Walter Thompson-Hernandez was raised with a keen ear for the voices of the underrepresented. Growing up in Los Angeles, the child of a black father and Mexican mother, Thompson-Hernandez naturally found himself at a cultural intersection.
When he was seven, his mother joined a group of UCLA students and faculty in a two-week hunger strike to retain the school’s Chicana and Chicano studies curriculum. During the strike, a young Thompson-Hernandez took his first photograph, and he hasn’t stopped since.
Today, Thompson-Hernandez is a multimedia reporter for the New York Times. He travels the world asking what it means to belong. Whether it‘s the albino community in Ghana or black people in Compton redefining cowboy culture, he uses words, pictures, and film to tell the stories of those who historically have not had a voice.
In this interview with Quartz, Thompson-Hernandez discusses his first exposure to the gender income gap, why he loves the film Moonlight (2017), and how to let go of gender stereotypes.
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?
I’ve been thinking about gender since my mother first explained the gender income gap to me as a child. She was a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, a single mother, and often had to work two to three jobs to keep our family afloat. She was almost never paid enough for the work that she did and I saw all of it growing up as an only child.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned from the Me Too movement is that male-identifying people need to be more aware of the space that we often take up in professional settings. Even when we have the best intentions, I’ve seen that we can often be oblivious to the ways that we don’t allow women to participate and contribute to workplace discussions and meetings.
My “feminism” is guided by a strong belief in gender equity. I was raised in home full of incredible women, and growing up with that experience gave me a perspective that I’m very grateful for. I’ve continued to have the privilege of learning and listening to so many of the amazing women in my life who continue to inspire me to become a better human being.
But even though I’m working on becoming a better ally for women, I often struggle with the idea that I can identify as a feminist because a large part of me feels like it’s unfair. Because for so many years, millions of women around the world have fought so hard for women to be able to identify in that way. And for me, identifying as a feminist feels like something that I’m co-opting and that feels unsettling.
I try to promote and create opportunities for the women in my life through the work that I do. Whether it’s by using my platform to profile incredible groups of women in some part of the world who are doing dope-ass things or by hiring friends of mine for gigs or opportunities, it all varies according to the situation. At the end of the day, though, I’m still in the process of actively trying to unlearn so many of the unhealthy and toxic ideas about gender and masculinity that I was conditioned to believe in since birth and trying to create healthier notions of masculinity—a constant learning experience.
The biggest threat to men in the US today is men. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the only way to perform masculinity is through forms of hyper-aggression, violence, and domination. These patriarchal notions have been detrimental to everyone in our society. We suffer when we’re unable to express our humanity, softness, and tenderness. That’s one of the reasons why I loved the film Moonlight so much—it portrayed a sensitivity for men of color that isn’t readily available to us in popular culture. I think we suffer when we’re unable to be soft and compassionate with another. It not only deprives us of our masculinity, but also our humanity.
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 definitely talk about sexism and finding ways to create new and healthy forms of masculinity with my male peers, especially men of color. Honesty is the best strategy. It means being aware of ways that we may have hurt people in the past, both consciously and subconsciously. And understanding that while we are certainly products of intergenerational systems of violence and toxic behavior, we are, in fact, capable of unlearning harmful ideas about our role in this vast world. I’m living in a very privileged time —an era filled with a lexicon of terms and words and think pieces that help us articulate how we feel and move through the world. I believe it’s new and something that wasn’t available to past generations. I’m hoping this vocabulary can help us recognize that unhealthy cycles can and should end with us.
My biggest anxiety about being a man is reconciling the way society continues to tell me how I should perform “masculinity” and the form of masculinity that I know is more closely related to my essence. I’ve never quite been a hyper-masculine person, I was raised by women and I often feel uncomfortable around hyper-masculine men. It’s taking me some time to realize and I noticed a positive change in my life when I finally accepted it.
But I think it’s especially challenging for men of color because we often internalize so many of the negative stigmas and stereotypes that exist in society about ourselves: that we’re violent, emotionless, and prone to destructive behavior. So many of us raised by men of color who were also products of unhealthy cycles and they—though we love them to death—weren’t always the best teachers when it comes to learning how to practice healthy forms of masculinity. Ultimately, I think so much of who we are as men is centered on fragile conceptions of self-worth and ego, and it often creates a society of repressed men who see violence and aggression as the only answer.
I wish they knew (and some do) that I think women are the most intelligent and capable and most powerful people in the world.
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?
I think it’s time we work on our fragile egos. We’ve got to find a way to step it up.
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?
I don’t have a particular example but I do believe that we are all problematic to someone in this world. None of us are exempt from recognizing that we’ve treated everyone with as much respect and dignity as they deserved in the past.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
My advice for young men is to think about who we were as children. Who were we before society took a hold of us? We need to reflect on the people we were before many of us were forced to believing that masculinity and tenderness cannot coexist together. I’ve been on this path for quite some time now and I urge us all to think about the boy or child who was filled with immense light, softness, and joy and to do all that we can to reclaim him.