Calling All White People, Part 60: Misunderstood white men

TODAY’S EPISODE: The challenge of being a modern white man

One of the great burdens of the 21st century is carrying the massive weight of being a white man.

The strain of carrying all that responsibility and enduring so much misunderstanding and ridicule. The huge…um…crushing…uh…

Bwah ha hah ha ha ha.

Sorry, I tried. I really tried to keep a straight face. I am here (after a rather long pause in writing for BGIM because of…life) to talk about white men and some of the burdens they stress about around race—and tangentially maybe some other things.

Look, life is hard for most people, white guys like me included. But as a white guy who has a passing degree of self-awareness, empathy, and ability to put things in perspective, I know full well that by and large, I have relatively few stumbling blocks in life compared to—well, everyone else.

(Side note: If you’re one of those guys who’s itching right now to tell me I’m a simp trying to kiss up to women and Black people at the same time for their attention and validation or to get a date or something, don’t bother. I don’t read the comments here—ever—and I’m doing just fine for romantic and other attention, thanks.)

Shay—that is, BGIM herself—recently put up a post here talking about an incident in her area recently and an Instagram post about it that drew the ire of a whole lot of white men and got her talked about on 4Chan, which of course is a bastion of good behavior and healthy debate (cough, cough).

I’ve seen some of the comments she got. The ones telling her to “go back to Alabama” (where she’s never even lived by the way) and such are predictable. But more creepy and concerning to me were the seemingly reasonable white men, talking about how misunderstood they are. How not racist they are. How a guy holding up a sign that says “It’s OK to be white” on a busy corner on the first day of Black History Month is simply a plea for compassion and a rallying cry for people to be proud of themselves instead of ashamed.

Who the hell told you to be ashamed? Almost no one. There might be a handful of Black people who ask white people—white men in particular—to be ashamed of their skin color but those are outliers. There is no groundswell of people, Black or female or otherwise, telling us white men to self-flagellate and prostrate ourselves for being white and male.

We didn’t choose this skin or our gender assignment at birth.

We do however, every single damn day, choose what to do about our whiteness and our maleness.

And what most of us white men do is act like being white and male is the baseline of existence. What most of us do is resist every attempt to make us look at our history and our own current behaviors and recognize toxicity. To see harm and potential harm. We willfully cover our ears and eyes and say “nya nya nya” like cranky toddlers.

Which would be hilarious if those cranky toddlers weren’t controlling the vast majority of the power and wealth in this country.

It really is OK to be white (or male), because that is how we were born. It is not, however, OK to keep basking in all the privilege we enjoy as white men and pretend it doesn’t exist. Nobody ever interviewed me and wondered if I might have to take an extended leave or quit because I might decide to have a baby. No cop has ever pulled me over for anything but an actual traffic violation or problem with my lights—and more often than not, I get no ticket, much less harassment or a beating. If I look to the halls of government or the board rooms and C-suite offices of America, I will see a very clear majority of white men staring back, even  though men are slightly less than half the population and white men are way less than half.

When we crow loudly about how it’s “OK to be white” what we are really saying is, “We don’t want to ask the tough questions about why we have the lion’s share of power.” Or worse yet, we are saying, “It’s OK for white men to be in charge of all the rest of you.”

In the more “reasoned” pushback responses Shay got, I saw a lot of what I’ve seen elsewhere online and in public discourse—white men talking about how misunderstood they are. How they are in a “no-win” bind no matter what they do. How no one sees how much they hurt. Blah, blah…blech.

You know what that sounds like? Incel nonsense. Men complaining about how nice guys never win.

“I’ve been kind to her for years; why won’t she date me?” becomes “I’ve never called you the n-word and I let you work with me; why won’t you praise me for my progressiveness?”

“If I don’t treat her nice she won’t be friends with me, but then I have to be turned on and smitten around her while watching her pick guys who aren’t as good for her as I would be” becomes “I’ll get called a racist if I make a joke about Black people so I’m polite but then they ask me to examine my privilege and question existing systems and structures.”

And in both cases (incels or quiet racists): “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

That’s one I see a lot with people who push back against Shay and other Black people (or other POC or other marginalized groups). They will claim to be doing “so much” or “trying so hard” but then get told they are doing it wrong. (Buck up, champ; ever heard of constructive criticism?)

Then they will complain that Black people (and others) get irritated when we ask them what to do. (Well, you could do some research, or maybe have listened to what they said before that you clearly ignored, or you could find a group or program designed to teach you instead of bothering people busy with other stuff to spend gobs of time educating you personally)

It’s absolutely maddening, particularly because I see so many white men saying this stuff in smug, calm tones like they are being completely reasonable when they complain of all that they suffer when they still hold most of the cards.

Criticism and calls to self-reflect and to question the value of the status quo do not equal oppression or abuse.

Give us white men money and it gets even worse. Then we march in to be saviors instead of supporters of a cause or movement, and we act like somehow our money makes us smarter—as if wealth gives us insight into all things social and economic. No, it doesn’t. Research has shown that wealth promotes a lack of empathy. We risk becoming even farther removed from understanding people who are not like us than we already were as white men in America.

Being white and being a man doesn’t mean we have it made. It doesn’t open every door. But it closes precious few doors. If we think we are being misunderstood or disliked because we are white and male, chances are it’s simply because we’ve been asked to do some work or take a perspective other than our own—and we’re getting pissy about it. Just like fussy toddlers. We white men as a whole need to grow up and start taking responsibility instead of taking advantage.

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

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