mama used to say

Editor’s note: This is part of a series from our Rethink Masculinity program with ReThink and DC Rape Crisis Center. The author stylistically decided to not use capitalization.

The popular rhetoric in 1996 was “the black male is an endangered species.” death, destruction, and detention awaited each black male as he navigated the job market, everyday life, and even grade school — the latter sounds hyperbolic until you consider the school-to-prison pipeline (sidenote: i agree with bell hooks that the endangered species language is rooted in dehumanizing black males as animal-like or beasts). when my parents were going through their divorce, my mother stressed a particular statement to my brother and me — repeated as a refrain in the endangered species sing-along. it wasn’t flowery. she made her words plain: “break the cycle.” at the ripe age of 11, i thought i had a solid grasp of what she was saying. i took her words as a stern warning: as long as i made honor roll here and there, did my chores consistently, and stayed out of trouble, i was breaking the cycle.

unfortunately, my mother didn’t specify what breaking the cycle meant and i assumed too much. i assumed her sons surviving their teen years without criminal charges and unplanned pregnancies would be breaking the cycle. twenty years later, my mother’s words have revisited me and have knocked me down.

my mother was referring to my father and the pattern of behavior displayed by the men of that lineage. my father looks exceptional on paper: 20-year Army retiree, college-educated, art dealer. however, his life hasn’t been one of interpersonal triumph. his father and grandfather were abusive and womanizing. he became an abuser and womanizer. and with this being the norm, my father repeated what he witnessed as a child and inflicted this same harm on others. he had four sons: the oldest was killed and the remaining three speak to him on average every 6-7 years if lucky. i see now that my dad’s notions of masculinity kept him emotionally inept and prevented him from breaking the cycle of violent and harmful behavior.

reflecting years later, this is some kind of wonderful and terrible. wonderful, for i’m more introspective, taking account of my actions, examining my role models, and analyzing what’s been considered “normal” for guys like me but “trash” for people dealing with guys like me. terrible, for i’m left with this sunken feeling that i waited a long time and all of these activities are long overdue.

in these last few months, “breaking the cycle” has become an ongoing and intentional pursuit. for me, breaking the cycle includes several things:

  • actively unpacking the ways i practice toxic masculinity through waging violence on others, hiding behind my exterior, being a womanizer, and a laundry list of other offenses.
  • learning and practicing vulnerability with the people i say i love and care about.
  • examining how i define love, care, and respect, essentially going beyond hallmark cards.
  • doing the heavy lifting of my own emotional labor and not solely relying on others (often women and/or queer folks) to be further burdened with MY reluctance to address MY issues.
  • addressing my past in therapy and investing time and energy into my mental health care.
  • redefining what it means to be a strong, black man within a society rooted in white supremacist patriarchy.
  • holding space for others; availing myself for the discomfort that may arise when i am present for others.
  • checking my privilege and being critical of how i am oppressing others because yes, i can oppress others.

i appreciate collective action for safe spaces, rethink, and the dc rape crisis center for investing in the rethink masculinity course. i’m thankful for the facilitators: daniel, sam, tahir, ben, and amanda for bringing themselves to this 8-week workshop. i was challenged each week and left yearning for more but always equipped with new tools to navigate the next week with healthier alternatives. the guys in the workshop who were my classmates were awesome, open, affirming, and deliberate. they showed me that i wasn’t the only male with these similar struggles. i’m determined to keep this momentum going. and i plan to break the cycle alongside with others.

my mother has shouldered most of the emotional labor in raising me. her foresight saved me from much calamity and it’s with this acknowledgement, i want to be fully present for her. finally, i’m heeding her 20-year-old advice. i don’t want another generation with my dna to struggle in the same manner with their masculinity. i want healthy masculinity to be the norm. i want to set the standard. i want to break the cycle.

Let’s get CJ hired!

For three and a half years, CJ made his living as a hard-working cashier. He always came to work on time and constantly went above and beyond to achieve the very best at the retail store where he worked. But despite his work ethic, CJ watched and waited as other people were hired and promoted to manager positions. For all his accomplishments, he remained where he was as a cashier.

