It’s rained most of the last several days here in Albuquerque. Two of those days it rained for hours on end. There are mushrooms growing among the desert grass in my backyard. To say this is unusual for would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Rain and changing seasons lend themselves to introspection. As we transition into a quieter season and I reflect on the summer’s events, something that jumps out at me is how angry so many men — especially White men — seem to be. Of the folks who called into the radio show I did on race, all of the angry ones were men. Of the dozens of comments on my blog posts The Day After Trayvon: An Open Letter to African Americans from a White Ally and Tips for Good White People*: What You Might not Realize About the Trayvon Martin Case, all of the angry ones were from men. In both cases (making a gross generalization based only on their surnames and what they said) these men all seem to be White.
In fact, there were several comments on my blog I didn’t publish because not only did they fail to add a new perspective to what had already been said, some of them were outright name calling, personal attacks on me. One man submitted a total of seven comments — harassing me up to a month after the original posts. So I ask myself, and you, what’s wrong with the men? Why are so many of them afraid and angry? And how do we heal this together?
On the radio show, we discussed this off the air [follow the link to the bonus material ]. There were four of us on the panel — three women (two of color), and one White man. My (White male) colleague Ricky Lee Allen observed that people can’t get emotional about something they know nothing about. Whites’ anger and defensiveness comes from feeling shameful and protective about what gets exposed in the racism conversation — a dissonance between their values (equality and fairness) and who they really are (someone who unfairly benefits from injustice). The anger is about trying to make the feeling of vulnerability and shame go away by shutting up the person who’s calling it out. Resolving the dissonance by aligning values and identity means taking responsibility, which is daunting especially when so few of us have any inkling of how to do this.
I also speculate that, conscious or not, White men are threatened by the shift in power that’s underway — a shift that is changing a status quo where women, people of color, and young people have long deferred to, and refrained from questioning (White) men and what they think, how they do things, and why. White privilege is closely tied to male privilege — some believe sexism is the original “ism”, and I tend to agree.
I say the anger comes from a threat to power because the degree of anger and personalization in these comments doesn’t look or feel like an attempt to engage in dialogue, explore ideas from a place of curiosity and mutuality or express respectful disagreement. They feel like an attempt to re-establish an experience of lost power. Anger is often an emotion about respect; of feeling like a boundary has been crossed. In this case, it seems to be a boundary of “just who do you think you are!” and “how dare you!” This is about feeling threatened and trying to put someone in their (inferior) place. It’s about power.
For far too long, men and women, Whites and people of color have supported a system in which power has been concentrated in a few (White, male) hands. Tragically, most of these White males don’t even realize how the system is set up for them to enjoy daily unearned benefits on an interpersonal and systemic scale. By no fault of theirs, they are blind to it. In fact, a dear White male colleague, upon hearing of the White Privilege Conference here in Albuquerque last year, commented uneasily, “I don’t know about that ‘white privilege’ thing — I work really hard.” Well, of course! Privilege doesn’t mean your life is easy, it just means many aspects of your life are easier than they are for many others, and not because of your efforts, but because of the circumstances of your birth!
No life form dies without a fight. Systems of power are life forms. I see the anger and fear as a good sign, because it means there is a real shift happening, and it’s unsettling for those who (think they) stand to lose. If change weren’t really occurring, no one would be unsettled. These are the death throes of a dinosaur.
But I still grieve the pain (anger, fear) that so many feel as we shift. So as old systems of power and oppression change, how do we save as many individuals as we can? How can we heal the (White) men that are so threatened and afraid of our collective evolution?
First, stay the course. Those of us committed to equity, inclusiveness, justice, constructive dialogue and collective power should continue what we’re doing. Don’t give up, and don’t get off track. Don’t be fooled by the death throes of the dinosaur. Remember it took 100 years for women to get the right to vote, and many of those who fought never got to vote. History has been lurching in the direction of freedom, inclusiveness, justice, and humane-ness for centuries.
Second, focus on your own healing. Women and people of color still have much healing to do. I see this lack of self-healing show up in individual lives, relationships, work teams, and even organizations. It shows up as internalized oppression, victim mentalities, passive aggressive communication styles, misdirected accusations of racism/sexism, and abuse of others who are also experiencing oppression. We should continue focusing on healing ourselves and our communities, and not get overly distracted by our old roles of taking care of men and White people.
Third, don’t ignore men, White people, or White men. Diversity and inclusiveness is about everyone. Period. There is no such thing as “diverse person” or “non-diverse person.” We all have to live, work, play, and love together. Let’s talk more seriously and openly about how we do this differently. The feminist movement and ethnic social justice movements that began in the 1960s were much-needed catalysts to bring many of us to where we are today. But men and White people got lost in those movements. There’s a bit of an identity crisis. It’s time to regroup.
Fourth, empathize … and have healthy boundaries. Know that men and White people are suffering too. Giving up old identities and ways of being is hard. Feeling fearful and angry isn’t fun. But regrouping, exploring new systems of power, and having dialogue doesn’t mean that anyone should have to tolerate abusive behavior or violent words. Learn and practice discernment. If a person isn’t willing or able to be curious, ask questions, hear answers or be open to changing their minds or their behaviors, they’re not ready to engage constructively. Personally, I do my best to stay open to ideas that clash with mine, and engage with people who disagree with me — even awkwardly — but I do not tolerate abuse, meanness, or aggression. Doing so is not only unconstructively painful, it impedes solutions and evolution.
Some days I’m an optimistic realist; others I’m a realistic optimist. I think today I’m a realistic optimist. I think we can heal ourselves, and men, and White men, but only if we each do our own work, changing the maladaptive patterns we’ve each been following…until now.
Please comment! What additional suggestions do you have? Are you a (White) man who has insights into male anger and how to include and heal other (White) men?