Before you start limbering up your fingers to write NOT ALL WHITE GUYS before you even read the article, lemme just say this: I KNOW. The only reason I’m able to track the performative phenomenon I’m about to discuss is because it only occurs in a small subset of white guys. Since most white guys are NOT doing this, but a solid and vocal minority are, it’s been easy to spot, track, and wonder about.
Earlier this week a friend of mine posted Cera Byer’s Salon article, “To My White Male Facebook Friends.” The article, originally a facebook post that was reposted so many times Salon asked Byer for permission to publish, has a basic thesis: White guys, don’t immediately get defensive when women or people of color tell you about their experiences. Listen and believe them.
Like everything ever in the history of ever, the reaction to that article proved the need for it repeatedly, thoroughly, and with no room for doubt.
In one thread of which I was a part– a public post (I know, I know, I usually know better)– a young Latina grad student was commenting in support of the article and about her experiences with white men as a queer woman of color, and one man– let’s call him “Jake”– posted this in response to her:
“Ah yes, the fiery Latina, hot in the sack, but not much going on upstairs if you catch my drift, and that temper? Yikes. It’s cool if you’ve nothing substantial to contribute, I’m good at ignoring. Just let me know if you’re going to slap those bongos of yours, ’cause I’d like to watch. “
He was immediately called out for his racism and misogyny, of course, by a healthy percentage of the people still actively participating in the thread, many of whom were white guy allies. Shocked, and, quite frankly, exhausted by the public racism and misogyny we’ve seen so much of in recent weeks, I copied and pasted the above into a status of my own and told people where to find the public thread.
His response to the censure he received for such open racism and misogyny was enormously telling, and, as it dawned on me that I was seeing a predictable pattern, the impetus for this article.
For the past few decades, our cultural norm in cases where someone has been caught in public making a racist or sexist comment has been some kind of apologetic (or half-assedly apologetic) performance. “I never intended to offend anyone” is a popular (half-assed) performance in these cases. Think Mel Gibson. Think Michael Richards. Think Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson. Think Paula Deen. Public racism, in particular, has been long considered the kind of activity that can ruin a business, get someone fired, destroy reputations. But something has changed, and quickly, spearheaded by a small but vocal minority of white men.
When “Jake’s” comment was first posted and subsequently called out, I fully expected, given the egregious nature of the comment and the fact that it was in a public thread (and thus viewable by his boss, clients, whoever), some kind of, “While I disagree with you and the article, I should not have said what I said. It was inappropriate and I apologize.” Standard American CYA behavior.
Instead, he opted for a new pattern of behavior I’ve since begun to think of (after Byer’s article) as “the Defensive White Guy performance.” While I realize this has always been happening *privately*, I’m seeing a new, widespread willingness to behave this way *publicly*.
This Defensive White Guy performance is particular and predictable the moment it begins. Of course I understand that a LOT of human behavior is predictable, for all types of people– I live in Berkeley and can predict a knee-jerk liberal reaction to the letter and the link– but this DWG phenomenon is representative of a widespread willingness to perform and then defend racism and misogyny publicly.
It’s a very particular performance I’m seeing more and more of, and it’s always the same: the Defensive White Guy makes a racist or misogynistic statement, is called out for it, then immediately begins claiming he’s the victim, either in the discussion, in American culture, or both. He claims that he is not racist or sexist. He labels any oppositional commentary, no matter how bland, as an attack, often conflating the commenter with entire groups, such as “liberals,” “feminists,” or “SJWs.” Often he will double down on the original racist/misogynistic statement by posting more of the same, even while claiming not to be racist or sexist. His attacks are filled with horrible insults. He claims perfect entitlement to the usage of those terms because he is being “attacked,” or because the people who disagree with him “deserve” it.