Then one day, something happened to CJ: he got sick.

When he went to his boss with a doctor’s letter, his boss refused him outright and fired CJ on the spot. CJ was devastated.

“When I got fired, I was so distraught because I worked so hard to get to that position,” says CJ.

Sadly, for trans people of color like CJ, finding and maintaining a stable job can be a challenge.

In DC, the unemployment rate for the transgender community is 36 percent, and skyrockets to 55 percent for Black trans people. Research shows that the root cause of unemployment for trans people is tied directly to discrimination. What’s more — 40 percent of transgender adults were refused at least one job because of their gender identity and 47 percent of employees preferred hiring a less qualified cisgender applicant over a more qualified trans applicant.

The new Safe Bar Collective is working to fix that. Your support on June 8th during #DoMore24 will help us ensure that trans people of color — including CJ — are trained, hired, and supported.

The Safe Bar Collective is piloting a program to provide four trans people of color with access to safe and supportive employment in partner bars and restaurants this summer. CASS and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of DC (ROC-DC) will provide everything CJ and the three other participants need to thrive — including restaurant job training, hygiene kits, and transportation stipends to and from work.

Take the pledge to help CJ access safe, supportive employment at a Safe Bar!

Introducing the Safe Bar Collective

Over the past year, our Safe Bars program has trained and empowered 27 bars and restaurants to squash sexual harassment and make these places a safer space for everyone. The program teaches bar and restaurant staff on how to recognize and proactively intervene when sexual harassment happens in their establishments. We firmly believe that all people deserve to enjoy a beer and cheesy fries without unwanted disturbances.

Our 2016 report on the program showed that 90% of Safe Bars participants said our workshop gave them more options for dealing with sexual aggression in a restaurant or bar setting.

Despite all the general amazing-ness of the Safe Bars program, something essential was still missing. While our surveys did not request demographic data about bar and restaurant staff, we noticed something qwhite interesting. Very few people of color — and even fewer women of color — worked in the front of house at bars and restaurants. Research shows that this is a national trend: people of color are frequently relegated to lower paying positions in the back of the house of bars and restaurants, with women and gender nonconforming people of color experiencing discrimination most severely.

At the heart of this, we had to think: we’re making bars safer, but safer for who?

Enter the Safe Bar Collective. This year, we’re stepping up our commitment to make bars and restaurants safe and inclusive spaces for everyone.

Here’s how we plan to do it:

  • Improve our curriculum and making it more inclusive, including an expanded conversation on race and how it can affect experiences with sexual violence and hate-based harassment.
  • Creating job opportunities for trans people of color by training program participants with specific job and social skills to prepare them for work in the front of the house at local bars and restaurants. CASS will leverage its existing partnerships with 27 bars that have been educated on cultivating safe environments and partner with the Restaurant Opportunities Center for the training.
  • Providing ongoing support to help these workers maintain employment with access to transportation, hygiene kits, food, and a supportive group environment.

By building the capacity of bars and restaurants to support marginalized workers, and actively supporting trans people of color in accessing and maintaining supportive employment, the Safe Bar Collective will work to make public spaces safer for everyone.

Fab, right? Well, here’s how you can help:

  1. Pledge to give to CASS on #DoMore24. Sign the pledge and we’ll send you a reminder on June 8th to support our campaign.
  2. Join us at our #DoMore24 happy hour for the Safe Bars Collective at Colony Club on June 8th from 6 to 9 p.m. It’ll be happy hour the whole time, and 10% of bar sales will go to CASS!
  3. Give on June 8th. Don’t forget to follow through on your pledge!

We have a lot of work to do to make Safe Bar Collective a success. We can do it, together!

One more thing…

Testify in Support of the Street Harassment Prevention Act: On Wednesday, July 12th, join us to testify in front of the DC City Council in support of the Street Harassment Prevention Act!

Introduced in February, the Act is one of the first of its kind to establish a comprehensive framework to address street harassment in our community through non-criminal solutions. Now we need YOU to share your stories of harassment in the District to show the Council how important this act is to community safety. Sign up to testify or submit written testimony here, and we’ll be in contact with resources and support!

