“Looks like someone was trying to educate her. That’s why the bitch has a black eye,” I heard a fellow prisoner say.
“Right. Sometimes you gotta tell ’em twice,” another replied.
The small group of prisoners around them erupted in laughter.
Comments like these, along with homophobic slurs, are quite common in prison and other environments full of men striving to perform their “masculinity,” as if not talking abusively about the objectification of women, or anyone deemed “not masculine enough,” would somehow make them seem weak and less than their “manly self” ― a persona they’ve spent their lives creating.
It’s a feeling I know quite well. I acted ignorantly and spewed similar comments in a fair share of my early years. Given where and how I grew up, this was seen as normal, or just “guys being guys.” I say that not as an attempt to justify this horrendous behavior, but only to add context to how it’s created and continues to grow.
Since before I can remember, I have lived in an environment completely consumed by toxic masculinity. I was raised in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington — a place that thrived off high levels of violence. In the early 1990s, it was known as one of the roughest gang areas on the West Coast. Our community was ravaged by the crack epidemic, and violence ruled our lives.
Growing up there led me to suppress my humanity and live in a false reality, attempting to feel secure and avoid becoming a victim myself. I didn’t always understand this but have come to know it is true. As a kid, I was taught that emotions were for women and “wussies,” that things like crying, and other emotions deemed “soft,” were things “real” men did not express or even have.
While trying to live up to this flawed version of masculinity, I caused serious harm to others, my community and myself. And when I was sent to prison with a 45-year sentence for taking another human life, I was exposed to an environment with levels of toxic masculinity far exceeding any that I had experienced before.
The simplest of words in prison can incite severe violence ― and even riots, in some cases. On multiple occasions, I have witnessed prisoners and guards get beaten until their eyes could not open, for nothing more than calling someone a “punk” or a “bitch.”
These words are extremely demeaning in prison culture and a good indicator of just how toxic the environment is. “Punk” is used in reference to a person who is a victim of anal rape, associated with being the weakest in the prison. “Bitch” is used in reference to one being weak and letting others treat them in a disrespectful manner at any time.
Allowing either word to be used against you opens up a very dangerous door. Because one could become targeted for abuse if they are called “punk” or “bitch” without offering an immediate response, many prisoners use serious violence to react to these slurs. Most of the time, this is only done in fear and to protect oneself. The rules and norms of this environment force prisoners to live by a code that compromises all human morals and standards.
While in county jail in 2006, I found myself in solitary confinement because I had fought with another prisoner who refused to pay a gambling debt: a cookie. Extremely embarrassed, I felt I had no choice but to use violence. It wasn’t about the cookie at all: We had made a bet, he refused to pay after losing, and countless others had witnessed his refusal. This meant I had to act ― at least it felt like I had to ― or everyone would try the same kind of thing against me, if not worse, in the future.
To this day, I use this scenario to remind myself about just how far toxic masculinity had pushed me. I was living by principles that I didn’t agree with.
Breaking free of these ideas and actions that were deeply embedded in my mind from an early age and reinforced exponentially in prison was extremely challenging. You quickly become an outcast when you begin to question the established norms as a prisoner. Individuals see you as a coward or assume you think you’re better than they are. You are targeted, deemed weak and opened up to high levels of judgment.
But eventually the bullies move on to the next target when the reaction they desire isn’t received — just like they almost always do, no matter where you are. And once you’re confidently living without toxic masculinity ruling your life, it’s possible to support others in making that transformation in themselves. But this can be harder than climbing Mount Everest, in some cases.
“Breaking free of these ideas and actions that were deeply embedded in my mind from an early age and reinforced exponentially in prison was extremely challenging. You quickly become an outcast when you begin to question the established norms as a prisoner. Individuals see you as a coward or assume you think you’re better than they are.”
I honestly don’t know the exact moment that I stood up to the toxic masculinity controlling my life, although I would guess it was around six years ago when I participated in a restorative justice program called Healing Education and Accountability for Liberation, facilitated by the organization Collective Justice. That was the first time I had even heard the phrase “toxic masculinity.” But from the second I knew and understood the term, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming role it had played in my life.
Every male I knew in my developmental years had taught me how to protect myself using principles of toxic masculinity. When I learned from my uncle to fight over things as minor as someone speaking disrespectfully to me, that was toxic masculinity. When others told me to fight if anyone challenged what I believed to be related to my “manhood,” that was toxic masculinity. And when I was told that having a gay friend could “rub off on me” and “make me gay,” that was toxic masculinity, too. But I had no idea, because I didn’t know any other way.
Since I’ve begun to rethink my life, I’ve faced many moments of adversity. I live behind a razor wire fence at a prison full of characters, many of whom have yet to learn these same skills and therefore still remain loyal to a belief system that’s destroyed our lives.
So when I refuse to participate in aggressive or toxic masculine behavior, I don’t always seem to be the most popular guy. But I tell myself that it’s not a contest of who’s the most popular, and how people react to the way I deal with situations is not personal. Men are just scared to be vulnerable, especially in prison. I understand that, and I constantly remind myself that it took years for me to adapt the principles I now use to guide my life.
Many of my friends refer to me as a “square,” twisting their fingers up in two mismatched L’s to form the shape. But they always do it with a smile, and I take that as a positive sign for the work I’ve done. Nevertheless, there are also guys I was close to previously who now say nothing to me and simply walk by me in the hall as if we’d never known each other. They refuse to accept my new way of life and hate that I’ll walk away from a fight or confrontation without using aggression.
Living by these beliefs is extremely difficult in prison, but I know that would be the case anywhere else. I still get mad and at times jump to the thought of using aggression as a way to handle issues, even trying to rationalize that certain individuals only understand violence as a means to resolve problems.
But I quickly remind myself that that is exactly the thinking that placed me in prison in the first place, causing severe harm to many others and myself along the way. To combat these thoughts, I’ve learned to take timeouts and give myself enough space to think about my behavior before I act.
Spending the energy to reshape the way I think and interact with others has changed my life in many ways. Now, I’m surrounded by people who encourage me to be a man who adds to the world, not one who continues to take away from it by abusing or harming others ― physically, emotionally or mentally.
I’m proud to say that my refusal to use toxic masculinity to guide my life has become a beacon of sorts for others looking to change their own toxic behavior. This offers me a chance to help support men who want to live a better way but have no clue where to start.
Relationships with friends and family have begun to strengthen. Before, I was the tough cousin, brother or nephew to call when you wanted to solve an issue with violence; now I’m the one they ask for advice on relationships or solving a problem with healthy conflict resolution practices.
Most importantly, I was able to meet and marry the most amazing human I’ve ever met, Chelsea. She fell in love with my kind heart, empathy toward others and loving nature. She would have never loved the aggressive man I was before, who moved through the world as if everyone owed him something and who would simply take whatever he wanted if it wasn’t given to him.
Today, I feel secure in who I am. I respect all humans, no matter who they are or how they identify. I don’t let others control my actions or words. And now I know that those who won’t like or respect me if I don’t live by their toxic code are not the people I want in my life anyway.
Christopher Blackwell, 41, is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington state. He co-founded Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively strives to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Insider and many more outlets. You can follow him and get in touch on Twitter at @ChrisWBlackwell.