book excerpt

The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America

An excerpt from a new book by the author of So You Want to Talk About Race.

Photo: Courtesy of the author
Photo: Courtesy of the author
Photo: Courtesy of the author

I was at an idyllic women’s writing retreat. I spent my days in a charming cabin surrounded by trees, kept warm by a little wood-stove. As I looked out the window to the giant evergreens surrounding my cabin, I was supposed to feel the spark of inspiration. But I wasn’t feeling inspired yet. This setting was quite a change for someone like me: a single mom of two boys used to writing over the din of crashes and bangs and shouts and her own attention deficit disorder. I had adapted to being creative even with a teenage boy regularly interrupting to tell me that he needed more snacks and, yes, was still incapable of finding them himself.

But this writing retreat was designed to get women away from the cries of “Mom!” or “Honey?” that so often compete for our brain space. We were supposed to be honoring our creativity by giving it the time and space it deserved. No children, no men, no internet, no television.

So we worked each day in solitude, and then every evening, at around six p.m., all five of us writers would leave our individual cabins and gather for dinner in the main farmhouse. Over a lovingly prepared meal made with vegetables freshly pulled from the farmhouse garden, we would discuss our writing projects, asking each other questions and offering support and encouragement. We talked about the work we were doing: the books we were writing, the plays we wanted to write. We floated ideas, asked for advice about agents and editors. We laughed and drank wine.

But more than anything, we talked about men. Not our partners or friends or brothers — we talked about shitty dudes. And even though we came from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we all had plenty of dudes to talk about. We talked about the white men in publishing who were constantly devaluing our work. We talked about the male writers who would grab your ass at book fairs or offer to give you feedback on your work and then try to sleep with you. We talked about how much time we had spent writing about shitty white dudes. Because if we weren’t writing about the president, we were writing about how men without uteruses should not control our reproductive choices, or about how rapists should actually go to jail for rape — even if they were gifted athletes.

Every evening, we would come together and talk about how we were trying to write and live in a world run by men who seemed pretty determined to stop us from having a voice, from experiencing success — from having our own free and independent lives. And I know this isn’t a problem that’s particular to the writing industry. I’ve participated in similar conversations when I worked in advertising and when I worked in tech. These are conversations, I’m sure, that women find themselves having in just about any job they have, in every school they attend, and in every community where they live. There is an abundance of bad guys to be found just about everywhere, and we can’t seem to stop talking about them.

“Works according to design.”

This is a comment that I and many of my fellow racial justice commentators have made when truly horrible things happen, just as they were intended to. A police officer shot an unarmed Black man, and a grand jury decided that the officer didn’t even need to face trial? Works according to design. A kid of color selling weed will be sentenced to years in prison while a wealthy white man receives house arrest for his second DUI? Works according to design.

Although the phrase may seem alarmingly coldhearted, it is our way of reminding ourselves that the greatest evil we face is not ignorant individuals but our oppressive systems. It is a reminder that the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland are not isolated cases. It is a reminder to refuse to let our shock and outrage distract us into thinking that these incidents do not all stem from the same root source, which must be dismantled. That source is white male supremacy.

White men lead our ineffective government with almost guaranteed reelection. They lead our corrupt and violent criminal-justice system with little risk of facing justice themselves. And they run our increasingly polarized and misinforming media, winning awards for perpetrating the idea that things run best when white men are in charge. This is not a stroke of white male luck; this is how our white male supremacist systems have been designed to work.

And when I say “white supremacy,” I’m not just talking about Klan members and neo-Nazis. Blatant racial terrorists—while deadly and horrifying—have never been the primary threat to people of color in America. It’s more insidious than that. I am talking about the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized, while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.

The average Black household in the United States has one-thirteenth of the net financial worth of the average white household; the average Hispanic household has one-eleventh. One-third of Black men in America are expected to be imprisoned in the course of their lives. As stark as these numbers seem, we people of color—especially women of color—live with these realities every day. Our entire society is built to ensure that white men hoard power. And it’s important to remember that the women and people of color most violently harmed by these systems are those who are also queer, transgender, or disabled.

The “male supremacy” in white male supremacy has been in place in white culture since before white people thought of themselves as white. For centuries, women were not allowed to own property, to attend university, to vote. Whatever degree of freedom women and girls had in their public and private lives was determined by men.

Women still spend a large portion of their lives battling men for their basic dignity and safety. They face the persistence of the gender wage gap, the fact that one in five women is a victim of sexual assault, and the ongoing debate about whether male abusers should keep their jobs and even their status.

These injustices are not passed down by God; they are not produced by any entity greater than ourselves. These oppressive systems were built by people—with our votes, our money, our hiring decisions—and they can be unmade by people.

So, at this beautiful dinner table in a farmhouse in the woods, as we continued talking about these white men and their unchecked anger, fear, and irresponsibility—this phrase kept popping into my head: works according to design.

I thought about the white men who talked over me in meetings. I thought about the white male lead in a movie who sits in his cubicle and laments his lot, bemoaning that he was supposed to be so much more. I thought about the white men wearing swastikas in Charlottesville, angry about their own failures and shouting about the people they blamed for them.

I thought of every think piece published since the 2016 election trying to explain the new angry white man. He was disillusioned, he was afraid. He was dissatisfied with his job and his elected representatives. He felt forgotten and left behind. Our modern, pluralist world’s focus on diversity had harmed white men in some real way, leading to this age of white male anger. At least, that is what the pundits said.

And here we were, a group of accomplished women talking about these white men as if they were a problem that had recently fallen upon us from the sky, instead of the predictable product of centuries of cultural, political, and economic conditioning.

And suddenly, my anxiety of the last few days faded, because I knew that I was going to write this book.

From the book MEDIOCRE by Ijeoma Oluo. Copyright © 2020 by Ijeoma Oluo. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America