support boys of color. It’s exciting and incredibly important work but I believe the single most transformative thing this movement could do is put girls of color, which includes transgender girls, at its center. In doing so we will give boys of color in this country the best chance to thrive.
We can put girls of color at the center and save boys with the same solution—build new models of masculinity. The ones we have are antiquated at best, but more accurately, broken. They pressure us not to be honest about our feelings, to deny that our emotions even exist. They encourage us to put wealth and power above community and family. To see women and girls as objects and encourage homo and transphobia.
Our best option is still an old school gentility model of chivalry. What we need is masculinity that takes an honest and self-reflective look inward recognizing that the only reason most of us are even here is because of the love, generosity, and wisdom of women of color. Our job is not to take care of women and girls of color but to support them, partner with them, invest in their leadership and dreams. To join their fights as quickly as they join ours. To speak up when we see someone we respect contribute to a culture that belittles femininity in others and ourselves.
Time and time again over the course of the camp the boys challenged each other to grow, be vulnerable, laugh and learn. Most importantly they gave each other permission to be their full an authentic selves. Being together, without their guards up, climbing ropes courses or sharing late night conversations, they are building a new model of masculinity for others to follow.
We can give each other the freedom to decide which parts of masculinity we want to keep and which parts to discard because they no longer serve us. But we must act quickly. The pressure of gender norms, the box of masculinity, is killing youth of color. It drives boys of color to violence as a means of securing power and manhood, pushing them further from the classroom and into prisons across this country. But it also fosters a culture in which femininity and those who embody it are seen as weak which has disastrous effects for girls and LGBTQ youth of color.
For the youth at camp the larger question loomed ahead of them all week. What happens when I go home? How do they carry their new found love of self and connection to their emotions in a world that ridicules them for it? If we build a movement for boys of color that teaches them the single most valuable gift they can give to the world is to embrace all of who they are and fiercely support for girls of color—we will be one step closer to making Sons & Brothers Camp the world. It is a radical notion. That our salvation comes only through the love and investment of women and girls in our community. But I believe it is closer to the truth than anyone will admit. Women of color have put us at the center of their lives for generations so that we might thrive. Who knew that by following in their footsteps and lifting them up we might discover a masculinity worth fighting for.