What is "A White Man" anyway?
A relatively young white man who appreciates many of the postings on this blog asked me to define what I mean by "a white man".
I'll attempt to do so here.
First, the term "a white man" or "white men" is not ever used here as a biological term. It is not a description of something that occurs in nature as we popularly speak of the nature vs. environment distinction. White men are not the population of grown up people who don't a clitoris when born, for example; nor are they those people who have relatively little melanin in their pale skin. A white man is not a natural occurrence, in other words. A white man is a social-political phenomenon, in person. He is one among a group of people positioned at the top of two social/political/economic hierarchies: the one frequently called the gender hierarchy and the one called the racial hierarchy.
In the gender hierarchy of the white male supremacist West, there are two acknowledged genders: woman and man, with woman historically and transculturally, if not universally, being seen and treated as lesser than man; as inferior to, as in service to, as subordinate to man, naturally or by [a white man's vision of] God's design.
In the racial hierarchy of the white male supremacist West, there are several races, but two are identified most often as being "in opposition" historically and transculturally, if not universally: a race called "white people" and a race called "Black people". Now, we can note immediately that "Blackness" globally doesn't always mean "of African descent". For example, the Indigenous people of Australia are termed "Black". Also, in the U.S. alone, people of sub-Saharan African descent, particularly and especially the descendants of Africans captured and forcibly transported in the Maafa, intentionally to be used/abused as slaves for whites in the U.S., have been termed various things over the decades, some obviously and overtly pejorative, but some that were not pejorative at the time they were most commonly used among and by African Americans. Some of these terms have come and gone with the passage of time and social-political conditions and consciousness. One example is "Colored people" still noted in the civil rights group's named: NAACP. We see this term in Ntozake Shange's play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf. Colored was also used by whites in the U.S. to describe American Indians and people from the First Nations in Canada. We can also note that in the U.K. and in South Africa, the racialised term "Coloured" doesn't mean African American. It refers instead to people of "mixed race". Here we must again remind ourselves there are more than two races, so "mixed race" need not refer only to people whose lineage goes back to sub-Saharan Africa (and, for example, Europe); the online edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines "Coloured" this way:
So we can note that not only nationally and regionally, but also temporally and culturally, these terms do not have fixed meanings; their meanings can and do change over time.
"Whiteness" itself has a history, a social-political one, not a natural one. It is the designation given to those who are positioned above and against people of color. Who is white has varied over time. In this country, for example, I am white. But in Nazi Germany, as an Ashkenazic Jew, I would not have been seen as white; I would have been seen, treated, and likely killed for being "not white" and "impure due to not being Aryan-white".
For much more on the history and unnaturalness of whiteness, please read Tim Wise's writings.
What "woman" means (in various languages) has historically been politically decided by men in various patriarchal cultures. How women define "woman" has significantly more variation, moving beyond the confines and shackles of men's violently enforced parameters for what women can do, and, "are". And women who move beyond men's shallow confines are punished socially, including by being stigmatised, stereotyped, and stoned to death, by stones or fists.
"Man" too is a relative term, historically (his-story being written by men) nonsensically meaning "humankind" or "all of humanity". This is false. If limited to the terms "woman" and "man" in English, if we're going to equate one of those two genders with humankind we ought to use the term "woman" as the synonym, not man. After all, there are more women than men on the Earth. Also, the gender-oppressed are more humane than the gender-oppressors, contrary to what members of the oppressor classes project onto the oppressed with nauseating and insulting regularity.
"Men" and "Whites" mean, specifically, those two groups of humans who oppress "women" and "people of color" respectively. White men, of course, are positioned socially to oppress women of all colors, as well as men of color and all children and animals and the Earth. We white men are not only positioned to do so, but we actively do so, in many ways that we, collectively, take little to no responsibility for. This is important to note: our position is a critical component in how we behave towards other people. Systems of accountability for "decent treatment" for example, are, in white and man-dominated societies, set up to allow white men to get away with murder, rape, battery, incest, child molestation, pollution, global warming, the extinction of thousands of species of non-human animals, sexual slavery, genocide, gynocide, and more.
