Activist Shaun King says toxic masculinity is at the root of gun violence, war, and terrorism

Activist Shaun King says toxic masculinity is at the root of gun violence, war, and terrorism
Image: Shaun King
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A modern-day civil rights movement is underway in America, and political commentator Shaun King is at the forefront of it.

One of the most prominent activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement, King has used social media and his columns in The Intercept to amplify awareness and action on police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, sexual harassment, and, most notably, police killings of unarmed black people. King has raised millions of dollars for families of victims of police violence. He co-founded the Real Justice PAC, which is fighting to elect district attorneys committed to reforming America’s criminal justice system. He’s also the political commentator for the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Raised in Kentucky to a white family, King, who is biracial, was an Oprah Winfrey scholar at Morehouse College before becoming a motivational speaker for Atlanta’s juvenile justice system and a pastor at Total Grace Christian Center in Georgia. In 2008, he founded “Courageous Church” in Atlanta, where he earned the nickname “Facebook Pastor” for using social media to recruit new members. 

King believes that there’s no privilege in America greater than being a man, making feminism the backbone of his civil rights activism. Speaking with Quartz, he explains why he believes women by default, why toxic masculinity is at the root of war, terrorism, and most gun violence, and how he learned to stop speaking over female colleagues and question his own unconscious sexism.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

While the Me Too movement has helped remind me of inequality, and has given me more narrative to understand the world as it is, I am glad to say that I was actively thinking about these issues before this movement. But I wasn’t born knowing. I have not always been informed and aware and actively fighting for change here. It took two things: friends of mine pulling me aside and really educating me on systemic inequality for women many, many years ago. And it took me asking myself, what role have I perhaps played in sustaining inequality, and what role can I play in dismantling it?

I’ve learned a great deal, but what has stuck with me the most is just how deeply entrenched and far-reaching rape culture truly is in this country. I knew it was pervasive, but it has taken my breath away at just how widespread it truly is. It is clearly present at every level of life for women in this country and nearly nothing has been done to effectively stop this.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I do, and proudly so. Feminism, for me, is advocating for women in every way possible, in every place available. As a feminist, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to use my unearned privilege as a man to fight for, and alongside, women. At the center of my life is fighting against inequality of all kinds—racial, economic, religious, and others.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

In addition to regularly speaking about gender equality from the stage as a speaker, I also regularly recommend women to take my place as a speaker when I am clear that they are the most qualified to speak on a topic. I have also demanded that women speaking on a program with me be paid the same that I am being paid.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

Toxic masculinity is not only the biggest threat to women in our society, it’s the biggest threat to men as well. All over this country men are not only ruining other people’s lives, they are ruining their own—and making us all less safe in the process. I mean this in the most serious way imaginable. Toxic masculinity is not just at the root of sexual assault and misconduct and abuse, it’s at the root of war and terrorism and most gun violence as well.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

I do, and I do so often. It’s essential. I also speak about sexism from the stage when I travel and speak and behind closed doors in consulting sessions so that people understand it’s [an issue] I value very deeply. It’s important that other men see and hear me, as a man they may respect or admire, telling them how important it is for us to dismantle sexism together. And I want them to know that this cannot simply be esoteric, or just a thought, but that we must follow that up with actions.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I don’t know that being a man, in and of itself, is anxiety producing. While I receive death threats almost daily because of the justice work I do, it’s not because I am a man. Nobody is more privileged in this country than a man.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

I want every woman around me to understand that I will always stand with them. I believe them by default. I will risk my position to always stand beside them, in front of them, and behind them.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Do what’s right. Always, always, always use your privilege and voice to speak up for anybody and everybody who is being wronged. Not only that, but be proactive and try to address systemic inequality so that it prevents wrongdoing in the first place. And what you may find is that when you step out to lead on this issue that others will actually respect and follow you. Lastly, maybe you need to redefine what “winning” looks like for you.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

Sadly, before I had a real awakening on the very real possibility that I could be unintentionally advancing bias in the workplace, I could imagine I did so often. Over 10 years ago, a dear colleague of mine, a woman, advised me that she thought I was interrupting women in our office when they spoke, but never doing so when the men spoke in the meeting where I was the senior most employee. I actually struggled to believe her. Then, sure enough, in the next meeting I oversaw, I caught myself doing it and was so embarrassed. I had probably been doing so for years. At first I had to consciously tell myself to be aware of this, but would like to think that I have fully alleviated this from how I handle meetings.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

I’ve received so much life-changing advice through the years from so many truly good men. One piece of advice that I go back to over and over again came from my pastor nearly 20 years ago. He told me, “Shaun, some things in life are beyond your control. Where you were born, who your parents are, what year you were born, the zip code you grew up in—all of that shapes you in major ways, but you had no say in any of it. You can’t change it and you shouldn’t stress over it. Your job is just to play the cards you are dealt.”

I think the best advice I regularly give to men is to assess what privilege they have in the world and figure out how to use that privilege in empowering ways for others. All of us are privileged in some ways. It could be gender privilege, skin privilege, zip code privilege—but whatever privilege you have, you must figure out how to tilt it toward justice.