Mediocre Men: Reconciling White Fragility in the Age of Trump
I didn’t get the job!?!?
This was not the email I was expecting. I was twenty-four-years-old sitting in my room in San Diego, California. It was the fall of 2009 and I had just moved out to the city two months prior to start my graduate program, which I expected to complete over the course of the next year. However, upon meeting with the woman who would become my academic adviser, I quickly learned that it was much more feasible to complete the program in two years, which left me in the awkward position of trying to find a teaching job at a time when the public schools of California were in a hiring freeze due to the state budget crisis. Knowing that I would have to get creative in my job search, I applied for a position at the World Famous San Diego Zoo as a nature educator. With a BA from a top-30 university and two years of teaching in a low-income community, I felt I was the best candidate for the position.
So when I didn’t get it, I was confused. Did they not see my resume? Did they not read my cover letter? After all, when I accepted my first teaching position, I had to choose between two simultaneous job offers. I was in high demand in the state of North Carolina, why wasn’t I in California? I called up the zoo to see if they had somehow made a mistake and confused me with another candidate. They hadn’t. For the first time in my life, at the age of twenty-four, I was rejected for a position and I didn’t understand how or what it happened.
Three months later as part of a graduate course on ESL, we engaged in a classroom discussion about race and privilege. After all, if we were going to be teaching English language learners, we had to learn about ourselves and our own backgrounds to identify any inherent biases. A woman I had become friends with named Julie opened up about her background and shared how she never knew her family was poor until she attended college and saw others with so many more resources than she had growing up. As she was describing her upbringing, it finally hit home for me: I had expected to get the job because that’s how I had come to see the world. Through playing competitive athletics, through my private college education, through my first full-time teaching job, I had come to expect success. And I had come to expect success because of the privilege and opportunities that had been afforded to me because of my upbringing.
For the first time, I saw that whereas I had previously attributed my success to my own work ethic, what was really the driving force for me was a system in place designed to help those like me (read: straight, White, middle-class, male) succeed. In school, I was tracked from the fourth grade via an enrichment program. This helped me do better in school, take advanced classes, and eventually earn college credit. My family also had financial resources that allowed me to take an SAT prep class that helped me increased my score from junior to senior year. I had been a competitive athlete and had traveled all over the state to compete. These opportunities helped me become a two-sport varsity athlete, increasing my profile to perspective colleges. Because I was an athlete, people knew who I was. Two of my former teammates nominated me for National Honor Society President. I gave an impromptu speech on the spot and ended up winning the nomination simply because people knew who I was. I even took an entire class called advanced writing workshop my senior year because I knew part of the course would be dedicated to writing college essays. In short, my success was engineered by a system designed to help those exactly like myself.
This revelation shortly before my twenty-fifth birthday was rough. After all, nobody wants to admit that their successes have in any way been flawed. But that’s what I saw. I saw myself as being part of a flawed system. Having taught young men and women of color, I now saw that I had opportunities that they would never have simply because of a system designed to hold back low-income people of color. They didn’t have reliable transportation to and from school and couldn’t stay for enrichment programs or even after-school tutoring. They couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees for travel sports. Their textbooks were written at a level they could not comprehend and their parents couldn’t afford study guides to help them. And there simply weren’t leadership opportunities available to them that could have helped build their confidence moving forward.
Reconciling these two worlds made me realize that for me to work with the population I wanted to work with, I had to better understand myself. I dove into the work of Tim Wise, including his seminal White Like Me. I read the works of Paolo Fraire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. After hearing a presentation, I connected with the local Cesar Chavez Service Club and inquired about the possibility to establishing a club at a school where I was currently serving as a long-term substitute teacher. After having identified a core group of 6 students, we were able to create a club and leadership opportunities for these students, all of whom came from low-income backgrounds. I also worked closely with my students and tried to teach them history in a way that was meaningful, but also that was honest. I wanted them to learn the brutal truth about oppression and racism in this country and how and why it came about. In short, I wanted to use my privilege to share with them the truth about the world around them.
I know now that not everyone responds this way.
As we’ve seen over the past five years, our country has had a series of brutal murders committee by adult White men whose privilege has come into question. The Roseburg, Oregon shooter was 26-years-old. The Aurora and Dayton shooters were 24. The Charleston shooter was 21. The Sandy Hook shooter was 20. The Parkland shooter was 19. The Santa Fe High School shooter was 17. The Red Lake, Minnesota shooter was 16.
Why is it then that so many White men in early adulthood aren’t able to cope with a world that doesn’t guarantee their success?
The answer lies in the notion of White fragility. That is, the sense that without the shield of Whiteness, a person has to go out in the world and earn a living based on his own merits. For a generation of young men who have never had to work for anything because it has been given to them, this can be terrifying. There remains a sense of entitlement and there is a genuine anger when something doesn’t go their way. These adult White men kill simply because they feel threatened that another group will overtake them and deep down inside they know they are mediocre and cannot compete. Coming from privilege, they don’t see this as a personal character flaw but rather as a conspiracy designed to undermine them and their position in the world. Rather than work harder to overcome these flaws, these privileged White men seek to eliminate those who they see as a threat and they will do so in as violent a way as possible.
Not everyone becomes a mass shooter. But the truth is that we are now dealing with a generation of White men whose very identify has been rocked to the core. Having gone through the worst recession in 80 years and now having a White nationalist as president, we have a large segment of the population who is struggling to make ends meet and is looking for somebody to blame. Rather than blame the failed Republican trickle-down economics of the last 50 years that have led to stagnant wages, these White men find it much easier to blame their immigrant neighbor who is working 70 back-breaking hours a week in the construction field. In Donald Trump, they see someone who says the things they are thinking, even though they have no basis in fact or reality. Complex macroeconomics is hard, hating someone is easy, and having a hate toward a specific target is easier still.
It is this hate that permeates throughout these fragile White men’s lives. They hate the immigrant who is gainfully employed, even if it is back-breaking work. They hate the Muslim who wears her hijab to the grocery store but don’t see any problem with the nun dressed in similar religious garb. The hate the transgender person because they don’t seem natural to them. They hate the women on dating apps who aren’t won over by their advances and they’ll call them cunts to let them know that their rejection isn’t appreciated. And they hate liberals, who they see as being the antipathy to everything they believe in.
But most of all, these mediocre White men hate themselves. The hate the fact that the world doesn’t work as it should. The world doesn’t work in the same way that they were brought up to believe. That if you worked hard then you’d be able to get yourself a good education, a good wife, and a house with a white picket fence. They cannot reconcile that the people they keep voting for screw them over, time and time again. Rather than admit the fact that they’ve been lied to and manipulated, it’s much easier for these mediocre White men to blame someone else. Blaming someone else takes the pressure off them and allows them to continue playing the victim. Because, as we’ve seen with the White House Usurper, it’s much easier to play the victim than admit the truth. Hating yourself is hard, hating others is easy and if you hate others then you have the freedom to do so in a way that empowers you to again feel good about yourself.
In the end, these mediocre White men will continue to struggle with the harsh reality of the world around them. Thanks to the NRA, Mitch McConnell, and the entire Republican Party, one of them will likely kill again. But it is not video games that will be the cause. Nor will it be mental health alone. Rather, it will be a mediocre White man, aged 16 to 26, who will simply be unable to cope with the fact that he is not as good as he was led to believe. Rather than address his flaws, he will take it upon himself to purchase and use a weapon of war to make a visceral statement about his White fragility. People will die because once again a White man will be unable to deal with the fact that the world doesn’t always work out to his advantage.
And once again, we will have a national discussion that fails to address this underlying problem.
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