The young white men mentioned above does not actively oppress women in his life interpersonally (any more), for the most part. But he is still positioned to be able to do so interpersonally; and should he use misogynistic language to or around a woman or women, he would be committing an act of gendered oppression. Regardless of how non-oppressive he is interpersonally, around women he knows or sees, he, and I, and all men, are oppressive to women systemically, structurally, and institutionally. We are cogs in white male supremacy's machinery, whether we like it or not. (And most do like it, tragically for the rest of humanity.)
In liberal societies, it is mistakenly believed that "oppression works both ways" or that women can be just as sexist against men too. Or that people of color can be racist against whites. This is structurally impossible and utter nonsense. It is interpersonally possible that any person can be harmful to any other person, regardless of race or gender, or other factors. But given that the societies white men rule are founded on several institutions that require various structures of support and maintenance, there is never an opportunity, a social reality, inside which women can oppress men--of the same economic class, race, and sexuality. Likewise, no person or people of color can oppress whites. Society isn't set up to make that an option. As noted, individuals may carry very stereotypical ideas about what it means to be white, Black, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, lesbian, transgendered, gay, rich, or poor, but these "ideas" are not manifesting oppressively, institutionally against whites--of the same gender, economic class, and sexuality.
A far too common response I hear from white men when I speak of this subject is: "What about Oprah? She has way more social power than I do. She owns media. She's a multi-millionaire." Unless I'm speaking to Rupert Murdoch, or any number of other men far more wealthy and powerful than Oprah Winfrey, I respond by saying "please compare people within the same stratas of society. For example, while Oprah may have more power, in many regards, than a poor, homeless white man, that poor, homeless white man can still call Oprah Winfrey derogatory terms for both women and Blacks. That homeless white man still has the means to sexually harass her too, and worse. But more to the point, let's compare the homeless white man to a homeless woman of color and see who comes out ahead, in terms of status, social visibility, stigma, and likelihood of dying of major diseases. (Answer: not the white man.) And if we compare Oprah Winfrey to Rupert Murdoch, he has far more influence over what we know and do than does Oprah. And ol' Rupert and even more visibly famous white men, aren't likely to be refused service and treated rudely by in a chic French shop due to his race and gender, even if he allegedly arrives fifteen minutes after they close.
But when we speak of "position" we are referring specifically to how a society is structured, who most benefits from that structure, who gains status and privileges and entitlements, and who loses them, or is never given them to begin with. We are speaking of what forms of agency and power individuals and groups have within systems that either promote their welfare and well-being or discriminate against them.
This is when many white men who are liberals will chime in that "if I was one-eighth Native American I could go to college for free! You don't call that "reverse discrimination"?!
No. And here's why. The very few laws and policies that exist to try and remedy social inequalities and injustices that have happened only due to the over-valuing and privileging and empowerment of whites and men over time, by white men in charge of social institutions, have not, as yet, produced a society that shows any signs of lessening its white male supremacist power any time soon. While tokenistic efforts appear from time to time to give the appearance that white men want equality among the genders and races, what is never achieved is that actual equality. What is never accomplished, even with that free college tuition for American Indians in white men's institutions of "higher" learning, is the transformation of those academic institutions such that white men's views and values are seen as no better or worse than those of any other political/cultural group. You can get a free pass in, but once in you'd better learn how to "think and behave like a white man" in order to succeed. A wise white lesbian woman I once knew studied theology at Yale for her Ph.D. almost didn't make it through to get the degree because of all the white (and heterosexual and Christian) male supremacist bullshit (beliefs, rules, standards of conduct, notions of "knowledge", etc.). And of course the white men who professed there never understood what was severely ignorant and oppressive about their values and ideas.
What about Obama being president, liberal white men ask? Doesn't that mean that we no longer live in a white male dominated country? First, the U.S. remains white male dominated. Second, he is still operating in an overwhelmingly and predominantly white male supremacist culture (the U.S. government of Washington, D.C.), and is limited in what he can do for women and people of color because of that. Add to that the fact that many of his values and policies are also shaped by that culture, represent that culture, and are culturally imperialistic and murderous globally in ways that most benefit white men and least benefit women of color. And then there's the question of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Here we have a perfect example of how a woman of color's statement is turned against her, particularly when she's identifying something structurally and socially true.
In recent months, Justice Sotomayor was verbally and in print raked through the coals for making what to me seemed like a rather unremarkable statement:
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge in the U.S. court system] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life[.]"
