White Men Under the Microscope

I’ve been watching how the nation represents women and minorities since the early 1990s, and here is what I’ve noticed: news stories used to focus on women and minorities in terms of studies. Why do girls lag behind in math and science? Why do Black kids’ standardized test scores lag behind White kids’? That was the tone of magazine and newspaper reporting, and I noticed the stories seldom focused on white men or boys. If they did, the tone was markedly different. The idea was, why weren’t the rest of us catching up with them?

Then women did start to catch up. Girls were outperforming boys in school, and, in the 1990s, women’s college enrollment numbers edged past men’s. You would think this would make people cheer after thousands of years of oppression, but many editorials commented on this news with a twinge of panic. What would the world look like if women were better educated than men? A new fear of “feminizing” the nation took hold. Masculinization had long been the preferred state of things. Nobody truly respected anything — or anyone —  feminine. A few years later, the book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men came out — written by a woman, Christina Hoff Summers. I remember thinking: There has been a war against girls throughout all of human history. Many girls couldn’t then, and still can’t, go to school at all. As recently as 2012, teenager Malala Yousafzai got shot in the head for going to school in Taliban-controlled Pakistan. But when American middle-class white boys began to fall behind in school, many people responded with an unease it took much longer to express for girls or people of color, whose education was often considered unimportant.

All of those observations settled in my brain, but nothing definitive hatched until, also in 2012, Adam Lanza shot his mother, some teachers, and 20 first graders in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the sort of horror that sends any feeling person diving under the covers. It did me, and while I was under there, I thought of how after 9/11 Muslims were targeted. Those men were considered terrorists, but the long and growing list of white men who committed mass shootings against other Americans weren’t. White gunmen were considered troubled individuals, but not representatives of a troubled race or gender. I thought of how most, though not all, pedophiles were men. Not all white men, but it’s somehow white men who, no matter what crimes they commit, have defied the same criminal profiles their black and brown counterparts encounter. White men commit crimes as individuals. If a white man or boy struggles in school, or fails at a job, it’s his failure. If any person of color or woman of any race fails, it’s an entire race or gender failing. It seems to be part of the privilege of the powerful to pathologize the less powerful while their own behavior, no matter how deviant, remains above censure. “Might makes right,” people say. Chris Rock amended, for his 2004 HBO special Never Scared, “But it’s alright, ‘cause it’s all white.” Same idea.

Fast forward to 2017. Donald Trump, a caricature of the classic racist, misogynistic, privileged, pillaging, egotistical white man was elected to office. He ran on this very ticket, more or less, though more implicitly than I’ve stated it. Even after a tape was released that records him bragging about sexual assault, he ended up victorious over his female opponent. He was the 44th white man elected in the United States out of 45 presidents, which makes 220 years of white male presidents as an official nation.

But these are different times, and the backlash against this particular white man has been fiery and intense.

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Trump’s inauguration was met with the Women’s March in January, followed by hundreds of marches throughout the year. And then the accusations started: against Trump, but those went nowhere. Against Louis CK, though, and Charlie Rose, and Roy Moore, and Kevin Spacey and Al Franken. Man after man began to fall, and Time, instead of putting a white man on its Person of the Year cover, highlighted the year’s accusers. Women went from exploitative liars to brave almost overnight.

Questions about white men, power and privilege rose to the surface of the nation’s consciousness, and people are taking those questions seriously.

This is an epic shift. It is not a shift that seeks to denigrate men, though it may seem so: it is merely holding them responsible also. The men who have faced job loss and public disgrace in the last year were held responsible for their actions. Business as usual would have been to let the victims take the fall while they went on, freed from scrutiny, or consequences because of their race, gender, wealth, and power. The fact that holding powerful white men responsible for their behavior is causing such widespread upheaval is a chilling commentary on where we have been.

Telling the truth about injustice is often regarded as more criminal than the injustice itself, especially when it’s someone less powerful calling out the powerful. This is true in villages, states and nations. It’s true in workplaces and families. Those who hold together systems that harm others do it because they are benefitting from it, or believe they are. Their comfort does not inspire them to ask the hard questions, about themselves or the world, and they will not give up what serves them without a fight.

But if 2017 showed us anything, it’s this: The fight is on.