Deep and sustainable social change requires not only legislative and institutional reform, but also personal and cultural transformation. I first encountered this principle in the ecology movement, which sees the environmental crisis as having its roots in Western culture. Racial justice activism, by contrast, has tended to focus on law and policy, leaving the personal and cultural work to corporate diversity trainers. This strategy has failed to address the deep culture of whiteness that upholds white supremacy with or without racial animus. There is a growing realization among racial justice leaders and others that white supremacy is a spiritual crisis, which includes white people among its casualties. As a result, more of us white folks are beginning to investigate our white racial conditioning as a means to heal ourselves, and hopefully the culture.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the work of exploring whiteness with groups of white people is close to my heart. I am deeply concerned, however, that I encounter so few other men* doing this work. I feel strongly about this for two reasons. For one, white masculinity continues to be a source of needless violence and misery for women, trans and non-binary people, and of course men. Second, for reasons I’ll get to, it is difficult to do meaningful work on my own white male conditioning without the support of other men.
So why aren’t white men showing up? Are we just averse to internally-focused work? That’s surely part of it. However, how much of that is simple avoidance, and how much of it is that the work is not meeting men where they/we are? I have some reflections based on my experience doing this work as both participant and facilitator.
In general, women have a huge head start. As a man, I wasn’t taught the basic competencies needed for “inner” work. Unlearning social conditioning, in particular, requires a solid foundation of emotional intelligence, intellectual humility, empathy, and an ability to show vulnerability with virtual strangers. These capacities were largely drummed out of me during childhood. My male peers and elders taught me to hide my vulnerabilities, disconnect from my feelings, and revere competition. These are ideal lessons for a society built on conquest, exploitation, and resource extraction, but not so useful for exploring our inner lives, especially in a group.
That said, I have come up against some challenges that are not just about my male underdevelopment. They are also about differences in how men and women embody whiteness. White conditioning is based on shame, and, as Brené Brown points out, shame is organized around gender. Both women and men are taught to feel that being worthy of love and belonging is conditional, but the conditions are different.
Men’s worthiness for love and belonging is conditioned on the ability to manifest self-reliance and independence. Besides being ironic, this belief is profoundly self-defeating since it constitutes a major obstacle to working on this very conditioning. Women—especially white women—while also promised the possibility of independence, are not taught to see it as a condition of their worthiness. Indeed, they receive contrary conditioning, since society—especially men—depends on them for all sorts of unpaid and invisible labor, including the social and emotional housekeeping that sustains social life.
Meanwhile, white conditioning runs on shame, and the best antidote to shame is talking about shame. This means, first of all, we need to build a sense of group trust and cohesion. Ideally, everyone in the group would participate in this process. However, because building authentic relationships (as opposed to forming teams or business alliances) can cause feelings of vulnerability in men, we typically let the women perform this labor, which they generally do, almost reflexively. As a result, those of us most in need of this practice are able to sit back, wondering when the “real work” will begin.
This isn’t the only way our gendered conditioning around creating and maintaining social relationships affects how my male peers and I engage the work. It is a common practice in these groups to share times when racism or privilege impacted an interpersonal interaction. The expectation is that participants will report racial blunders or racially-charged conflicts with friends of color. They can express any feelings of guilt or shame that come up and receive support and encouragement from people who’ve had similar experiences. This work builds awareness of the emotional undercurrents that inform our intentions to connect across difference. Plus, when we can get support from other white folks, we’re less likely to burden our friends of color with our feelings.
That’s the idea, anyway, and it seems effective for the women I’ve worked with. As a man, though, I’ve had trouble connecting with these activities. I used to assume I was doing something wrong, not being honest enough, real enough, vulnerable enough. As I reflect on my experience being one of so few men in these spaces, however, I’m realizing that my co-facilitators and I have not been considering the ways shame is “organized around gender.” What if the reason many white women experience shame when whiteness interferes with their relationships is that their feelings of worthiness are conditioned on their competence in social and emotional housekeeping? If so, this would help explain why these activities seem to work well for women but fail to resonate for me and perhaps for other men. I do of course feel embarrassed by my social and emotional missteps, but I don’t tend to feel shame. Maybe, I should. That’s a separate question.
My white conditioning has, without question, malformed my sense of worthiness, but in gendered ways. I feel shame, for example, when I need to ask for help, and when I lose a debate, and in a dozen other situations that reveal my lack of strength, independence, or control. These are the sources of shame that implicitly shape my behavior in ways that (directly or implicitly) perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy. And it feels nearly impossible to meaningfully address this conditioning in a mixed group, especially when men are a tiny minority.
We men need to be doing this work for society and for our own liberation. We need male affinity spaces. There is already a growing awareness that we need to work together as men on our toxic masculinity, but there is almost nothing available for white men who want to explore the intersection of whiteness and masculinity. We need spaces where we can have our stories of shame and loneliness heard and mirrored, so that we can examine how we’ve been molded into witting and unwitting agents of oppression and begin to heal ourselves in service of collective healing and transformation.
*Throughout this piece I refer to “men/women and male/female.” I acknowledge that sex, gender, and social conditioning are not binary. At the same time, the conditioning itself is binary, and it’s that conditioning that I’m attempting to explore.
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