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Shaking off the Shackles of Adapted Black Masculinity

Dear Friend, if I am brutally honest, in my last major relationship I wasn’t sure I could bring all that I know to the table as she generally wouldn’t get it.  In a way, that is why we ended.  I would talk dreams, or consider psychological things, or talk activism, or about my book.  I could only do that with her in small parts, as I realised her world was smaller than mine and actually very different.  What these last few months has taught me is that as so many of you, my friends, have proven to me is that I shouldn’t have to hide what I know.  I am very intelligent, and I am interested in the intelligence of others as well.

My writings these past few months have perhaps been more reflexive than in previous years.  Lockdowns, the murder of George Floyd, have meant that I have taken a longer more intense look inwards at myself than I have for several years.  I have been asking myself fundamental questions, like who am I as a black man?  What is love as a black man?  And what is happiness as a black man? 

This month’s blog is no different.  Again, punctuated by statements based on conversations I have had with close friends, they point to another aspect of what I find difficult as a black man.  The ability to be truly authentic as a black man in relationships.  That there are drivers which make us as black men adapt to our surroundings is an obvious statement.  From the ongoing racialised conflict with the powers which sit central to white patriarchy, the ability to adapt and to perform as a black man becomes a means of surviving in a world which projects hate and fear towards us but also needs us onside.  These adaptations mean that we are hopefully feared less by the police, by white women, by the middle and upper classes, by those in power, by all who need us to play our subservient, marginalised, silent role, and just be there.

That we adapt to systems in order to survive them is nothing new.  The boarding school system could be considered to thrive on the adaptability of the students who often resides within them (Schaverien, 2011), whilst the impact of adaptation has been studied within students from all around the world (Sultana & Kabir, n.d.).

Shame and guilt can be powerful drivers in these adaptations, where the subject imposes its will over the other so that it falls into line, this shame being driven through processes of ostracization, covert or overt enforcement, or physical or even sexual bullying (Bafunno & Camodeca, 2013).  The drive to have the other adapt, and comply is a horrific aspect of the experience of the other, and many black men, myself included have had to conform in order to get through life’s varying troublesome, and often painful, experiences. 

Dear Friend, something you have been saying to me, whispering to me, has only now made sense.  It is the idea that in any lasting relationship I need to be with someone compatible with me on an intellectual level.  Whilst for you, if I recall, you said if your partner is not intelligent then you get bored, for me what I now realise is that if my partner isn’t able to meet me intellectually then I mould myself to meet them where there are, and therefore give up some of my wisdom/brilliance along the way.  I therefore adapt to them.  That adaptation costs me, and I find myself not speaking of things that I want or should do, in order so as to not overshadow them.  It also needs the other person to be interested in what I have to say and do.  I have been around people who just wanted to bask in the reflected glory of what I know and do, and I have been around others who initially said they understood but then drifted off using what they don’t know about my world against me in a show of grandiosity.  So, I think my intelligence is important in my relationships and any partner has to be able to meet me there for me to remain genuine and to help me stay un-adapted.  Does this make sense?

And yet there is an inherent inhumanity in the adaptations we wear to survive.  Freire (1970) speaks of such in his recognition of the return to the instinctive that the drive to adapt creates.  Whilst this adaptation is motivated by oppression, it could also be argued that we adapt to our earthly surroundings from the instance we are conceived and come into life.  Washburn’s (1995) transpersonal take on how we enter into life holds echoes of these adaptations, of the splitting away from our more dynamic, true, spiritual, self, into something more human, more limited. 

From early on, we learn to be small, silent, safe black men.  We learn to perform, to shuck and jive, to play football, to rap, but we’re not to speak football, we’re not to stand up for working class children with nothing to eat during a pandemic lest we be branded troublemakers and told to stay in our lane.  That we meander through life adapted is therefore to live one’s life knowing one is incomplete, that one is in a constant nagging pain at this loss of a sense of self, a feeling of loneliness, of an unquestioning sadness. 

