November was an enlightening month.
In late October, I posted an essay entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.” Though my blog is generally read by a couple of thousand people, in this instance and to my surprise, my post generated over 120,000 views over the next few weeks. I received hundreds of comments, many of which I could not approve because of their ugliness and profanity. If I had any doubt about the premise of the post – that people’s negativity toward the question of reparations is a fairly good indicator of their blatant or latent racism – the response to the post dispelled them.
Throughout November, I engaged – both publicly and privately – in lengthy exchanges with angry, white men over the legitimacy of reparations and the present state of racial relations in America. These conversations led me to write two follow up posts outlining a reasonable approach to reparations as well as my own personal commitment. I also became more aware of the present and potential dangers of angry, white men.
During this encounter with white masculinity, I gradually realized the responses of angry white men to reparations echoed what I was hearing from other angry, white men about sexual harassment. As you know, November was also the month of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C. K., Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer and Al Franken, of countless allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and of denials and justifications. As I was engaging in one discussion while listening to another, the similarities in the responses became more and more obvious. It was almost as if racist and sexually inappropriate men were reading off the same script.
Deny or Question the Veracity of the Injury
As I talked with white men about slavery and racial discrimination, I was amazed by how often they denied the existence of racism today. According to them, America was a level playing field and any disparities between blacks and whites were the fault of people of color. Some actually argued that, if racism existed, they were its target. While no one claimed slavery didn’t happen, they were quick to diminish its impact. One man even quoted Muhammed Ali, who – while boxing in Africa – once quipped, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat.” In this twisted manipulation of Ali’s opinions on racism, slavery was actually a positive historical event bringing Christianity and prosperity to black people.
This same willingness to deny or discount a past injury was echoed in many of the responses of men accused of sexual harassment. Even when the past harassment was acknowledged, men were quick to suggest that the incident was trivial, even unmemorable. Franken apologized, but admitted he couldn’t even remember the incidents. One defender of Roy Moore actually argued that Moore’s behavior was somehow similar to that of Mary and Joseph in the Bible. Moore wasn’t a creepy pedophile. He was a Biblical patriarch.
Question the Timing of the Injured Party
Those accused of sexual harassment were quick to question the timing of the allegation. They asked why, after so long, these women were finally claiming injury. There was little recognition of how – if the accusations were as described – these men had used their power to intimidate and harass their victims, to even threaten them should they expose the injury. Ironically, our patriarchal culture makes it extremely difficult for women to expose sexual assault and harassment and then castigates them for their reluctance. Only the recent number of successful exposures has given some women the courage to speak out.
Angry, white men express similar irritation with the timing of calls for reparations. They too asked why, so many years after the end of slavery, black people were demanding reparations. There was little recognition of how – for most of the past 150 years – powerful white men responded to calls for reparations with everything from laughter to lynching. As with victims of sexual harassment, people usually expose past injuries when they feel some modicum of safety. A nation that only apologized for slavery in 2009 shouldn’t be surprised by the sudden upsurge in calls for reparations.
Question the Motive and Character of the Injured Party
During my exchanges, I repeatedly heard reparations described as the strategy of “money grubbing black people.” Instead of legitimate compensation for centuries of economic exploitation, reparations were often defined as an injustice to white people. According to this trope, white people are hardworking and responsible. Our affluence has nothing to do with past oppressive. Inversely, black people are greedy and irresponsible. Their present challenges are the result of their own flaws. While only the most bigoted came right out and said black people were lazy, stupid or immoral, much of the rhetoric implied as much. In the end, these arguments often ended by suggesting white people were the victims.
Most of the men exposed as sexual harassers would have us believe they – rather than their accusers – are the victims. The women are money grubbing liars motivated by a desire for fame. Often, in diminishing the credibility of their accusers, the unrelated or incidental failings of their accusers are paraded publicly. While few men come right out and say these women are loose and immoral, much of the rhetoric implies as much. Ironically, though the men deny assaulting or harassing the women, they also imply their accusers are the kind of women who invite or deserve such treatment.
Diminish the Impact of the Injury
Many of these men also suggest their actions were trivial, playful or even well intentioned. The injury, if acknowledged at all, is presented as minor. Moore asked the mothers for permission to date their daughters. Franken was just kidding around. All Louis C.K. asked was that they watch. If the women weren’t liars, they were certainly exaggerating or misconstruing what happened. The victims of sexual harassment are either portrayed as pathetic losers trying to pull down their superiors or – if they are deemed successful women – as evidence that the past assault and harassment didn’t impact their careers.
Those opposing reparations utilize this same paradoxical argument. On one hand, the success of a few blacks is offered as evidence that there wasn’t really any injury. How can racism exist in a country where Barack Obama was elected president? Those people of color who have not succeeded are examples, not of systemic racism, but of their own inadequacies. The racism that cannot be ignored is trivialized as the bigotry of a few white supremacists. Micro-aggressions aren’t real. Most of what people of color report as racist is either exaggerated or misconstrued.
Reject Any Responsibility While Normalizing The Behavior
Ultimately, the goal of angry, white men – whether in talking about reparations or sexual harassment – is to avoid any personal or corporate responsibility. Either they didn’t do anything wrong or they have no responsibility for the actions of others. Yet often, in avoiding any culpability, they express sentiments that suggest they harbor the cultural and philosophical positions that undergird racism and sexism.
While they quickly condemn the most horrific examples of racism and sexism, they often follow these condemnations with justifications and excuses. Boys will be boys. White people should be able to celebrate their heritage. It was just locker room talk or bar banter. Men can be sexually harassed by women, too. Whites are the victims of racism as much as people of color. Sexual harassment is simply the by-product of gender equality and sexual freedom. People of color need to toughen up if they want to succeed in a free society. And on and on.
It was usually at this point in a discussion that I would withdraw from the conversation. What had started out as a discussion of an injury had ended up as a rationalization for a system which empowers men to injure the less powerful. By the end of November, I’d realized what opposition to reparations and reports of sexual harassment had most in common – angry, white men. These were men desperately defending the very privilege that makes racism and sexism possible. I began to suspect those complaining the most were probably also men with past transgressions.
Time and again, in this past month, I have heard men say, “I will not feel guilty about being white.” Initially, I assured them this was not my intent, that I wanted them to take responsibility rather than feel guilty. By the end of the month, after hearing other men declare that they would not feel guilty for being men, such complaints began to ring hollow. There is a certain kind of white masculinity that should deeply embarrass all men. This distorted masculinity is not solely exhibited in the David Dukes and Roy Moores of America. It is deeply ingrained in the psyche of millions of white American men.
As much as I wish it were so, racism and sexism will not be solved by reparations or the firing of countless sexual harassers, though both of these responses are necessary. Our culture will only begin to change when more men accept some responsibility for the white patriarchy that makes David Duke and Roy Moore possible. They are not aberrations. They are representations. It is far past time for white men to finally feel ashamed about how we, our peers and our forefathers have treated women and people of color. No more excuses. No more justifications.
We need white men strong and brave enough to publicly abandon both the vestiges and the privileges of white patriarchy. These are men willing to acknowledge the injuries of the past and to accept their continued complicity in sustaining systems that oppress people of color and women. If white men want to be proud, let it be a pride in their commitment to stand up – not in defense of other white men – but in defense of those who have been defenseless for too long. Until we are willing to do this, shame on us.