This post is part 5 in a 7 part series of reflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.
The algorithm is our god here in 2022, and God have mercy. A few days ago I was given an add for “Man Therapy.” At first I thought it was a real therapist account, and I was gobsmacked (see the video for yourself). After a bit of reading, it turns out it’s an add campaign put together by partners in the southwest to reach out to men. Southwestern men are apparently at high risk for suicide by firearm.
The ads star the character “Rich Mahogany,” a psychologist who spouts manly one liners about mental health from a chair beneath a taxidermied moose. He sports a mustache and relates everything about mental health to hunting, grilling, sports, beer, and other manly things.
The whole schtick is of course based on the reality that many men are unlikely to seek mental health services if these services don’t feel familiar or approachable. It’s a cliché that men aren’t good at talking about their feelings, but it’s cliché because it’s been true of many men for a very long time.
The point here is that it’s a broken frame, an unfortunate situation. The world where men are known as those incapable of talking about their feelings is not the version of the world we want to live in. A better story is one where men are capable and willing to communicate, and they do so without these ridiculous analogies. But in order to solve a problem, the problem that men can only be related to in a very stereotypical way, Man Therapy chooses to embrace this stereotyped vision of men and to try to help from inside the trope.
I make these observations because I think it’s an access point to the conversation around anti-racism and the ideology about how we understand the situation. Recently, I listened to Dr. Sheena Mason share about the theory of racelessness. This is the idea that race is totally a construct in ways that ethnicity, culture, and language are not. Dr. Mason critiques thinkers like Ibram X. Kendi who insist on an anti-racist movement which she claims really exacerbates the problems it tries to solve. Per Mason, according to Kendi, operating with race as central to identity is not ideal, but it’s what we have to do because of what has happened in the past. I take this point in some way. White folks set up a society in which skin color was everything – being black meant being a chattel slave, and being white meant being superior. That’s a reality which can’t just be undone with the snap of a finger.
And to be clear, I’ve not yet read Kendi. However, I’m fairly certain he’s a proponent of anti-racist training and a frame which highlights differences between races and juxtaposes these differences explicitly. This seems to me to blatantly center race, and this does not seem like the dream which Dr. King had at all. It seems Kendi and others hold that while this isn’t ideal, it’s necessary for now. It’s living inside the trope.
Here is the obvious parallel and the question: does Man Therapy and race-centered ideology for combatting racism put us in a better place? I want to ask this with caution – when I say we, it must be noted I’m a middle-class white person, so I lack the perspective many marginalized people bring to the table. For those who would answer “yes – that this does put us in a better place,” I think the question is how long must men be taken only to offices with taxidermy? When do they get de-stereotyped? Are we moving toward that or are we reinforcing the trope? By centering race and the differences between races, are we only entrenching ourselves into a reality where people will never be judged by their actions by always by their race?
I’m not here to condemn Kendi or really even to disagree with him. I’m quite new to this conversation and haven’t read widely enough to know very much at all. I do find it interesting that the theory of racelessness seems to be growing. Currently, I’m taking a class on counseling culturally diverse populations, and the textbook we’re using holds to a theory of racelessness. I believe we must always be willing to adapt and offer what is called for by the time in which we find ourselves. And this is always tightly tied to the failed solutions and ideas of the time before us. I heard Iain McGilchrist say, “Today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.” We are living in a racialized world, and this is a problem our generation has inherited. This from Jones-Smith:
“Race is primarily a social construction created by the Western world…Skin color has been the primary biological marker to place people into “racial” groups…The early colonizers placed meaning into these physical markers…While colonists were creating the folk idea of race, naturalists in Europe were engaged in efforts to establish classifications of human groups in the 18th century. They had to rely on colonists’ descriptions of indigenous peoples for the most part, and their categories were replete with subjective comments about their appearances and behaviors. Ethnic chauvinism and a well-developed notion of the “savage” or “primitives” dictated that they classify native peoples as inferior forms of humans. Although there were earlier attempts to categorize all human groups, then known, Linnaeus and Blumenbach introduced classifications of the varieties of humankind that later became the established names for the races of the world. This notion, referred to by today’s scholars as racialized science, is based on an imprecise and distorted understanding of human differences and an agenda to empower White colonizers. (Jones-Smith, 2019)
Race is certainly different than ethnicity. Again from Jones-Smith: “Whereas the concept of race lacks a valid scientific basis, an ethnic group is based on two factors: genetic antecedents and cultural traditions. An ethnic group is a group of people who share a common history and culture, can be identified by similar physical features and values, and identify themselves as members of that group through social interactions. Further, a person becomes related to the ethnic group through emotional and symbolic ties. An ethnic group can be defined in terms of self-identification. From this viewpoint, an ethnic group may be described as a process of self and other ascription” (Jones-Smith, 2019). It is one thing hold to a theory of racelessness – it’s entirely another to say we’re all just the same and everyone needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or such idiocy as that.
I’m also not here in the slightest to say that racism is over or that it’s no longer a problem. Racism is a vice, and like greed and lust, it will always be around. It will adapt to whatever environment we create. Saying racism doesn’t exist because laws have been changed is like saying lust doesn’t exist because prostitution is illegal – it just doesn’t work like that at all. Racism, individually and systemically, is a serious problem, of that I have no doubt. What I’m not sure of is how to best frame the issue and work toward progress.
I’d like to see a day when Man Therapy and race-centered anti-racism and dialogues which lean into stereotypes aren’t needed. The question is whether they are currently moving us closer to that day or pushing it further off. And this question I must leave unanswered.
Dr. Sheena Mason, 2022. Theology in the Raw [podcast]. Episode 1009: https://theologyintheraw.com/podcast/1009-the-theory-of-racelessness-dr-sheena-mason/
Elsie Jones-Smith, 2019. Counseling the Culturally Diverse.
Iain McGilchrist, 2021. Rebel Wisdom [podcast]. https://rebelwisdom.podbean.com/e/the-matter-with-things-iain-mcgilchrist/
Man Therapy. Retrieved from: https://mantherapy.org/ (video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBMDHQlzFaA)