It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.

What the hell is a Scalawag?

Keith Miller Jr., a 29-year-old Savannah native, is the founder of the Pillow Talk Project, a social movement dedicated to redefining society's ideas of masculinity through everyday intimate conversations. Miller noticed a lack of outlets for men to express themselves emotionally, and wondered if, given the space to communicate their deepest emotions, men could shift their definitions of masculinity. These conversations create a safe space for men to be truly vulnerable as they explore a range of topics under the umbrellas of beauty, masculinity and male desire.

Currently The Pillow Talk Project is comprised of two social media campaigns, #WeSmileToo and #WhenMenDance, and over 250 interviews, all conducted by Miller, in which men discuss everything from difficult father-son relationships, first kisses and processing trauma. In this interview, Keith explores the what, why and how of toxic masculinity: What is it? Why does it affect people? How can we change it?

Keith Miller, Jr, is a Savannah, Georgia native who's interviewing men about toxic masculinity. Photo by Maggie Harney, used with permission from Pillow Talk.

Ariel Felton: Where did your definition of masculinity come from when you were younger?

Keith Miller, Jr: It came from what I saw from older men, and the boys I saw trying to be like them, posing like them, puffing out their chests like them. I suffered from pretty intense bullying for years, and I definitely noticed the boys who weren't getting beat up and how they behaved.

And in many ways it also came from women. Women have a lot more say in what it means to be a man than people would ever imagine. Masculinity exists for the desire to be the most wanted. I was raised by a single mother, and the men that my mother dated were all tall, smooth operators, always in control.

My mom reinforced what a man was and what a man wasn't because she was raising me alone. When she saw me putting tape on my fingers like fake nails, I got slapped for that. I also remember her commenting about how I walked. My mom always accepted me for who I was, but the more pronounced it became, the more fearful she was of what it might mean. Outsiders would comment on my mannerisms and she would take their opinions to heart.

AF: Who was the first person you felt comfortable being so vulnerable with?

KM: There was one young dude who lived in my neighborhood who was extremely handsome, but very rough. We fought once, and I won, and after the crowd walked off, he pulled me aside and said, "can you show me how to do that headlock move?" So I showed him and we became fast friends. We would talk for hours, mostly with him telling me everything about himself–he'd talk about his parents, his home life, how he felt like nobody really cared. And in return, when someone would call me a faggot or try to fight me, he would defend me.

I got a lot of friends that way actually, but there was something complicated about that. I think at that age we're conditioned to be heterosexual, but without an understanding that heterosexual doesn't mean there was no gender or sexual fluidity. Men are not taught how to deal with male intimacy or affection, and because I was such a curious kid and showed so much interest in listening to these new friends, they got confused. They felt emotionally close, and wanted to express that. There would inevitably be a moment where they start to be more physically affectionate, putting their arms around me and trying to experiment. It's important to mention here that I didn't yet identify as being gay… And for them, I honestly don't think it was a matter of being gay. I think it was a matter of them feeling the desire to express affection and connection.

AF: What does your mother think of the Pillow Talk Project?

KM: She loves it! It just blows her mind to know that work like this exists and she wishes it existed when she was younger because she feels like it would have shifted how she raised me. As a Gen Xer, she grew up with very clear and defined roles of what masculinity and femininity was. At that time, there were no cultural conversations battling toxic masculinity. And I think it hurts her sometimes because now, she is aware of some of the toxic things that she might have done to make me more of a man, whether it was calling me names or beating me because I was too soft.

But I have no resentment towards her, because I think I was always aware that she was doing the best she could as a single mother. When we talk now, I'm always pushing her to think differently about her understanding of men and to understand that there is a spectrum of the performance of masculinity and that every man who appears soft isn't gay, and that every man who appears extremely masculine ain't straight.

When she saw me putting tape on my fingers like fake nails, I got slapped for that. I also remember her commenting about how I walked. My mom always accepted me for who I was, but the more pronounced it became, the more fearful she was of what it might mean.

AF: How do you choose the men you interview?

KM: I work very hard to incorporate a balance in representation. There are issues that are specific to men of color, that are specific to gay men, specific to trans men and so forth. The LGBT community especially seems to struggle with this performance of masculinity–to society, being gay means you aren't a real man. These individuals particularly need to experience solidarity and see people going through the same thing they're going through, to know they aren't alone.

I've been considering creating a corner for all of these specific areas on the website, but I know it needs to be done without making one story seem more important than the other. Going forward, I want to continue to highlight diverse experiences and identities, and allow space for such a specific focus on a particular background, but also continue to hold the equal representation of everybody.

AF: How do you conduct such intimate conversations with strangers?

KM: I don't know these men personally, so I will comb through their social media to get a feel for who they are and where they consider themselves to fall on the spectrum of masculinity. I let people know the three categories before we start: beauty, masculinity and male desire. Male desire is a huge umbrella of sexuality and relationships and intimacy. I have a battery of 60 questions I will always pull from, but from there, I just rely on my curiosity and dig into my follow-up questions.

