Former President Barack Obama spoke Tuesday about how to “be a man” and the need to combat stereotypes of masculinity that “trap” young men, specifically young men of color.
“All of us have to recognize that being a man is first and foremost being a good human. That means being responsible, working hard, being kind, respectful, compassionate,” Obama said at a conference for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative in Oakland.
“The notion that somehow defining yourself as a man is dependent on, are you able to put somebody else down… able to dominate… that is an old view,” the former president added.
In conversation with NBA star Steph Curry, Obama spoke about the need to create spaces “where young men of color, and young men generally, don’t feel as if to be respected they have to act a certain way.”
“If you’re confident about your strength, you don’t need to show me by putting somebody else down,” Obama said. “Show me by lifting somebody else up.”
“I’ve just been mentored right there,” Curry responded.
At the start of his panel, Obama had introduced himself as “Michelle’s husband” and the Golden State Warriors player as “Ayesha’s husband.”
The men sat on a stage surrounded by two dozen young men of color. In the front rows of the amphitheater near Lake Merritt in Oakland, dozens more young adults, mostly boys and men of color, faced them, having traveled from places like Los Angeles; Yonkers, New York; and Nashville to be there.
The two-day gathering in Oakland was meant to mark five years since Obama started the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The former president has described the group’s mission as “working to break down barriers that too often leave boys and young men of color at a disadvantage.”
At Tuesday’s event, Obama also spoke about how racism plays a role in perpetuating toxic masculinity.
“Racism historically in this society sends a message that you are ‘less than,’” Obama said. “We feel we have to compensate by exaggerating stereotypical ways men are supposed to act. And that’s a trap.”
He added that much of the “violence and pain” communities suffer comes from men seeking respect, including through gun violence. “And that is a self-defeating model for being a man.”
Obama noted how cultural influences, like music, specifically hip-hop and rap, are often built around “talking about how I have more money than you, I can disrespect you.”
“Ironically, that shows the vulnerability you feel,” Obama said. “If you were very confident about your sexuality, you don’t have to have eight women around you twerking… you seem stressed that you gotta be acting that way.”
“I got one woman who I’m very happy with,” he added, as the audience erupted in applause.
Curry, in turn, spoke about the need for men to be “open about their feelings” and have space where they can do that. He said the locker room with his teammates allows him that.
Obama added that women often already have such spaces, where they can talk about their feelings. However, he added that young women of color “need an enormous amount of support, too,” as they deal with a “double burden” of racism and sexism.
He recounted how in his own household, while he would often get together with his “boys,” as he put it, to watch or play a game of basketball, they might not say much to each other.
Meanwhile, Michelle Obama “will get with her girlfriends, they’ll show up at noon, they’ll be talking, I’ll leave, come back three hours later, they are still talking,” Obama joked. “They’ve cried, they’ve broken down every terrible thing that I did, said he’s worth keeping anyway.”
“That’s the difference,” he added, noting girls often create spaces “to talk about vulnerabilities, doubts, lack of confidence” that men don’t. “It has to do with socialization.”