In this particular case, “Jake” responded with accusations of slander (playing the victim) and responses to women like, “Don’t you have dishes to do?” (doubling down), in addition to a wide variety of attacks of various types. While attacking me publicly, he came to me privately, begging me to take the status down, claiming he was receiving “threats” from my “friends.” I hid the status and then asked him for specifics, stating that, if that were true, it’s not OK, and I would speak with those friends and personally ask them to stop. In response, he accused me of being a (somehow anonymous) participant in these supposed “threats,” said he would give my name to “the authorities,” and blocked me, forcing me to conclude this was just another “playing the victim” performance. Despite the fact that he was almost certainly lying, I reopened the thread and posted a request for people to leave him alone, left it up for 24 hours, and then re-hid the thread.
So what’s happening here? Why would a guy be all bluster, racism, and misogyny in public, then come privately to me and ask me to protect him from the consequences of attacking me (and others) and expect me to comply? Why couldn’t he just man up and sincerely– or even somewhat sincerely– apologize to the woman he originally attacked, utilizing the same CYA performance that’s been the standard for the past several decades?
Again, just to head off the inevitable YOU’RE BEING RACIST AGAINST WHITE MEN reactions, most white guys are great. Most white guys are empathetic people trying to understand the lives of others. But the entire nation is currently being dragged down by a small group of people whose reaction to the pain of others is MY PAIN IS MORE IMPORTANT, whose reaction to racism and the role of their own privilege in that is LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU, or worse, PRIVILEGE IS MADE UP BECAUSE MY LIFE IS HARD.
Here’s what I think is happening:
We all see ourselves as the “good guy” in the narrative of our lives, and these Defensive White Guys are no different. They believe in their hearts that they understand racism, and believe they understand the experiences of others. They believe in their hearts they are not racist or sexist, and that assertion is almost always a loud component of the DWG performance. They BELIEVE it. They grew up with Free To Be You and Me and learned in school about the many laws and customs we once had that barred women from participating in public life– voting, higher education, certain kinds of employment. They learned about the income disparity. And they said to themselves, “I am not that.” And they believed it. In school they learned about lynchings and listened as their teacher played “Strange Fruit” or read to them about Emmett Till. They saw pictures in their grade school textbooks of drinking fountains marked “WHITES ONLY,” they learned about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, they learned about brave little Ruby Bridges, they learned about racism and they said, “I am not that.” And they believed it.
As they grew up, they demonstrated this by talking about how little they cared that their co-workers were Black, or their boss was a woman. They voted for women or people of color. They didn’t see anything wrong with interracial marriage. They BELIEVED they were not sexist or racist, and for that, they believed they were one of the “good guys.”
As our culture progressed, however, and became more and more willing to study racism and misogyny, and how they both operate systemically within our culture, we articulated the concept of privilege, we studied it and created a mountain of statistics to show its existence, we began to examine the myriad ways in which racism and misogyny are encoded into our culture. We realized the problem was deeper and wider than we thought.
And the definition of “good guy” changed. It was no longer just a public declaration that you weren’t bigoted and a lack of active oppression of women and people of color. Being a “good guy” now meant engaging in a difficult and complex process of understanding privilege, including your own privilege, acknowledging that, and understanding how racism and misogyny are created and disseminated, how much of that we’ve internalized, and how we work to end that. Suddenly a stated belief in “equality” and a simple lack of active oppression– both relatively easy to understand and believe you can accomplish (despite the fact the we now know this is much more complex than originally thought)– were no longer enough. Many white people had the courage and/or resources to meet these new challenges head on. Many had to slowly come to understanding. Most of us are still struggling with these issues and our place within them every day. But some white people, including these men I’m discussing, whose personal narratives and self-conceptions, like all of us, rely on being “the good guy,” are LIVID. The definition of “good guy” changed. It requires understanding and accepting something they do not have the will and/or ability to understand, and they are angry. They feel betrayed that “good guy” went from easy to difficult, was taken away from them while they weren’t looking, and is something to which they feel entitled, but is in reality something they now have to earn.