When I first heard this comment I thought: "Duh." White men are not positioned to know or care much about most of humanity, are notoriously self-serving in their/our policies and practices, and, given that we are positioned over and against others in the race and gender hierarchies, tend to know very little about what it means to be oppressed by white men, unless we are marginalised or oppressed by white men for other reasons: such as poor white men being oppressed by rich ones, gay white men by straight ones, disabled white men by non-disabled ones, and so on. Even then, though, such awareness of one's oppression as poor, gay, or disabled does not tend to make those oppressed (and oppressive) white men empathically connected to the experiences of people of color--women and men, and white women, generally.
This lack of empathy that comes from not having walked in the shoes of the gender-oppressed and race-oppressed, or ridden in their wheelchairs, means that we white men have to go out of our way, off our privileged path, beyond our myopic world views and values to gain insight and understanding, let alone empathy, for those we structurally oppress.
In my experience, white men do not go out of our way often enough or far enough; most don't go out of our way at all. We tend to want to preserve our social-political-economic position (and the power and privileges that come with it) nationally in the U.S. and U.K., for example. We want the experience of ourselves as "the norm". We hate feeling like "the other"--even while we are, especially in the U.S., which ethically belongs to no white man. We, the trespassers, the invaders, the conquerors, also want and do preserve our social, economic, and political structures globally, through policies and practices we white men created in order to hoard and abuse the world's so-called resources, including by identifying and treating all those people who are not men and not white as "resources" for white men.
As is now well-known by white men who grossly sexually exploit people worldwide, white men globe-trot specifically and intentionally to appropriate other cultures' people and artifacts, to rape boys, girls, transgendered people, and women, to purchase and enslave human beings who are not white or men, to set up shop--literally, where people of color, disproportionately children and women, do the atrociously repetitive, laborious, and dangerous work that white men, even poor white U.S. men, do not generally have to do because the globalised economy is structured by the white men-led and controlled World Bank, multinational corporations, and the International Monetary Fund, not to mention the white men-controlled religious institutions. the various Christian church leaders who preach what they have no intention of practicing, unless they are preaching about evil-doing. Question: how many white men in the Christian Churches have to be discovered and reported to be rapers of nuns and other female church-members and abusers of female and male children before we stop listening to their racist, misogynist, misopedic "God-inspired" preachings? I am waiting for the answer.
Because white men tend to live lives in great ignorance of the experiences and knowledge of the majority of human beings on the Earth, we tend to have a very myopic understanding of what humanity is, how humanity thinks, responds, and acts in many parts of the world. To use a metaphor, we are positioned on a mountaintop above the clouds; we cannot see what is happening below us. We think all is well--more or less, as we sit perched atop our white man's mountains (made by slaves who are not white, fed and nurtured--kept alive--by white women). We don't consider that our piss flows downward below the cloud line which is our sole vista (if we choose). We don't particularly care who has to endure its stench and volume. When asked to peek below the cloud line, should we do so and notice beings below, we tend to remark cynically, without any regard for the humanity of those we harm, "They can climb up here and be with us. And if they don't that's their own damn fault!" Never mind that these mountains have peaks, not plateaus, and only have room for the few, never the many. Never mind that the white man not only doesn't care to offer a hand up, but shits all over the people below. Never mind that life below would be just fine thank you, if only white men would stop pissing and shitting all over it.
And so our seemingly gracious efforts to equalise inequalities that are structured into society, by offering the free tuition to an American Indian student, for example, doesn't factor in what she has lived through to even get that far: the amount of stench of white men's shit she's inhaled, the miles of wading neck deep in white men's piss. Nor do white men's rather self-serving efforts to "help the less fortunate" measure what kind of social climate she's forced to assimilate into in order to succeed in white men's colleges, teaching white men's ideas and ways of doing things. She may be admitted, but she won't see herself reflected in the canon of great reading materials and examples of great people in history.
This is how it comes to be that the father of this young white man, who is also white and far more self-unaware of his white, heterosexual, and male supremacist privileges and entitlements than is his son, could say to me not long ago that Feodor Dostoevsky expressed the human condition (experience) in his writings in a way that is superior to any other writer. This Christian white man not only said it, but he believed it. Are there actually places that try and demonstrate that Christian white men are the best writers? Yes.
