Permission to Be…a lesson from Kanye

Photo by Jorge Saavedra on Unsplash

Kanye West is known for many things. Most of them are of the infamous variety, but he’s recently outdone himself. During a meeting with President Trump, Kanye said the MAGA hat made him feel like Superman. No, I’m not making this up. Kanye “George Bush hates black people” West, said the MAGA hat makes him feel like he has superpowers. 

If you missed the moment I’m speaking of, click here for the full transcript. While I’m both concerned and disappointed in Kanye, I’m also aware that he consistently does something most of us wouldn’t dream of. He expresses his authentic identity. He doesn’t let the pressure of who people want him to be limit who he actually is.  

We won’t live that boldly. The thought of being cut off from our communities, damaging our reputations or risking our careers is too much to bear. Therefore, we live so that feathers aren’t ruffled, and we never give ourselves space to be curious about who we really are. As a result, we fail to live into our greatest potential. Desires go unnamed. Dreams are locked away. Destiny is rerouted as we pretend we’re okay living out the identities assigned to us.  

Who do you need permission to be? 

In the past, I’ve needed permission to be a man in the way that is most authentic to me. I’m a heterosexual, cisgender male. As an adolescent, I noticed that I was more emotionally sensitive and more comfortable relating to women than most hetero, cis boys I knew. People often assumed I was gay, and as a teenager, I took that as an insult.

It meant that I was somehow more feminine than I should be. Moreover, it made me feel deeply misunderstood and judged. I felt a large knot in my throat as I wrestled with the shame of not being masculine enough to fit in.   

Why did my feelings get hurt so easily? Every insult whether levied seriously or in jest was taken as an attack on who I was. Even if I logically knew it wasn’t meant that way, my emotions still got the better of me. My chest and throat constricted and my eyes watered as I desperately fought back tears. Each time this happened, the shame rose within me as I told myself I was stupid for caring so much about what other people thought of me. 

Why was it easier to make female friends than male friends? I would regularly find myself at the lunch table surrounded by girls. Before you ask, they weren’t fawning over me. I was firmly entrenched within the confines of the friend zone. Girls just felt easier to talk to, and less threatening. They didn’t want to fight or wrestle when they hung out.  They just talked, and I liked that. 

As a result of my emotional sensitivity and my preference for female friendship, I often held one significant question about myself…

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

What is wrong with me? 

Can you feel the weight of that question? The inherent shame oozes from each word and like hot asphalt on a summer day, it stuck to the deepest parts of me. For years I held that shame believing I was somehow broken. Slowly I found a way to erode the asphalt and experience grace, and two things helped with that process. The first was greater awareness of myself. 

I realized I was sensitive to criticism because I spent seven years of my childhood getting berated and assaulted by my stepdad. His words cut me deeply, piercing my still-forming identity and crippling my young masculinity. As a result of the relationship I had with my step-dad, I gravitated more strongly towards my mom and learned to relate to women more.

In some ways, men still feel threatening to me. There is a silent alarm in my subconscious that gets triggered when I’m around men whom I perceive to be more masculine than myself. I feel my anxiety spike almost as if a low-level fight or flight response is activated. I know it is illogical, and through awareness and self-talk, I hope to one day shut down the alarm system. For now, I accept it as it is without allowing it to dictate how I relate to people.  

The second thing that helped me accept grace was beginning to understand gender as something socially constructed rather than divinely instituted. Concepts of masculinity and femininity have been applied to gender in order to sell clothes, market perfume, disempower women and desensitize men, but they are not a natural part of our existence. Gender is constructed in the same way that race is constructed. Whereas race was constructed around differences in skin color, hair texture, and facial features, gender was created based upon differences in external genitalia.  

Both gender and race are arbitrary distinctions loosely based on biological characteristics, and both are designed to keep people in their place so that those in power can maintain it. Unfortunately, these arbitrary distinctions continue to play a significant role in our identities. Even though I’m now aware of the illusion of gender, I still succumb to my embedded beliefs. 

For example, I fall into the trap of trying to protect Brooke’s emotions. I am tempted to withhold information from her because I’m afraid it will be too difficult for her to hear, or I’m worried it will upset her too much. When I withhold information to “protect” her, I’m intentionally or unintentionally denying the existence of her strength and agency. What I’m really saying is “I don’t think you’re strong enough to handle this.”

Logically I know that’s an antiquated and misogynistic way of thinking because I’m failing to see her with agency and power. Moreover, it is problematic because I think my masculinity comes with an inherent right to be the gatekeeper for her emotions. It is unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. The trouble with embedded beliefs is that, like shrapnel, they’re difficult to remove all at once. 

The truth is, my wife is a bad-ass woman with immense strength and deserves to be treated as such.  If I’m really being honest, the underlying fear isn’t that she won’t be able to handle the truth I’m holding, it’s that I won’t. Once I express it to her, I’m forced to fully confront it as well, and that is terrifying. Fragile masculinity is motivated not by the weakness it perceives in femininity, but by the weakness it perceives in itself. Most of us aren’t curious enough about ourselves to understand the roots of our fragility. 

Who do you need permission to be? 

This question is not one answered in a moment. Rather it is a slow-cooker question. You reflect on it for a while, let it simmer and when the time is right an answer will present itself. In the meantime, pay attention to who you are at various moments of the day. Which identities present themselves? Are they identities that you have chosen, or have they been given to you? Which identities are whispering and waiting to see the light of day?  

Most of us will never receive as much national attention as Kanye, and that is probably a good thing. Fame can mess a person up. What I hope we learn from Mr. West, aside from the reality that no one looks good in a MAGA hat, is that sometimes we must do the hard thing; step beyond what is comfortable in order to live into our deeper truths. 

Take time this week to explore the identities that you carry. Notice when they feel uncomfortable like wearing a shoe that is a size too small. Notice when they perfect like your most comfortable pair of jeans. Give yourself the freedom to be curious, self-aware and bold this week as you ask questions that you’d normally ignore.

Who do you need permission to be?

P.S. You have permission. Now go be you! 🙂

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