Tough Love for Mediocre White Guys: Getting White men to give up dominance is a challenge

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES! Magazine · May, 2021

A review of Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo

I am White, male, and American. When I taught at the University of Texas at Austin, I routinely joked that “the secret to my success is that I’m mediocre, and I know it.”

That comment came in conversations with students about inflated faculty egos, partly as a caution to myself. In universities, the coin of the realm is being a big thinker with original ideas. But most of us aren’t big thinkers, and original ideas are rare. Rather than being satisfied with being competent—a hard enough standard to meet—professors too often puff themselves up, a weakness to which White guys are especially vulnerable. My quip wasn’t the result of a lack of self-confidence; I was simply suggesting that an honest self-assessment helps one do useful work.

I’m not special, but I live in a culture that designates people who look like me as the standard. A White supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist society props up White guys not because we’re superior but precisely because we’re not. White guys need the unearned advantages to keep alive the fantasy that we deserve to be on top. That fantasy is not harmless—our embrace of dominance means subordinating people who don’t look like us, which creates an incentive for White men to remain clueless.

That’s why Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Seal Press, 2020) by Ijeoma Oluo is not a threat to White guys but a gift, offering the social/political tough love that we need to see society—and ourselves—more clearly.

“I am not arguing that every white man is mediocre,” writes Oluo. “… What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent. The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

Mediocre offers ample evidence for her thesis. The first chapter grounds us in the pathological American mythologies of brave men taming the frontier, embraced by Buffalo Bill at the end of the 19th century and still present in the self-indulgent anti-government fantasies of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and similar “patriots” in the 21st. From there Oluo takes us on a painful tour through White masculinity in higher education, social movements, sports, politics, labor, and business. The sick and sad history of the American South gets special attention, but no region is spared.

And no one is spared, including White men who have written about social justice for three decades. Like me. White guys like me routinely acknowledge that we will never fully understand, let alone experience, the effects of sexism and racism in the way someone like Oluo does. But Oluo’s skillful weaving of her own reactions, both intellectual and emotional, to that “violent, sexist, racist status quo” reminded me of that difference, and how easily I can forget it in day-to-day life.

My experience in the radical feminist movement—and subsequent writing and organizing efforts around issues concerning race, economic inequality, and U.S. warmongering—have put me in places where I was held up as one of the “good White men,” a designation that Oluo refuses to indulge. Her critique of how folks like me show up in social movements was most uncomfortable, and therefore important, for me: “Mediocre, highly forgettable white men regularly enter feminist spaces and expect to be centered and rewarded, and they have been.”

No matter how much I acknowledge advantages I have, I still have them. When I acknowledge those systems of oppression, I often get more credit than people who are subject to them. Again, Oluo is on target: “Studies have shown that pretty much any time a white man talks about equality and justice, he is praised. It is seen as proof of his broad leadership abilities and his magnanimousness. But women of color are never praised. They are seen as bitter, divisive, vindictive, and self-serving.”

I can imagine some White men dismissing the book as “identity politics.” If that term means a simplistic assessment of people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, and class, I agree that’s a problem. If identity politics means that people in one group can simply declare a “correct” interpretation of an issue and denounce those who disagree, that’s a problem, too. But this book doesn’t practice that kind of identity politics, instead analyzing systems of power and asking for accountability. As Oluo points out, White male identity has always driven our politics.

How to encourage White men, who need Oluo’s book the most, to engage with Mediocre? That requires thinking about how White men will react to her analysis. Here are four possibilities:

Rejection and embrace of reactionary politics: White men aren’t the problem but rather the solution and should be in control without multicultural constraints, and they have a “right” to use intimidation and violence to protect their status.

Regret about history but rejection of the implications: Yes, in the past White men did damage, but that’s history and today’s problems aren’t our fault.

Reconciliation without reckoning: Yes, White men are still a problem, but we have to accept each other and all try to get along.

Acceptance and action: I have lived with unearned power and privilege that comes in White supremacist patriarchy, and even if I haven’t been an active agent of evil, I’m responsible for my part in changing the social norms that elevate me over others.

How do we move White men to that fourth option?

The messages White men sent Oluo in response to her first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, indicate the challenge: “These men wanted me to know that they were miserable, they felt screwed over, and they felt demonized. … They wanted me to know that they were not capable of growth or change and that any attempts to bring about that growth or change would end them. Nobody is more pessimistic about white men than white men.”

When a White woman reaches out to tell Oluo about her father, a formerly angry and violent White man who changed through love and support, Oluo refuses platitudes and asks hard questions: “What does it mean to truly love white men who feel entitled to status and are angry at the world when they do not get it? And what would it mean to love the same people whom those white men seek to harm?”

What does it mean for me to love other White men—to love myself—as long as patriarchy and White supremacy exist? Oluo forced me to think more deeply about questions that have long bedeviled me, part of the gift of the book to White male Americans.

ROBERT JENSEN is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of 11 books, most recently The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.