Thank You For Your Support to #FreeGiGi!

Yesterday GiGi Thomas was given a 30-year sentence and 10 years were suspended. The sentence is 20 years, however, she will not serve all of them.

GiGi Thomas is a transgender woman of color who has worked for more than 15 years supporting people in need in the D.C.-Baltimore area. She served as a client consultant with the sex-worker rights and human services organization HIPS and recently completed a Masters in Social Work from Howard University. Over the years, GiGi helped thousands of community members find shelter and sustenance, reunited families, cared for the injured, and spoke out about injustice especially regarding the treatment of the trans community. Gigi’s peers describe her as “one of those people who just gives and gives with all they have,” and an “amazing woman with a heart of gold.”

Since October 2015, GiGi has been held without bail in a men’s prison, often in solitary confinement. At her trial in February 2017, her attorney argued for involuntary manslaughter and a jury (obviously not of her peers) found her guilty of 2nd degree murder. The prosecuting attorney misgendered her and erased the context of her experiences as a trans woman of color, social worker, and community leader.

The ongoing support from the community to right this injustice has been amazing — you’ve written letters, shared stories, and appeared in the courtroom.

The judge reported that she examined the strong community support — and that GiGi’s support was “different from normal support.” Your letters and presence at the courtroom demonstrated that GiGi is appreciated in our community and her work is valuable.

GiGi will be at the jail for about two weeks, and will then be transferred to Baltimore to be placed. You can write to her in the meantime at GiGi Marie Thomas (A65386), PG County Correctional Center, 13400 Dille Drive, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772.

The work continues to #FreeGiGi, as well as other incarcerated Black trans women who fight this system daily.

Artivism: Muslim Women’s Experiences with Harassment

The photos and interviews below were part of an artivism project by Dejah K. Greene of the Sanctuaries.












Khadija Ali

Have you ever experienced street harassment on the metro or around the DMV area?

Though I’m not from the metro/DMV area, I have experienced street harassment on my visits there and in other major cities, such as in Benghazi, Libya (where my parents are from and where I spent many summers as a teenager), and in Germany. 

What happened, and how did you respond?

When I was visiting my friend in Silver Spring, a lot of the harassment consisted mostly of just annoying things like “smile” or “hey beautiful” and it was just very demeaning. It caught me off guard too because I’ve been living in the south in Nashville for the better part of a decade and you don’t experience as much harassment here. Whenever I’d spend my summers in Libya, I remember being between the ages of 13-16 and being catcalled — still a child! I couldn’t walk down less than a mile to the convenience store to pick up some things without the neighborhood boys commenting on my clothes or hijab.

In Libya and the rest of the Middle East, a lot of the men and boys who catcall would use one specific religious saying called “mashaAllah,” which roughly describes a sort of thankfulness, or joy at something good or happy that God has willed. Keep in mind that this is a term Muslims around the world use on a day to day basis. So I remember as a teenager just being appalled at how this wonderful phrase that reminds us of God would just be defiled and degraded by sick men and boys. And no one cared if I was walking with my dad or my brother or with one of my aunts or my mother, they would just exhibit zero shame. It was difficult because in that culture, responding would mean encouraging them. I learned this the hard way when I decided to flip some of these catcallers off once and they started jeering and following me around for awhile until I decided to ignore them and they left me alone. 

How do you think your racial, ethnic, or religious identity(/ies) affects the way you experience harassment?

In terms of my very apparent Muslim identity, my conservative attire, and head covering, I’ve found that harassment does not discriminate against what women wear. In Libya, I would get harassed about my hijab, in the South I’d get yelled at and accused of being a terrorist or Osama bin Laden’s wife/sister/daughter for wearing my hijab. There is this stigma towards women who might choose to dress less conservatively than others which people have used to explain the culture of harassment and rape when that simply is not true. I mean, look at me. I am covered from head to toe, literally the only thing you can see are my face and hands, and I still get harassed. There are other Muslim women out there who are in full Niqab (full face covering in addition to body and hands) and they too are victims of street harassment and rape. 