We are in shadow as we are inauthentic and as we are invisible, we are projected upon by the subject, aspects of their self they do not want to own, their anger being an obvious one.  And to play our adapted role some of us act out said projections, unwilling participants in an unconscious dance where we are led over the cliff of our own destruction, where in our performative role we become safe within the pseudo temple that is whiteness. 

Yet, the adaptations do not really save us.  People often sense that we are not being real, that we are not fully who we say we are, sickened by us as they look down upon us from their plinth of psychological supremacy.  This is the unconscious supremacy which echoes the manufactured supremacy of the patriarchy of whiteness over black men.

Yet, there is a route back, and this route is via the Jungian idea of Individuation (Stein, 2005).  For us as black men though, walking upon the road of individuation involves the movement towards authenticity from within the adaptive shackles which have bound it as it survives White Supremacy. 

Dear Friend, I think as a black man one always holds back.  I have to assess each situation as I encounter it, so as not to be seen as too aggressive, too big, too loud, too knowledgeable and smart.  You’re right about the many mini-deaths that I therefore encounter (and thank you for reminding me of my own bloody work/writings on the subject).  I think that is why these past few months have been good for me psychologically as many of the adaptations have fallen away and I can reveal much more of myself without too much fear.  I worry less what people think of me.  I know they are afraid.  I know that white women will call white men to protect them from me.  I know all of this.  Yet, I don’t care.  Hence all of my covid-lockdown purchases of clothes and bracelets (?!?).  As for intelligence, you were right, I’ve hidden this so as not to intimidate women, but it is a massive part of who I am, and it is a large part of why people find me attractive.  I don’t hide it when I’m working, as this is one major reason why people come to hear me speak, because of my fire and my wisdom, so why do it for any partner?

Just like how whiteness hates its shadow other, blackness, so does the ego hate its shadow.  When we often talk about ego and shadow, within psychological terms this relationship is often presented as being quite benign.  The reality as I now realise is that there is much hatred and anger from the ego towards its shadow self, with any kindness lost, any sensitivity absent.  This pre-egoic rage towards its own brother is what drives the other to submit, to adapt to its surroundings. 

Yet, for the shadow, there is within it a constant drive towards authenticity, through the process of individuation.  For black men the path of individuation involves the fight for a more self-correct sense of blackness, where one recognises what it is for oneself to be black, where one uses this newfound sense of identity to fight not for equality but for equity, where one walks the lonely road of freedom from its own adaptations. 

As a black man the trick though is to move beyond these internalisations, like the shadow work of the slave who kept getting up whilst his internalised overseers kept whipping him down back to his knees.  The dreams of me as a black man, of us as black men, plot a route out of the psychological slavery Akbar names in his seminal works (Akbar, 1984).  They are gifts from the ancestors, gifts which like Harriet Tubman plot the psychological path out of the darkness of psychological adaptation, which when shared can be the weapons used to fight the subject much like Morpheus did against Agent Smith in the Matrix.  They can lead us on a path to Zion.

Dream: A scene where I am in an ornate room, with glass-stained windows.  I am seated on a plush old-fashioned bench waiting as my friend, a white man comes to sit next to me.  Then we both go to stand up amongst a group of men and women as we wait to sing in the choir.  Initially, I am not sure where to stand, but I move to the front and take a position at the pinnacle of the choir as I start to sing.    

Thank you, Dear Friend.


Akbar, N. (1984). Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery. New Mind.

Bafunno, D., & Camodeca, M. (2013). Shame and guilt development in preschoolers: The role of context, audience and individual characteristics. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 128–143.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books Limited.

Schaverien, J. (2011). Boarding School Syndrome: Broken attachments a hidden trauma. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 27(2), 138–155.

Stein, M. (2005). Individuation: Inner Work. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 7(2), 1–13.

Sultana, A., & Kabir, S. M. S. (n.d.). Inferiority Complex and Self-Esteem Among Madrasa Students in Bangladesh: A Real Crisis.

Washburn, M. (1995). The Ego and the Dynamic Ground A Transpersonal theory of human development. State University of New York Press.