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The Dangerous Legacy Of White Male America

Photo-Illustration: Courtesy of Ijeoma Oluo

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

Why do white men get so many chances to succeed, while marginalized groups get so few? Is cancel culture really a thing? On this episode of the Cut podcast, host Avery Trufelman speaks with author Ijeoma Oluo about her new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Oluo is a speaker, journalist, and author of the best seller So You Want to Talk About Race.

Here, Oluo introduces her new title and talks about the creation of violent white male identity in America:

IJEOMA: My book is Mediocre: A Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. And it is somewhat self-explanatory in the title. But we are looking at 150 to 200 years of history around the creation of violent white male identity in America. I know this sounds like building this evil image of white men, but I’m talking about whiteness as a structure, white maleness as a structure. It’s important to recognize the reality, the harsh reality that it is. and what it has cost all of us, regardless of race or gender or ethnicity. 

AVERY: There’s this assumption that men are always the beneficiaries of current power structures, from politics to business. And that is true. But Ijeoma’s work looks at something that is also true — that men, maybe who aren’t wealthy or are single fathers — are exploited under these systems too!

IJEOMA: The powers that be in these systems are not afraid of people of color understanding how exploitation works. They’re afraid of white men understanding how their own exploitation works, how they’ve sold themselves out, how they’ve really been screwed over by this system as well. And that’s really the fear. What they don’t want is the average white man to be like, ‘Wait a minute, so you’re telling me this isn’t a fair system?’

AVERY: This is all just a massive setup up for disappointment. Because, you know, if you are a white guy who then can’t get the job you want or the partner you want or these things you thought would happen, even though you were told you are doing enough and you played by the rules. It just feels like something is broken. It just sucks all around. 

IJEOMA: If we’re telling white men you deserve all of these things just because you’re white and that’s what ties them to an exploitative capitalist system is the idea that it’s just coming. Just hang in there, keep doing your part, helping to exploit other people, keep exploiting yourself. You can’t tie that to actual returns because those aren’t coming. 

AVERY: So to reshape structural inequalities that are hurting everyone, white men need to be in the fight. 

IJEOMA: The problem is, there’s so much programming your whole life that you’re supposed to be centered. It’s supposed to be about you.

While researching for her latest book, Oluo learned about an American movement from the 1910s called Socalist Feminism, spearheaded by two white men. Here Oluo discusses the actual reasoning for this movement.

AVERY: This cause, Socialist Feminism, wasn’t quite about what you might think it might be about.  

IJEOMA: Because I’m always like, of course the labor of women is constantly stolen to uphold these systems. No, no, no, no, no, no. 

AVERY: The two white guy leaders of this movement Max Eastman and Flloyd Dell took up the cause of socialist feminism because they believed that they were being oppressed.

IJEOMA: The angle they took was that men were being exploited because men were having to go work and therefore women were exploiting them for the paycheck. 

AVERY: They’re like, “we have to feed these people. We’re oppressed.” 

IJEOMA: Yes. For these silly women who weren’t allowed to grow their minds, who weren’t even having fun conversations and you were stuck with a kid. 

AVERY: “If women annoy you and you don’t want to be accountable to them, join up the cause!”

IJEOMA: You should be a feminist because then you don’t owe women anything!

AVERY: So you can sleep around without having to take her to dinner or worry if she gets pregnant! Sexual liberation!

IJEOMA: And liberation, of course, just means that a young, attractive women will want to sleep with you. And they will be so much smarter because they’ll be reading all of a sudden. But the books you like. 

AVERY: Max Eastman and Floyd Dell were the heads of prominent socialist papers and so they got to determine what the literature on socialist feminism would be. 

IJEOMA: Floyd Dell wrote, I think it was “Women As World Builders,” but he just wrote his own synopsis of what he thought about his favorite feminists and they’re not even quoted in it 

AVERY: And no they did not publish anything about, say, getting women the right to vote. 

IJEOMA: They had these ideas like where it came to women’s growth and women’s opportunity that was all frivolous, but where it could benefit men then it was serious. And so that’s why you should be a feminist, because you’d be getting laid. You won’t have to pay any bills. You don’t have to take care of your children. And that’s what every man wants. So, yay female liberation. That’s what that is. And it was so gross.

To hear more about the insidiousness of white male mediocrity, as well as an excerpt from Ijeoma Oluo’s book, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America