“Are Black Alpha Males Still Needed?: Socialization, Emasculation, and Media in the Contemporary Era” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

They’ve been targeted for erasure for a variety of reasons, most especially because Black alpha males are considered a threat…

If you watched nothing but American-made action movies you’d think alpha males are a norm in America, but you’d be gravely mistaken. In fact, with the popularity of The Expendables films, one could argue we’re seeing the old guard of action-film machismo saying its glorious goodbye. Aging actions stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Bruce Willis are almost saying goodbye to us, but not as actors per se, more as the characters they were most known for…alpha male characters. Even in hip-hop, an art form that generally has no lack of testosterone, its argued that Kanye West killed 50 Cent’s career, foreshadowing the rise of both middle-class rappers and more abstract subject matter. But more so, it just might herald the end of the alpha male in America.

Don’t get me wrong, I doubt he’ll ever completely go away from the American imagination, but this just might mean he has been demoted in the ranking for acceptable masculine gender performance. And this isn’t so strange. Unless you’re in a life-threatening job like soldiers, firemen, or police officers, there’s not much immediate use for the high-octane masculine agent. In fact, police officers who abuse the public trust by killing innocent Black folk have been under fire for their unchecked hyper-masculinity…signaling a rising critique of alpha male culture. This was unavoidable. Social conditions have created necessary amendments to acceptable performances of masculinity, and the new roles men play may be evidence of new forms of masculinity in and of themselves: single-parent fathers, stay-at-home dads, divorced fathers that’re still highly involved in their children’s lives, men who father from prison, men who commit crime to provide for their families, etc. Notice that these new roles and forms of masculinity describe men who value family, responsibility, and ethical behavior over individual material gain.

The ten beautiful images below illustrate some of the new space Black males have claimed as fathers today:

Keep in mind that in capitalism, manhood has always been tied to material gain, meaning that you were only a man if you could demonstrate a capacity to provide for a woman (and your family). With the rise in technology and the shifts in the economy that ushered women into the workforce and made income something anyone could garner, masculinity needed redefinition. The only problem is that Black feminists have been defining these new Black masculinities, not Black men, and that needs to change. Black men need a voice in the formation of their new identity, and to do so in a manner that doesn’t suit Black feminism need not mean that the approach is automatically wrong.

Despite that there’s been a shift toward alternative definitions of masculinity, there is still a difference between how White and Black folk define alpha male characteristics. Alpha male characteristics are generally only regarded when people describe patriarchal masculine practices, but alpha male tendencies aren’t always problematic or oppressive. Strength, leadership, poise, confidence, charisma, and forthrightness are all characteristics typical to alpha males, not just negative ones like being exploitative, abusive, domineering, or sexist. However, strength and confidence among Black males is read as a threat. In other words, the same characteristics that White alpha males are lauded for are denigrated in Black males, and used to justify the killing of Black males by both police officers and vigilantes. In this way, Black male alpha characteristics are used to justify perceiving Black males as dangerous animals to be “hunted” like big game.

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Ironically, we are now witnessing the rise of the delta male in popular culture (see below). Since the 1990s, delta and beta males have exhibited little investment in protecting, providing, and sacrificing for family, but place more importance on self-deprecating humor, pettiness, and self-doubt–all of which have been hyper-popularized in reality television (and although I can applaud the questioning of male gender roles and expectations in society, Kevin Hart’s “mitch” (the male bitch) is not an ideal I aspire to…). The picture above is a photo taken on the set of Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson’s new film, Central Intelligence. Johnson plays an alpha character while Hart plays his usual delta-mitch persona–that of a man always begging to be respected.

Black and White non-alphas have a different narrative experiences. White betas have been lauded since the 1970s, particularly when White feminism eviscerated traditional notions of White machismo and challenged men to cry to their women when emoting. Meanwhile, however, the rise of the single-parent family in Black communities since the 1970s heralded an era of hyper-incarceration and wanton unemployment for Black men, while also a federally funded welfare state that required absent Black men in order for mostly female-headed households to receive aid. And all of this took place before the Reagan-led War on Drugs or Clinton’s hyper-incarceration policies, both of which dramatically increased Black male and female incarceration rates. Such practices left many young men without father/adult role-models. Simultaneously, school-aged alpha Black males, due to a culture of education that maligns Black male behavior and styles of learning, often find themselves to be the first suspended, then expelled, then on their eventual way to incarceration (even falsely so)—especially if they did not complete their high school diploma. Unless they were successful athletes, school-aged alpha Black males were weeded out and considered “unteachable.”

The remaining school-aged Black males were generally males that could “code-switch” and conduct themselves in a manner conducive to a mostly female learning-space. They were overwhelmingly delta and beta males—albeit not wholly so. Also, the lack of role models to provide direction in regard to manhood, the school system’s witch-hunt of alpha Black males, and society’s denigration of outspoken Black males all contributed to the rise of Black delta/beta male popularity.

Reconsidering the Alpha-Beta Binary

Many believe that there are more archetypes than the apparent “alpha/beta” binary. Some take issue with how these terms are defined, and which categories belong on the list versus others. While I acknowledge that archetypes cannot wholly classify all human beings in such limited categories…I find this socio-sexual  hierarchy to be a useful starting point for classifying masculine types.

If you plan to use it to assess yourself, keep in mind a few things: first, you may find you have qualities from multiple categories. Second, you may grow into/out of particular archetypes over time and experience. And, some believe that women share these very characteristics, and that using these archetypes might better help one understand the barriers men and women have when developing intimate relationships with one another).

Five quick things: first, the list of film characters examples is not meant to be exhaustive, so feel free to postulate which characters might be added to each list. Second, most American movies tend to privilege the alpha/beta binary, while denigrating the others–if they acknowledge them at all. This is why many of the others are portrayed as negative characters… Third, there are positive and negative examples of each archetype, so don’t be offended if the archetypes you’re most drawn to have negative examples from movies you may not like. Fourth, when assessing whether these characteristics apply to you, be honest. Don’t just choose what sounds best to your ego’s perception of yourself; choose what only you know to be realistic and true, and remember that you can have characteristics from more than one archetype! Lastly, let me answer the question you’ll be asking most when you’ve reviewed them—does he know he’s dating himself by his movie references? The answer is, yes. I am well aware. 😉

Vin-DieselAlpha males: American media is replete with references to alpha males. It has been, as point of fact, an alpha-worshipping culture until very recently. “The alpha is the…classic star of the football team who is dating the prettiest cheerleader. The successful business executive with the beautiful, stylish, size-zero wife. All the women are attracted to him, while all the men want to be him, or at least be his friend.” Examples: Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson in the Fast & Furious series; Eddie Murphy in Boomerang; Denzel Washington in Mo’ Betta Blues; Morris Chestnut in The Best Man; Ice Cube in Boyz in the Hood; Michael Kenneth Williams in Bessie; Q-Tip in Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Documentary; and Will Smith in Bad Boys.

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Beta males: Betas are the good-looking guys who aren’t as uniformly attractive or socially dominant as the Alpha, but are nevertheless confident, attractive to women, and do well with them. Betas tend to be happy, secure in themselves, and are up for anything their alpha wants to do. Examples: Taye Diggs in The Best Man and Ludacris in the Fast and Furious series.

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Delta males: “The normal guy. Deltas are the great majority of men. In a social setting, the deltas are the men clustered together in groups, each of them making an occasional foray towards various small gaggles of women before beating a hasty retreat when direct eye contact and engaged responses are not forthcoming.” Examples: Kevin Hart in every damn movie he’s been in; Sang Kung in the Fast & Furious series; and Jarobi of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Documentary.

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Gamma males: “The introspective, the unusual, the unattractive, and all too often the bitter. Gammas are often intelligent, usually unsuccessful with women, and not uncommonly all but invisible to them, the gamma alternates between placing women on pedestals and hating the entire sex.” Examples: Wesley Snipes in Mo’ Betta Blues; Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys; Phife Dawg Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Documentary.

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Lambda males: “Those men who have quite literally no interest in conventional male-female sexual relations. (This archetype is generically attributed to males that designate themselves as other than heterosexuals).” I suspect there’re variations amongst “otherly designated” men because you know, we’re  human, but I’ll leave that for those better ensconced in LGBT research to articulate. Example: Corwin Hawkins (RIP) in A Low Down Dirty Shame.

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Omega males: “The truly unfortunate. Omegas are the social losers who were never in the game. Sometimes creepy, sometimes damaged, often clueless, and always undesirable.” Examples: Harold Perineau in The Best Man; Tyrese Gibson in Fast Five; and David Alan Grier in Boomerang.

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Sigma males: “The outsider who doesn’t play the social game and manage to win at it anyhow. The sigma is hated by alphas because sigmas are the only men who don’t accept or at least acknowledge, however grudgingly, their social dominance. They are usually considered to be strange.” They have strength of will, the capacity to follow through, and usually achieve in unexpected yet respected ways. Examples: Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix: Reloaded; Terrence Howard in The Best Man; Michael Ealy in The Perfect Guy; Mike Epps in Bessie; Wesley Snipes in Blade series; Ali Shaheed Muhammad of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Documentary. (http://alphagameplan.blogspot.com/2011/03/socio-sexual-hierarchy.html)

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Zeta Males: “Zeta Male refers to men who have opted out of traditional societal expectations that a man serve as helper, builder, protector, provider, defender, and husband to women, while accepting that these roles also require him to be disposed of if required – in mind, body and not infrequently in death.” (http://www.avoiceformen.com/sexual-politics/bye-bye-alpha-male-and-hello-zeta-male/)

Martin Lawrence (not his character “Martin Payne” from the sitcom, Martin) is a good representative for Zeta maleness. Look at his life description in Wikipedia:

“Lawrence was engaged to actress Lark Voorhies in 1993. He married Patricia Southall, aka Pat Smith, a former Miss Virginia USA, in 1995. Lawrence and Southall have one child together, daughter Jasmin Page (born January 15, 1996). They divorced in 1997.[citation needed] In 1997, Lawrence began a relationship with Shamicka Gibbs. They married on July 10, 2010, at Lawrence’s Beverly Hills home. Lawrence and Gibbs have two daughters: Iyanna Faith (born November 9, 2000) and Amara Trinity (born August 20, 2002).[20] Lawrence filed for divorce from Gibbs on April 25, 2012, citing irreconcilable differences and asking for joint legal and physical custody of the children.[21] Lawrence owns a farm near Purcellville, Virginia.[22][23] For many years, he owned a large mansion in the exclusive Beverly Park community, but sold it in June 2012 following his divorce.[24]

Lawrence engages women he finds attractive, seems to be content being single and living on a farm on his own terms…

Delta Male Culture

“There was a lot of jealousy and pettiness among the women in my family. My uncles could have stepped in and checked them all but they were intimidated by their sisters. 

One of the reasons I made that post about my son is because I saw my uncles shrink in the presence of overbearing women and some of them overcompensated having their voice silenced by fathering lots of children. 

To them it was reclaiming what was stripped from them. We always assume that men are sexually irresponsible because they lack discipline, when in some men its executing an extension of their idea of manhood that they were once denied. 

But because men don’t get the luxury of background checks like we do, we assume the worst OF them without considering what might have been done TO them.”- Nojma Reflects (#The Agitator, Facebook, November 20, 2015).

One of the central features of Black betas, deltas, gammas, and omegas is emasculation from Black women (mostly from those with access to middle-class life options they lack). The story quoted above from #The Agitator Nojma Muhammad gives a powerful overview of the very passive-aggressive, non-alpha method some men use to demonstrate a masculinity they feel incapable of playing out due to intimidation and fear. This is decidedly different from how alphas and sigmas might deal with emasculation. For better or for worse, the stronger, more socially confident archetypes won’t tolerate even the mere attempt to emasculate them, and whether he responds with reason, violence, or silent rebellion through infidelity, few will ask what spawned his behavior. Namely the emasculation, and in America it’s become common-place—even amongst Whites.

