This fear is embedded in many Black communities, but it plays out on the public stage in Hollywood, which is perhaps why Jackson’s costume of choice sparked so much backlash on Twitter. Jackson isn't just any boy playing dress-up; he’s a Black male child, and therefore his perceived manliness means much more than how he may identify as an individual.
For years, there’s been speculation
about a Hollywood conspiracy to emasculate Black men on TV, in film, and in pop culture in general. (These theories, of course, are as unbelievable as the internet plots that link Jay-Z and Beyonce to the illuminati.) In 2010, comedian Dave Chappelle called out Hollywood
for using Black men in drag as a punchline during an interview with Oprah. “All the comics that I’ve seen, men, you know, strong brothers, why are they putting us in these dresses?” Chappelle asks, referring to actors like Eddie Murphy
and Martin Lawrence
More recently, Nate Parker, director, star, producer, and writer of The Birth of a Nation
, told BET that he would never play a gay man because he felt a duty to “preserve the Black man.” Although the video of the interview was subsequently removed from BET’s site, journalist Michael Arceneaux called out Parker
on his homophobia, noting that being gay and Black doesn’t make you any less of a man. (It’s worth noting that Parker has also been under scrutiny for a 1999 rape charge
that has resurfaced in light of his film’s press coverage.) But the thing is, Parker’s comments don’t exist in a vacuum — they are a symptom of a culturally specific toxic masculinity that has plagued the Black community for decades, which is partly the result of racism, but also a result of the homophobia of Black churches.
As in many Christian institutions, homophobia runs rampant in Black churches. But for many Black people, myself included, the church provides our first sense of community outside the home. Speaking from personal experience, I know just how hard it is to come to terms with sexuality and gender identity while being part of a religious community. Growing up in the church, I learned values and gained a sense of cultural belonging, all the while hiding an essential part of who I was in fear of rejection from my church family. This meant that I was always hyper-aware of my gender performance (what I said, how I walked, etc.) and was careful to not accidentally do something "too feminine" that would out me — and shame me and my family.
Of course, it’s not as simple as the church perpetuating toxic masculinity, either. As Clay Cane, producer of the BET documentary Holler If You Hear Me
, told me last year
: “The intersection of the church and of Black masculinity and of racism creates a pot of complicated reasons why there’s this misperception of Black folks being more homophobic.” The backlash against Theron’s son — and the many other instances of intolerance of Black males expressing femininity — are examples of misplaced frustration with the racism that persists in our society. Everything from the coverage of Ryan Lochte’s incident at the Rio Olympics
(which highlighted the power of white male privilege) to the continued violence against people of color at the hands of law enforcement
makes Black men feel disempowered in a more complicated way than most of us are able to consciously process.