Advice For White Men When Talking About Racism and Sexism

Last weekend we saw a lot of Republican politicians speak out against the kind of racism on display in Charlottesville. Many of them were the same ones who support voting restrictions and did things like defend Jeff Sessions against charges of racism when he was nominated to be the Attorney General. That is because we have come to a place in this country where there are certain forms of racism that are socially unacceptable and a whole lot of them that are still socially acceptable. Author Jonathan Odell posted this graphic on Facebook over the weekend to demonstrate.

Almost no one—except our current POTUS and those marching in Charlottesville—have a problem condemning the items above the line at the top of that triangle. Where we still have trouble coming to a consensus is the kind of racism contained below that line. Those are the things that lead to heated debates that usually begin with, “How dare you call me racist!”

Having conversations about the socially acceptable forms of racism (and sexism) is difficult—as we’ve recently seen with what David Brooks wrote about how women reacted to the so-called “Google manifesto.” As I noted last week, when they got angry at the assertion that science showed why women don’t excel in the tech industry, Brooks used words like “mob,” “moral crazes,” “absolutism,” and “sacred taboos” to describe them.

Over the weekend, Frank Bruni took a kinder and gentler approach to the topic in an article titled, “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” He basically suggests that he feels shut down as a white man when these issues come up.

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

Here’s how he defines the problem:

The “check your privilege” exhortation asks us, rightly, to recognize that [this country’s narrative has been scripted by white men]. It’s about “being aware of systemic injustice and systemic inequality,” Phoebe Maltz Bovy, the author of the recently published book “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’ ” told me. And she applauds that.

But she worries that awareness disclaimers and privilege apologies have ferried us to a silly, self-involved realm of oppression Olympics. They promote the idea that people occupying different rungs of privilege or victimization can’t possibly grasp life elsewhere on the ladder…

Should we really have say and sway only over matters that neatly dovetail with the category that we’ve been assigned (or assigned ourselves)? Is that the limit of our insights and empathies? During the Democratic primary, a Hillary Clinton supporter I know was told that he could not credibly defend her against charges of racism for her past use of the word “superpredators” because he’s white.

That kind of thinking fosters estrangement instead of connection.

I too hate the intrusion of “oppression Olympics” into discussions about race/gender. But I don’t think that is really what bothers Bruni. He’s talking about the fact that men get shut down when the topic is sexism and white people get shut down when the topic is racism.

I have two things to say about that. The first is, “Duh!” Bruni just got done affirming that this country’s narrative has been scripted by white men. That means that women/people of color have been shutting up for at least a couple of centuries. Isn’t it about time that we flip that script…at least for a while? Is it possible that over all these years white men have failed to learn listening skills as they wrote that narrative, and perhaps they’re struggling a bit because they don’t know how to give anyone else a turn? When they step in to mansplain it to us, women and people of color feel the need to resort to shouting “STFU!” and then they get their feelings hurt, while the shouters become a “mob.”

At one point, Bruni writes this:

I question the wisdom of turning categories into credentials when it comes to politics and public debate. I reject the assumptions — otherwise known as prejudices — that certain life circumstances prohibit sensitivity and sound judgment while other conditions guarantee them. That appraises the packaging more than it does the content. It ignores the complexity of people. It’s reductive.

I actually agree with that. Reducing people to one “credential” ignores the complexity of human beings.  But there is another side to it. To demonstrate, I’m going to provide you with a quote from Nezua, who used to write at a blog called The Unapologetic Mexican.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. Bingo, Gringo.

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America! The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. It is a slap in the face to this line of thought that there exists an area that cannot be known, even to a WHITE person. Gasp.

When the topic at hand is what it’s like to be a woman or person of color in this country and white men come blazing in to tell us all about it, isn’t that the very definition of white male privilege? Suggesting that when women try to shut that kind of thing down, they’re behaving like a mob or fostering estrangement instead of connection comes in a pretty close second. On the other hand, when they approach the topic with a sense of curiosity and a good dollop of humility, we can have an informative conversation.

Early on in this article, Bruni points out that he is gay. That adds a layer of complexity to how he initially described himself (i.e., white, male, upper class). As such, I would yield the floor to him in all humility on the topic of homophobia and what it’s like to be gay in this culture.

My second response to Bruni is that I recognize that there are women and people of color who abuse this position in order to feed their own egos. That’s when it takes some courage to call it out. If Bruni feels shut down by that, it’s on him. There is no need to walk on egg shells. But you better have done (or be prepared to do) some pretty deep soul-searching in order to assure that you’re not barging in out of ignorance.

Over the years some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had started by a person of color telling me that what I just said/did was racist. When I finally learned that it was very possible they were right and listened in order to learn why, I felt ashamed…and then grew a bit in my own awareness. I cherish those moments. If instead, Bruni assumes he’s being shut out and shut down, he’s the one who is going to lose out.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.