I recently watched an episode of the show Madam Secretary starring Tea Leoni that covered the life of Assata Shakur from a fictional standpoint. Renaming her “Afeni Raheem” (I think in partial salute to Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, former political prisoner of the New York 21. Played by L. Scott Caldwell, “Afeni” is offered a deal to come back to the U.S. and serve the rest of her time for a killing she didn’t commit. madam-secretary-l-scott-caldwell

However, throughout the show betas, deltas, and gamma males are ridiculed, laughed at, dismissed, and open about their physical and emotional frailties. They are not romantic interests (illustrating their lack of acceptable masculinity), nor are they even remotely considered romantic possibilities (one even points out how much physically weaker he is than a senior citizen, highlighting the lack of need for physical prowess in new men; while another is duped by a woman to give her whatever she asks just because she cries, a gesture used in order to manipulate him). More so, watching them reminded me of just how many shows these slim, neatly-trimmed, tight-clothed, non-alpha metrosexuals have become the norm in popular media culture. From the Anderson Coopers to the Jay Baruchels to the Trever Noahs, this seemingly non-threatening male persona belies the ongoing erasure of non-compliant Black male character traits.

In contrast to what we see in popular media, Black men still tell me about the various ways that they are still measured against an unrealistic, storybook alpha male character that is a rich, strong, capable, void of fear, well-educated, constantly traveling, property owner who can fight and magically “make them want to submit” (actual quote from a woman). So even though Black alphas have been systematically punished (i.e. erased) from social life, the remaining males that have, to varying degrees, attempted to meet the newly desired, non-alpha masculinity are still measured by it. But now, “alpha” is defined by fantasy rather than real live people because they’ve been erased to such an alarming degree, few can live up to it. I jokingly tell women immersed in “fantasy alpha-worship” that they are all competing for the same five guys in every major urban city (usually athletes, drug dealers, and entertainers).

Dustin J. Seibert explores this hilariously in his piece, “Maybe You’re Single Because You’re Wack.”* Responding to another article entitled, “Men May Like the Idea of a Smart Woman, but They Don’t Want to Date One,” Seibert brilliantly exposes the elements of female single-life in a context that isn’t generally discussed outside of the barbershop: unrealistic expectations. He then discusses how such expectations can prevent people from being with the person they’ve actually been dreaming about–albeit void of the perfection we tend to associate with them. In other words, he suggests that anyone in a healthy relationship has had to settle to some degree, so waiting for the perfect “Obama-esque” ex-crip who can give you thousands in disposable cash while negotiating a deal with your corporate bosses might be stretching reality to some extent. (*See bottom of this piece for a response to Damon Young’s assessment of Seibert).

Seibert’s critique of articles such as, “Smart Woman” exposes the gynofocal point of view these articles tend to have while ignoring the structural experiences Black males endure. More so, he doesn’t support the prevailing practice of side-stepping a critique of Black female behavior, or rather, as my colleague Dr. Ronald Neal points out, “When femininity is always innocent there is no social change or transformation.” In this way, Seibert humorously (and lovingly) discards their innocence while poking fun at the ways both Black women and men mythologize one another.

The avoidance of critique and the maintaining of female innocence have helped to engender a new, assertive Black femininity. Ironically enough, this femininity is based on notions of vulnerability and victimization. Yet greater access to resources and support has led some Black women to compete for alpha standing in intimate relationships with Black men, defining success by income rather than opting for mutual achievement and cooperative family construction (In fact, I often hear Black women ask if men can handle their greater income or resource access, but an interesting question to ask is whether or not they can handle making more, as their respect for their intimate Black male partner often diminishes when they continue to use Western definitions of worth to measure their men’s value).

It is my contention that this competition is behind much of the interracial and international dating amongst my social unit of Black males. Having interviewed over thirty Black males with advanced college degrees during the last twenty-five years, only two dated White women, another three dated African American women exclusively, while yet another two have stopped dating altogether (choosing to focus on their careers and friendships instead of finding compatible long-term mates). The rest have developed relationships with women of African descent from other countries such as Haiti, Brazil, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. Strangely, these are the ones that maintain the longest, happiest familial relationships. The most consistent statement from these men is that they don’t have to fight about gender roles or negotiate a respect for masculinity; these men have argued that they are content with women from cultures that have maintained a healthy respect for men and males in general. Admittedly, these practices don’t easily fit within the male archetype dynamic mentioned above, but the avoidance of continued argumentation and frustration may be a non-alpha behavioral trait in itself, or it may point to a less-stressful, more expedient method of building strong Black families without the emasculation many men say they tire from.