When I immediately asked him, "How does he represent women in his novels", this Christian heterosexual white man who is around fifty-years-old said, honestly, "He doesn't do so well with women characters; they tend to be far more two-dimensional than his male characters." (We can note that Mr. Dostoevsky never did turn out a brilliant book called The Sisters Karamazov.) I then noted that given that most of the world's human population is female, he might want to reconsider how much of humanity Dostoevsky allegedly spoke for.
I would argue that any and every white man speaks to and through his own experiences primarily, and to those of the people he knows best empathically and socially. Given the hierarchies mentioned above, those people in his social circles tend not to be people of color, unless they are his house cleaners, the carers of his children, or his gardeners. This, combined with a significantly limited capacity for empathy for anyone other than white people and/or men, means that his life experiences generate and sustain little to no empathy or understanding for those he hires for help and for every other human being who is not his race or his gender. To him, they are not of equal status and worth, no matter his proclamations to the contrary. And so the majority of the world's population remains "other" to him; he sees them primarily through the tiny, distorted lens his position allows; and to the degree he sees them at all, he mistakenly regards them as lesser in quality, intelligence, and character. No white man writer I know, not Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy, not Hemingway, not Shakespeare, describes "the" human experience or condition. He may describe "a" human experience.
White men's philosophies and politics are so limited in their understanding of the self, the world, and Spirit, that they can scarcely get out of their own way to see what is before them. And how many women of color do you think made the list of "Great Philosophers"? Check here for the answer. What political demographic do you suppose has defined "philosophy" and "greatness"? Answer: "educated" white men. So rather than ask Aboriginal elders how they and their ancestors have managed to live sustainably on the Earth for thousands of years, we look to two white Australian men for the answers to this very important question. It's not that Bill Morrison and Scott Pitman have nothing useful to say; it's that we look to them as holders of great truth and ideas, and as saviors of us all, because they are white men. When whites do go to people of color, especially Indigenous people, for counsel, advice, guidance, and wisdom, it is almost always to exploit them, and enhance white men's quality of life while--knowledgeably or not--continuing our genocide against them, culturally and physically. And when white men go unwelcomed into non-industrialised cultures, we historically assume and believe the holders of knowledge are the men, not the women, and certainly not those who are neither.
The universalising and normalising of white men's perspectives, feelings, ideas, experiences, and behavior is one of the key ways that white men maintain oppressive control over everyone else. Extra status is given to those white men who behave in especially white and manly ways.
So, all of the U.S.'s presidents prior to Barack Obama, being white Christian publicly heterosexual men who were oppressive to women and people of color, including being rapists of slaves and genocidalists, are generally regarded in U.S. society as "heroes" and "great men". Needless to say, I don't agree. If speaking only about U.S. Americans, I think Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lozen, and Andrea Dworkin were far greater people than any U.S. president, including Barack Obama.
That we reward and honor white men, and many men who are not white, with medals and accolades for going outside the U.S. and murdering people of color, and raping both white women and women of color, as well as murdering them, tells us a great deal about the dominant white man's value system.
When I say "the dominant white man" I am often accused of grossly stereotyping white men. I would argue that white men far more powerful and influential that I'd ever want to be do this all by themselves. White men keep each other in line, in check. White men physically beat the shit out of each other for acting in ways that are not white or manly enough. White men use the term "man" all the time; never bothering to say "some white men, but certainly not all". Scour the history books and newspapers over the last hundred or so years: who uses the term "man" the most to improperly categorise and identify all people as one kind of people? Answer: "educated" white men.
White men's legacy on this Earth speaks for itself. There's nothing at all I, or any profeminist or feminist, can say or do to make that history be different than it is. The books have been written, the atrocities have occurred and still occur: the so-called great victories of white men over everything else have been recorded. I just happen to think what we white guys have done isn't all that great, particularly when we consider the cost to most of humanity, and the rest of the Earth's beings, to achieve it.
I'm not going to diss the Beatles' music. I think some white guys are really funny. I love Fred Astaire and James Dean. Believe it or not, some of the people I consider to be my closest friends and chosen family are white men. But, on the whole, what we white guys have done to this place is not a pretty story and it's about time we owned up to the fact that we did it and we have the power to undo it. We own so much of the world; why is it so hard for us to take responsibility for and radically change the destructive things we do?
I welcome responsible, respectful comments or questions if anyone reading this is still confused about what it means to be a white man.
[To post a comment, please click here, which will take you to my weblog, A Radical Profeminist.]