white man’s burden


    Say it loud: I’m white and male and not very proud.

    And it’s all thanks to two NPR stories. The first came as I was driving to work. WUNC, our local station hosts a program called The State of Things. Frank Stasio’s topic today was “Hillary and Obama.” I came in on the middle of the conversation at the same time as a caller had his say. He talked about being a life long Democrat and then he said, “If Obama is our candidate, I think I’m just going to have to vote for McCain. He’s a Republican I can tolerate.”

    Stasio pressed him: “Is one of the reasons you would vote for Obama because he’s black?”

    The guy paused and said, “Honestly, yeah. And there are a lot of us that feel this way.”

    A couple of hours later, the show was Day to Day and the story centered on John Edwards’ decision to “suspend his candidacy,” as he put it. Rather than spend much time talking about Edwards, the story focused on his absence and in particular who white men are going to vote for now that only a white woman and a black man are left – and they talked about it for a long time with several people as though white guys didn’t know what to do.

    I actually dropped my knife on the cutting board and said, “Are you frickin’ kidding me?” (I was alone in the kitchen at the time.)

    For the past seven years, I’ve done menial labor as a kitchen worker. It’s good work, it’s honorable work, it’s creative work, it’s what I love to do, and it’s menial labor because every night at the end of the shift I sweep the floor and push three fifty-five gallon trash cans to the dumpster and empty them. But even if I’m pushing those bins through the back hallways at Duke, I still get deferential treatment from a lot of the other workers because I’m a white male: I’m The Man.

    It’s a club I wish I could unjoin.

    When I was in Baylor, I qualified to join some honor society whose Greek letters I can no longer recall. It’s only value was it went on my transcript to make me look more intelligent, I guess, to future employers or graduate schools. My sophomore year, I went to the meeting where we were to accept new members. All of the applicants were qualified to join by a long shot. The president stood up and began to go through the process of voting on each one. I raised my hand and asked why we didn’t take them all, since it was an honor society and they all met the requirements. His answer was if we let everyone in then it would be as special for those who made it.

    I never went to another meeting.

    As a high school English teacher, I refused to allow my students to use “man” or “men” as though they referred to everyone. Every semester, someone would say, “But they’ve always been used to mean everyone.”

    My response was, “They were used to mean everyone, when everyone meant the white males. When the Declaration of Independence says, ‘All men are created equal,’ it meant the white men; it didn’t mean everyone. Men means men. English is a big language; don’t let your lack of vocabulary limit your inclusivity.”

    White men have been in charge for a long time. They still are – just look at who was sitting in the room during Bush’s speech the other night: a sea of dark suits, red or blue ties) and lots of white, wrinkled skin. That Hillary and Obama stand to make history one way or another is one of the signs that life isn’t always going to be so white and white. We’re going to come out on level ground more and more (and probably act like we got cheated out of something). And we need to quit whining about how immigrants and minorities get special treatment. We’ve been treated special the whole time. I don’t get followed around in a store because they think I’m going to shoplift because of the color of my skin. I don’t get stopped by the cops because they think I’m the wrong color to be driving such a nice car. I don’t get dragged off by INS because my last name matches on their list, even though the list is wrong. I’m not expected to stay home with the kids and I don’t get blamed for latch-key children because I choose to have a career and a family.

    I don’t do much of anything that elicits the response: “I never saw a white man do that. Good for you. Your people must be so proud.”

    Not voting for someone because of the color of his or her skin is not just wrong, it’s ignorant. Expecting to get my way because of the color of my skin is no different. In my lifetime, I’m going to become a minority: there will be more people of color than white people in America. I’m not saying that as a threat; I say it with eager anticipation. White men have had a long time to be in charge and we’ve shown we pretty much suck at everything but reminding people we’re in charge and picking fights (The White Man in Chief being our most recent shining example).

    What was it Jesus said? Oh, yes – “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

    Damn. Every time one of those minorities speaks up, I have to move back.



    1. Don’t withdraw your membership in the white male’s club just because a few (or even many) members act like jerks some times. Just, as Micah says, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” If you do this, as a white male, you can have a great impact on the world.

    2. Good one, Milton. Yes there are definitely “winks” attached to words in some phrases, like the “all men *wink wink* are created equal” (this one just plain excludes us wimmins altogether).

      It is very difficult to navigate in a society where some folks have removed the “wink”, others were never taught it at all and then the old guard who use it relentlessly, but you can’t tell because it’s invisible *wink*.

    3. Wonderful insights. Thanks.
      I’ve found myself living this election on a personal level, contemplating issues beyond Hillary or Obama. Take the concept of the first viable, female presidential candidate. It’s not lost on me that she’s able to be viable–in part–because of the totality of her life experience, which includes a complex marriage to a complex political figure. I think she’s deserving on her own merits, but her own merits are forever tied–and at times sullied–by her spouse. It happened to Ferraro too. And the only other high-ranking national political appointees who are female in recent history have either been divorced (Albright) or never married (Rice). It seems that for women to achieve a high office, she either needs to ditch The Man or figure out a way for others to look past him so they can see her. It’s only been 88 years since the 19th amendment–a little over one-third of our nation’s history.

      Just think of how radical Christ was to espouse neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free.

    4. Heard about this story and it made me very sad that I can’t tell my children we’ve come farther than that.

      I have to ask, though — you say “frickin” when you’re ALONE?


    5. I agree with Towanda, you are a good man…even if you say “frickin” when you are alone…I sometimes can’t help it and say “dadgummmit” occasionally myself… Personally it is an embarrassment pretty often to say that I’m a man…a white man…and a white man who is a follower of Jesus…I’m proud to have a friend who is a human being like you…


    6. While Ben Fold’s “Rockin the Suburbs” has stronger language than “frickin” or even “dadgummit”, I think its parody of the positions you are opposing is brilliant: “Let me tell yall what it’s like, being male, middle class and white”. Worth a listen/look (but cover your ears in the bridge). He gets the whining tone of a privileged person exactly right.
      🙂 Jude

    7. One of the good things about this campaign is it is exposing, for those who have eyes to see, our own inherent race and gender bias. For that I am grateful.

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