The hostility and emasculation Black men complain about is in many ways institutionalized. Hence, at every socioeconomic level, Black women are coerced into perceiving Black males from an “us” vs “them” standpoint, whether in poverty (where they’re offered welfare as long as they no longer have a male at home), in the middle-class (where they outnumber Black men in school as both students and faculty by a number of two to one, as well as the opportunity to create important long-term business contacts while they secure grant/scholarships to attain secondary degrees); or in the upper-middle class/corporate structure (where they are increasingly finding a dwindling state of Black male presence). Many of these women don’t see it as a carrot they’re being offered that Black males are systematically denied, they tend to see it as an individual failing on Black men’s part, thus leading to the critique and overall lack of faith in Black men’s capabilities. For some, their material success and distrust of Black males has led to the elite practice of avoiding marriage overall and developing alternative lifestyles that preclude a need for intimacy with Black males.

Instead of a publicly lauded gender movement such as those feminists have held since the 1960s, Black males may have developed an underground movement that lacks leaders, activists, or an open agenda. Instead, it may be a hidden Black movement that is still dedicated to Black family and Black social uplift, minus the competition for respect in relationships. Essentially, Black males have been institutionally, socially, and civically “retarded” (held back), while Black alphas have been tracked since elementary school and incarcerated. This “de-alpha-sizing” of our community through use of state institutions helped secure a less politically-revolutionary community of black males, but one that emphasizes the need for family nevertheless. It is my hope that these men will become politicized once again, but without the socially-imposed, unrealistic standards and expectations that have been associated with Black masculinity since the end of slavery.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Black deltas and betas as the new standard for masculinity in popular culture, or the feigned desire for a fantasy-based Black alpha amongst our women (for intimate relationships) and our men (in corporate-based rap culture), I applaud the push for a “new” standard of masculinity. I applaud that Black males can now be alphas but don’t necessarily have to be. I like the freedom of that. It’s a new dynamic that Black men can now choose to not be defined based on his alpha capability, income, capacity for violence, status, or ability to deal with women competing for alpha status. Rather now, Black men can define themselves based on other traits such as problem-solving, support, intellect, and the capability to be emotionally present to loved ones.

*Addendum: Damon Young writes a response to Seibert’s “Maybe Your Single Because You’re Wack,” entitled, “Maybe You’re Single Because You’re…Wait, Who Gives A Fuck?” In it he suggests that Seibert’s approach is outdated, and that Black men who critique Black women’s dating etiquette are both exploitative and privileged. I’ve already outlined on this blog the problems with the notion of Black male privilege, but here I find it problematic that not only can Black males not critique articles that malign them, ignore their lived experiences, and only focus on how their oppression hurts Black women, but to say something is now a demonstration of a power they do not have… Furthermore, to re-frame the piece in a manner that caters to Black feminists and then describe that as “up-to-date” redirects our focus to a Black feminist response–subtly suggesting that the only acceptable approach to gender cannot include Black male experiences that cast critique on Black feminism. That’s just not allowed, and if it does, it must be backward.

I liked Seibert’s piece because he actually critiqued both black women AND men, while most pieces (such as this Young’s) only CATER to Black women rather than pushing the boundaries and saying something they may not like to hear.

Young states, “We (Black men and women) have heard and read and watched reports and blogs and specials and stories and plays and movies about man shortages and uneven ratios and Kim Kardashian ad nauseam. We know that, for myriad reasons, the numbers are skewered in Black men’s favor. Which is why a Black guy getting on a platform to tell Black women why they’re “failing” at dating is specifically reductive, myopic, and even, at times, cruel.”

“Skewered in Black men’s favor” is way of saying it that caters to Black women. Acknowledging Black men’s experience, might read more like, ‘too many Black men have been eliminated as viable dating options because they’ve been targeted for underdevelopment.’ By focusing on the Black men who exploit the dating market while simultaneously diminishing the experiences of Black men who’ve been removed from it is a way to cater to the interests of one demographic over another, especially a demographic more likely to buy your product over the ones who are locked up.

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