Although I am willing to publicly explore almost anything about myself and the way I have been conditioned to think and act as a straight White man, I will spare you from reading my poem, "The Cry of the White Man." Suffice it to say the poem included lines like these:
Go ahead, judge me on it
Did I choose this?
No, fuck you I won't apologize
I have no one to apologize to
How do I defend myself in a world where my groups are all wrong?
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress...leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
While recovering from what I was reading, I began to wonder about the other end of the spectrum: race-based stamina. Black Americans are reminded of their Blackness all day, every day--a stream of reminders, most of them accompanied with overt or implied negativity about Blackness. If a Black person has to swim through that all day long, they would have to develop an incredible resilience or they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
I marvel at the fact that Black people can stomach the daily facing of a society that consistently devalues them, let alone stand reaching out across the racial divide to engage in good faith with people who largely refuse to acknowledge the depth and stench of this racist stew.
When it comes to understanding identity politics, I try to always keep an intersectional perspective (understanding that different identities intersect and impact each other--my experience of being White is also affected by my gender, class status, sexual orientation, etc.). So I began to think about fragilities beyond Whiteness.
If White fragility exists because White people have the privilege of being largely protected from race-based stress, then what about the existence of fragility based on other privileged identities? Specifically, do male fragility and hetero fragility exist?
Want to get your ass whipped in the high school men’s locker room? Just say something that implies that the biggest guy there is either gay or a woman. We men are brought up to be so fragile in our masculinity and our sexuality that we feel obligated to defend ourselves at the slightest threat. We must not only deny the accusation, we must assault our accuser to make sure they never say something like that again.
Meanwhile, every day, women are constantly reminded that much of our society thinks them inferior to men. And people who identify as queer are endlessly reminded that their sexuality does not compute with the way sex is "supposed" to be. People with these identities must develop a resilience, which I have never needed, in order to survive, maintain self-respect, and engage with a world of power structures that disapprove of their very existence.
Do the separate fragilities/resiliences that accompany race, gender, and sexuality intersect to create a sort of intersectional identity fragility/resilience?
If so, who is least likely to be resilient in their engagement with the world around them?
Who, when presented with real, existential threats by a hostile world, is least likely to be prepared to stare those threats down and emerge victorious?
Beyond just staring down those threats, who is least prepared to do the truly hard work--to sit with those existential threats, forge a path forward regardless, and even come to compromise with those threats when necessary?
The people least likely to be ready for such resilience are my brethren--straight, White, men.
And people bearing identities we have labeled as inferior--Black, queer, female, immigrant, fat, transgender, disabled, among others--carry with them, by necessity, a potential for resilience beyond what someone like me is likely to ever know.
But whose leadership have me and my brethren historically bought into, inspired by projections of strength and resilience?
None of us, oppressors or oppressed, are free, though our chains are different. Black and brown-skinned people, immigrants, women, queer, transgender, and financially-poor people in America struggle to survive within systems of material and economic oppression. Meanwhile, people with privileged identities like me are corralled into acting as storm troopers in the battle against those not like us, defending a system that provides for us materially while destroying our humanity in servitude to a system of violence and savagery.
The people best positioned to lead us to freedom are the people who’ve had to fight for it every day of their lives. When I am learning to choose to follow the leadership of women, of Black people, of queer people, it’s not out of a sense of guilt, but a realization that these are the strongest people we’ve got in the monumental struggle to actually live up to the ideals we profess as a country--freedom, equality, and opportunity.
Who better to lead the battle against the White supremacist system (which isolates me and my White brethren and forces our complicity in harming people of color) than the Black and brown people that are targets of that system?
Now I see such delusional expectations of myself as a form of velvet chains, endowing me with both supreme confidence in myself and also a crippling fear of not being able to live up to what I believed I was capable of. These realizations are only possible thanks to the opportunity I have to practice following the earned leadership of Black people, women, and people who identify as queer.
Luckily for my fellow straight White men (I love you guys!), our leadership is still critical and needed. Here are some ways that we can work to forge a new, redefined mantle of leadership as society's privileged children.
- We can learn to listen to and follow the earned leadership of Black people, of women, and of people who identify as queer.
- We can learn how to speak confidently and with love to other people with privileged identities. How can we learn to talk to White people about White supremacy? How can we learn to talk to men about patriarchy? This is our work to do and we are very much needed as leaders here.
- We can learn to face the mirror and shed light onto our own experiences with privilege, allowing us to see our personal stake in the collective liberation of all people and the planet.
- We can join (or start) a White affinity group, which offers us the space, time, and community to develop our analysis and practice as White people fighting against White supremacy.
- We can read the writing that we were taught not to read!
Abandoning the delusions we were raised on, we can lead and inspire our brethren to be strong enough to let go of that which we never earned.
We can start over.