What’s one word to describe the way you want people to interact with you in public spaces?


What do you think men should understand about catcalling?

Men should understand that women are not objects to be commented on and looked at. They should learn to have more shame and lower their gaze. Really, men need to reflect upon the notion of the Male Gaze and how that affects the way women alter the manner through which they conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis. Catcalling is absolutely rooted in the Male Gaze. So that means that all women who are harassed (verbally/sexually/etc.) are subject to the Male Gaze. We do not enjoy having our bodies being gazed upon. At all. Period. So long as men do not recognize the Male Gaze as a problem, women will still be dehumanized in every instance of harassment.

Oh, and one last thing I’d like to ask all men to think about: What would your Mama say or do if she saw you catcalling?

Dina El-Rifai

Have you ever experienced street harassment on the metro or around the DMV area?
Yes. The most recent experience was as I was walking to the Metro station with my friend. I think the encounter could have taken an entirely different turn had my friend not been there with me.

What happened, and how did you respond?

We were walking back. My friend is mixed — White and Latina. White-passing. This man, dressed in an over-sized suit — purple if I remember correctly — and completely drunk, starts talking directly to me. Looks at me and begins to ask me if my people date, or “mess with” Black men. I look at him and then look straight ahead, shortening the distance between me and my friend. The man, however, begins to follow us, standing inches from me, and begins to rant about the changing demographic of this city, repeatedly referencing my Muslim identity and his perception of me as “foreign” as the center of his monologue. He appears frustrated of my unwillingness to answer his questions, and says “you people are so afraid here because of what you experience overseas.” This was assuming that 1) I’m not from here and have lived abroad extensively; and 2) that I must have experienced violence abroad because they must be so backwards and oppressive “where I’m from.” He then attempts to assure me that I need not be afraid of him, as he inches closer to me, and continues to follow us for several blocks. He goes as far to say “I won’t try to do anything sexual or anything” — which instilled more fear in me than anything. As we were finally able to part ways, he repeatedly yelled “you need dick, you will always need dick.”

The entire time he was following us, I tried to be very calculated in my response, as I always am. I often try to ignore harassers and keep my eyes forward, usually acting like I do not hear them. Any response often can seem like encouragement for harassers to continue the interaction. However, after their third and fourth and fifth demands for my attention, I begin to fear that my silence or lack of acknowledgment will escalate the situation or anger them. So, when I choose to respond, I try to be firm and calculated, communicating through body language that I see you, hear you, and am uninterested.

It is exhausting to have to be this calculated, and to still be respectful to the harasser, in fear that any perception of disrespect of superiority from me could escalate the situation and put me in danger.

How do you think your racial, ethnic, or religious identity(/ies) affects the way you experience harassment?
As a Muslim woman who wears hijab, I feel that there are multiple targets on my back that make me vulnerable to street harassment. I think there’s a strong interplay here of my Muslim identity and my identity as a woman and how that’s perceived by men especially in the U.S that explains the experience of harassment. It is not only the feeling of entitlement to comment on my body, but the perception of Muslim women as inferior, oppressed, and powerless that I think is a key driver in the way that Muslim women experience harassment. I think this is also coupled with the refusal of American men to respect the choices of Muslim women who choose to cover — they feel entitled to our bodies and cannot fathom that we would intentionally deny them access to the consumption of our bodies.

While I wear hijab as a declaration of the inherent power that I hold that is independent of my body and sexuality, harassers seek to demonstrate the power they presume to have over us, objectify us. It is this very perception of Muslim women as weak, powerless, and oppressed, that is also used to justify U.S invasion, occupation, and bombing of Muslim-majority countries.

What’s one word to describe the way you want people to interact with you in public spaces?


What do you think men should understand about catcalling?

Street harassment, at its core, is an imposition of power by men and their sense of entitlement to attention from women. Know that women, *all* women, deserve to feel safe and in control, and you’re unwanted and forced.

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