After a lot of these interviews, men tell me the whole process felt like therapy, and I think that's a great compliment. I'm not judging them, I'm just listening. I try my best to honor every story and let people know their fearlessness is incredibly powerful and important to me. And it's protected by me.

AF: What effect does this project seem to have on the men you interview?

KM: I think it really depends on the person. The men I interview are already fearless enough to think differently about masculinity, and that's exactly what I wanted to push out into the world. Instead of highlighting men clinging to toxic masculinity, I purposefully choose men who are daring to renegotiate with it means to be a man on their own terms, in their own way.

I wouldn't necessarily say that each man emerges transformed because of this project. If nothing else, after the interview, men know it's OK to think and talk about their journey. When I'm interviewing men, I'm not focusing on their trauma just to get the best story. Instead, I want to uplift the way this trauma led to the men they are today, which means I'm asking a lot of thought provoking questions that inspire men to dig a little deeper into themselves.

AF: Do you ever get any negative feedback?

KM: Never directly on the website, but when I share a link to an interview on Facebook, it definitely happens. It's usually very easy to see in the beginning of a conversation if someone is actually interested in having a true dialogue or if they just want to attack me.

For example, sometimes along with interviews, I will share my personal story and one gentleman replied, you're just a click baiter, and you haven't been through anything, and I think you should stop lying.

But it's not all negative. I interviewed someone who identified as a demisexual–someone who does not experience sexual attraction to someone unless they form a strong emotional connection first. I had a productive conversation with a female counselor, who at first, insisted that demisexuality wasn't real. We went back and forth and eventually came to an agreement that demisexuality is not necessarily a different sexual identity, but it is a manifestation of sexual preference and therefore we have to honor it. Afterwards she thanked me for engaging in the conversation, saying that I could've easily ignored her or blocked her from the page.

AF: How do you differentiate masculinity from toxic masculinity?

KM: I believe toxic masculinity is simply a social experiment and a manifestation of normalized trauma. A lot people ask why demonize what it means to be a man, but there's nothing wrong with masculinity as a characterization of things that have been gendered as things men do.

The problem is when the dominant narrative of masculinity is to favor oppression, is to conquer, is to hurt, is to not feel, is to not cry. That's when we're going into toxic territory. And it all stems from this idea that there is a difference in how men and women operate. But there isn't. We are human first and every human deserves the right to a safe space, the compassion to feel, to love, to hurt, to heal.

AF: What specific issues do you think men of color, gay, or trans men face in relation to toxic masculinity that is different from say, white, straight, cisgender men? Should their resources/safe spaces differ, and how?

KM: The only way I can think to answer the questions is to reference W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness. As he explains,"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife– this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." That same concept can be applied to not only people of color, but those with even more fractured identities, forced to split themselves into twos, threes, and fours just to survive the harshness that exists– all in the name of acceptance.

Whereas safe spaces for white, straight, cisgender men must help them recognize their privilege, the trauma that follows, and how to become better allies, individuals of double, triple, and quadruple minorities have to deal with coming to terms with the state of existing when their very existence feels problematic in a country that is still deeply built upon and value white masculinity.

The problem is when the dominant narrative of masculinity is to favor oppression, is to conquer, is to hurt, is to not feel, is to not cry. That's when we're going into toxic territory.

AF: Are safe spaces enough to protect our society from the effects of toxic masculinity, or do we also need to call out the power dynamics that make it possible for people to prosper off toxic masculinity?

KM: Just like all social constructs, toxic masculinity exists for the establishing of two categories: those in power and those meant to be dominated by that power. The #MeToo movement gives us an opportunity for all, men, women, etc. to come to terms with the fact that individuals are using their power to oppress others, across races and sexes. And within such a power structure, some have more power than others, and we're all in some fashion, way, or form prospering from that power, whether we're the definition of masculinity being straight, white, cisgender and handsome or the picture of femininity: straight, white, cisgender and woman.

To me, no space can actually be safe if it doesn't allow us to tear at these power structures, which requires us to tear open ourselves and re-examine our beliefs and conscious and unconscious biases that affect how we use power and privilege in our everyday lives. True liberation requires this process on daily basis, an almost obsessive reflective process that allows us to ask ourselves, "Am I truly living up to the ideals I voice, or am I just saying shit because it sounds good and everyone else believes it to be right. Do I truly believe in equity or am I saying so because the world wants me to and there's something I can get out of it…some kind of incentive for appearing more "woke" that I really am."

Ariel Felton

Ariel Felton is an essayist and editor living in Savannah, Georgia. Her work has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, McSweeney’s, Under the Gum Tree, Atlas Obscura, Scalawag magazine, and Reductress. Her book review column “Well, Lit” is published monthly in Do Savannah, spotlighting new authors from Savannah and from the South. Read more of her work at arielfelton.com.