I’ve been meaning to write this for a while now. It’s been swirling in my brain, heart, and gut for quite a while, but every time I feel like I’m close to putting fingers to keyboard, I shy away, worried of the reaction from all sides.
It’s a sensitive topic, you see. A white guy writing to other white guys about being a white guy in today’s society and culture.
I’m white, male, and straight. How many of you fit that description? Feels like that’s three strikes against us in certain circles, doesn’t it? The evil trinity of all that is wrong in society. When our thoughts don’t echo every last page of the progressive playbook, we’re branded racist/misogynist defenders of the patriarchy. Did I strike a chord there?
I’m feminist, pro-choice, and pro-marriage equality. Any of you fit that mold? Well, that’s three strikes from the right. When we speak up for the rights and well-being of (non-white, non-male) others, someone is going to paint us as emasculated liberals who want to steal freedom and jobs from good American folk. Any of you in that boat with your friends and family?
I’m a father, partner, and colleague — trying to do my best at each role though I’m far from perfect. Sometimes it feels like walking on eggshells through minefields, when we say or do something to offend. Can any of you relate?
I enjoy expressing my masculinity in my own personal way, but I’m constantly reminded that masculinity circa 2018 is toxic.
Let me be perfectly clear. These words are devoid of complaint. I know exactly how good I — and other white men like me — have it. I know that every day of my life operates from a privileged position. I readily acknowledge the entire backpack of privilege that I’ve been carrying since birth, simply because of the my gender and the color of my skin.
My words here are an attempt to connect with others who feel like the highly divisive nature of our society leaves us in a no man’s land, where we’re often damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. It’s a place where any attempt to do the right thing seems simultaneously too much and not enough. It’s a place where all aspects of masculinity, not just those that are truly dangerous, are suspect. It’s a place where I’m convinced a lot of white men like me find themselves in 2018 – dazed and confused by an emerging society that considers us dangerous.
How do we get out of this no man’s land?
Let me make some suggestions for those of us in no man’s land. These suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears at both extreme ends of society, but I hope might resonate in the reasonable middle. (Many might dispute that such moderation exists in modern society, but my optimism hinges on its presence —albeiet quiet at the moment — in our national conversation.)
We have to hold ourselves as individuals to the highest standard of human existence. This means living with integrity, respect for others, tolerance, and a generosity that extends to people across the demographic continuum. Want to stop getting blamed for the ills of society? Stop contributing to them. Be a good human being. Seriously.
We don’t need a group to represent us. I know it sometimes feels like there’s an identity group for every last combination of chromosomes, but those groups only exist for protection of the individuals within them. The private and public institutions that form the foundation of our society were created by white men to protect the interests of white men. We already have the largest identity group in the nation — our economic and government institutions. Just look across corporate boards and legislative bodies. White men. We don’t need a group.
We have to stop seeing the spoils of society as a fixed size to be divided up. This only makes the “others” seem threatening. There’s plenty of room for women and people of color to have a seat at the table. Welcome and support them and watch them contribute to our collective progress and prosperity. Not sure how? Ask them. They already know how you can help. Your voice still matters. It’s just not the only voice in the room anymore.
We have to start policing our own if we don’t want to be blamed en masse. Tired of being lumped into calls to condemn “the patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity”? I know there are plenty of good white men out there, who have their hearts and actions in the right place. I work and walk through life with many of you. Start differentiating yourself from the real reasons for these condemnations. There are countless white men who wield their power in ways that are dangerous, disrespectful, and dehumanizing. Don’t look the other way. Listen to and believe women and people of color. Do something about it. Stand up for what’s right.
We must engage our sons in ways that nurture them into healthy humans. The number of young white men who are struggling to cope with modern society is mind-boggling. We have to believe and show them through our words and actions that it’s okay to talk about our fears and weaknesses and admirable to ask for help when they need it. We must also talk about and model respect for women everywhere, so there is no doubt in their minds how they should act on their own.
We have to lean on each other, vulnerably. It’s taken me months to get the courage to write this, but in the end I knew I had to open this conversation. The issues dividing our society today aren’t black and white. They’re hard to understand, and contain layers upon layers of nuance. The only way to work through them is to lean on each other as we lean into them. Admit when you’re unsure or unclear. Ask questions. Listen and learn. Don’t insist on being right, but rather on understanding.
If it’s disconcerting to be white man right now, that’s understandable. Our society is struggling to find a new equillibrium, painfully. The forces of demographic and cultural change are battling the forces of retrenchment. It’s a knock down, drag out fight that has brought out the worst in us.
My advice? Join this new, inclusive conversation at a bigger table. Find the middle, ignore the fringe. Choose the right side of history and human progress. You — and our society — will be better off for it.