In addition to the fact that the qualification for “good guy” status has changed, the culture is changing all around them. While white men still hold almost all of the positions of power in our culture, and control almost all of the wealth, demographically their numbers are shrinking, and the culture is changing slowly to reflect that. The entire shape of the economy slowly changed since the Reagan Revolution, tipping the nation’s wealth to the hands of a few families, shutting people without wealth out of the political process, and almost entirely ending the American Dream of upward mobility. Many white men are hurting economically. Since all white American-born men have lived their entire lives in a culture that always put their needs first and was structured around their narratives, the idea that someone else’s narrative could be just as important, or, possibly, for even just a moment, more urgent and important, is, for some white men, literally impossible to understand. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that idea as anything but a MASSIVE injustice against them. They’ve been first in line for so long THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW THE LINE EXISTED, and they believe that being asked to wait in line like everyone else is bigotry against them. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that ending street harassment is a more urgent issue than their desire to approach women whenever and however they like; that actual rape is a more urgent issue than their fear that one day someone might possibly accuse them of rape; that the killing of unarmed Black men (and BOYS) is a more urgent issue than their fear of Black “thugs”; that the killing of unarmed Black men is a more urgent issue than a few broken windows.
This subset of white men cannot comprehend that the expression of the pain and anger of a long-oppressed group of people is a more urgent issue than their need to be seen as “a good guy.” It takes a truly mind-blowing amount of self-absorption, entitlement, and privilege to answer “White people are hurting us; please help make it stop” with “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE.” What this response is saying is: “My need to be seen as a ‘good guy’ is more important than your pain. Please direct your attention to that and confirm that I am ‘good’ before I will consent to recognize your pain.” It’s the social equivalent of demanding that someone compliment your bitchin’ Camaro before you agree to roll it off their foot. OR HEAD.
In the face of the changing culture, and the changing job description of “good guy,” this subset of white guys, these Defensive White Guys, have sunk into their anger and resentment and are filling the culture with a level of unapologetic, overt racism and misogyny that we haven’t seen in decades. And while I don’t have the answer, I suspect it’s because they resented having to make room in their social concept for women and people of color to begin with– they were only playing along so they could secure the title of “good guy” and be liked, not because they truly believed it was the right thing to do. And now that the culture has progressed and these DWGs have discovered that they are no longer the “good guy” without a little more work and direct engagement, they’ve reached a “fuck it” moment. They are reasonably sure– and they’re right, at least for now– that the culture at large will protect them in some way because it always has.
So when they express their resentment, anger, and feelings of betrayal by making these public racist and misogynistic statements, and are inevitably called out for them, they cry victim because they BELIEVE they’re the victims– the victims of a culture that changed behind their backs and deprived them of being the well-liked “good guy” without meeting new qualifications; the victims of a culture that deprived them of the American Dream; the victims of a culture that tricked them with social issues that everyone knew were inevitably lost into voting for conservative politicians who had no intent of doing anything but further distancing that American Dream from everyone but the wealthy; the victims of a culture that suddenly “doesn’t care” about their issues because the issues of other groups are starting to be seen as equally important; the victims of a culture that no longer posits “white guy” as the one human in constant possession of the benefit of the doubt.
These DWG performances reek with fear, desperation, panic, and the hatred those three inevitably create. The world is changing, and their role in that world is changing, HAS changed, and there’s precisely nothing they can do about it. The panic is as thick as tear gas.
Most white guys are up for the challenge the new America presents, especially the rising generation. Eventually this DWG phenomenon will die down, just as anything succumbs to cultural inevitability. They’ve already lost the battle they think they’re fighting– a battle best represented by the ultimately meaningless slogan “Take Back America!” The knowledge of the loss is, of course, what’s driving much of the anger.
But I think it’s important that these guys are so pissed in part because they believe they’re “good guys,” and believe the culture betrayed that by changing the terms of the agreement. They’re attacking and attempting to discredit everything and everyone they can find that represents, disseminates, or even just discusses the new “good guy” job description. I have to believe, despite everything, that there’s hope in that “good guy” self-image. I have to believe that eventually, at least some of these guys will come to an understanding of the truth, and put in the work required to really be good guys– good citizens of a diverse America– because (again, I have to believe) they honestly want to be. Maybe that’s naive, and my internalized white privilege is making me give these guys too much of the benefit of the doubt even as I condemn their actions. But I do. I still do. I have to have hope for change.
(NOTE: This is my personal blog. I am under no obligation to approve any particular comment. Racist, sexist, or threatening comments will be trashed.)