“To make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.”
—Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement
Society can be tough on white males these days, especially if you are a white male with a conscience. White males have had a disproportionate amount of power for a very long time. The rest of society is clamoring for justice and equality. And rightly so. We are becoming increasingly aware of just how much power and privilege white men have had and just how much that power has been abused.
Most commentators level criticism more at while male privilege than at while males as individuals, but not every person makes that distinction.
What is hard for the rest of society to understand is not just the amount of power that white males have had but rather the abuse of that power.
Mass shootings in the U.S. are a perfect example. Virtually all mass shootings in the U.S. are perpetrated by white males. This can be difficult to understand, since terrorism is usually the last desperate tool used by groups who lackinstitutional power. Given all the horrors and injustices committed against other demographic groups, for example, it might seem more likely than a white woman, an African American youth or a Native American male would buy and AR 15 and shoot up a crowd. Yet, we almost never see that.
Sexual violence is another place where we see abuse of power. Experts tell us that sexual violence is almost always done out of a grasp for power rather than sexual desire. But how can this be when the perpetrators are almost always people who seem to have more power to begin with? Certainly, not all sexual predators are white males, but given their position in society, it is surprising that so many of them are.
We are forced to come to the surprising conclusion that white males in these situations obviously do not feel very powerful!
How in the world can this be when males (particularly white males) seem to have more power than any other demographic group?
One idea that gets floated around a lot is “white male entitlement.” The theory goes like this: White men feel so entitled to their power and privilege that whenever reality does not match it, they feel they have the right to simply destroy everything and everyone around them to get what they feel is theirs—or if they can’t have it then no one else should, either.
Indeed, whenever stories circulate of mass shootings or sexual violence, my social media feed is quickly filled with accusations of “toxic masculinity,” “white male entitlement” and “white male fragility.” There is a lot of truth in this, absolutely. We need to continue to explore the concept of entitlement as a lens for understanding white male privilege. However, there is another way of looking at this. It’s on the flip side of the coin from entitlement: I’ll call it white male expectations.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario where entitlement and expectations create a feedback loop, constantly building on each other. When white men are expected to be dominant in all circumstances, and when the world is increasingly not working that way, some men—particularly those who lack better coping mechanism—may take up violence to compensate for that gap between reality and expectations.
A white male feels he must be dominant in all circumstances. He has to be the hero who saves the day. He is expected to provide for his family, or at the very least, make more income than his wife. If a while male wanders into a group of people comprised of mixed races and genders, the white male will assume it is his job to be the leader, the loudest or the funniest. After all, it’s what he sees in the movies. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and generations of Hollywood figures show us that the white male can singularly take on the whole world and rise to the top in every circumstance. If he can’t, it’s an indictment against his character and a mark of his shortcomings—this is key.
The white male does not simply enjoy his privilege as a free gift. Rather, he is told he must be capable of achieving that dominance solely through his superior skills, savvy and character. In other words, he feels like he earns his position. When he doesn’t rise to the top, he feels like a failure. Society neglects to tell white men that their dominance does not come solely through their own efforts but rather through complex and numerous mechanisms of privilege—legal, historical, inertial and social infrastructures—that push him to the top.
It’s a double-edged sword. Whatever dominance he has, he believe he has earned through his own merits. He believes he is getting a 1st place trophy when all he really deserves is a participation trophy. This is bad enough, but it gets worse: The dark side to this is that when he does not achieve dominance, he feels it is a reflection of his own shortcomings. A fragile, insecure man is very dangerous. He’s going to augment himself with guns, steroids or all manner of aggressive trappings. He’s going to find someone to dominate. His very sense of self is on the line. He is going to lash out as if his own life were at stake, because in a sense it is. Cue spousal abuse, sexual violence, mass shootings and just general bullying.
I think this is why many white males do not recognize their privilege. What others see as a privileged position, white males see as the bare minimum. They don’t get to enjoy it as much as others might think. It’s a never ending battle of king of the hill and their very worth as human beings depends on the outcome.
These high, rigid expectations create fragility. It’s actually quite horrible when you are never allowed to be weak or to even come in second place. It creates incredible brittleness. In my own experiences, I am always stronger when I allow myself to be weak. I win more often when I allow myself the possibility of losing. That’s the paradox. Fragility begets violence because something that is fragile is prone to breaking.
White male privilege creates a dynamic that is akin to bullying behavior. Like a bully, white males are rarely happy about their circumstances. They may hurt a lot of people to maintain their standing but they are rarely satisfied for long. It’s never enough. Everyone else feels their privilege—except them. If you take away the privilege, they may feel “oppressed” because they can no longer dominate others anymore. It’s a problem of perception, because that was power they never should have had in the first place, but yet white males are led to believe that this power is necessary for them to feel complete. White male privilege is a rotten system that causes a lot of damage and rarely brings out the best in white males. There are no real winners but there are many who lose.
Perhaps society is not ready for a sympathetic treatment of white males. Perhaps there is simply too much anger and a perception that society has already been overly sympathetic to white males. After all, who is going to shed a tear for the plight of the white male? They can get in line behind everyone else, right? But if what I wrote above is true—that white males lash out violently out of a sense of powerlessness and a lack of self worth—then heaping a message of negativity on top of what is already a message of negativity is not likely to yield a better result. In truth, no one is justified lashing out violently, and I’m not writing this to make excuses. But we know people are in various stages of emotional health and maturity, and some have better coping mechanisms than others. As the Peter Maurin quote above states, let’s “create a society where it is easier to be good.” Let’s remove the stressors that drive some people to commit violence and assert dominance so that it’ll be easier for their better selves to shine forth.
Recognizing and understanding privilege is key here. Yes, it can be a blow to the white male ego to realize that his dominance does not come through his own efforts or natural superiority but rather through the unfair advantage of privilege. However, there is tremendous freedom in this message when he realizes his self-worth does not have to be tied to his ability to dominate in every circumstance. He is created good exactly as he is. He does not have to augment that with weaponry, “conquest” marks on his bedpost or any other marks of dominance. He can re-join the rest of society as an equal member, give up false narratives of superiority and save the wasted energy proving something he’s not. He does not have to feel threatened when women and men from all demographic groups make strikes in education, the workforce, politics and elsewhere.
This may sound counter-intuitive and even completely unfair, but I am here to suggest that the answer to white male privilege is that white males need more compassion, sympathy and understanding rather than less—even though it seems they already have all of that in abundance. Their actions tell us something is missing. Truly confident, self-assured people are rarely violent. White men are constantly being told to give up their entitlement, power and privilege. In order for this to happen, we ought to offer them something to replace all that with, and the answer is a positive self-image for themselves as they are. We have a choice. We can either say that white males are dirty, rotten scoundrels by their very nature, or we can say that they are reacting to the expectations put upon them.
Entitlement and high expectations go hand in hand. Both are important in understanding white male privilege. I hope this essay has shown that the high expectations that come with white male privilege have at least two outcomes: First, they make it difficult to recognize that privilege, and second, they creates the fragility that leads to violence.
This post was originally published on The Traveling Ecumenist and is republished on Medium.
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