Recently I listened to an episode of This American Life entitled “White Haze” about various Alt-Right and Alt-Lite movements, and the Venn diagrams of belief systems that may or may not include men’s rights, reclaiming traditional masculinity, abstaining from masturbation, anti-PC/SJW, keeping women out of the workforce, opposing non-white immigration, drinking beer together, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, casual racism, and full-blown white supremacy.
My impression was that for many members of these white male conservative groups, the main emotional issue was a sense of entitlement, manifesting as resentment and finger-pointing if such things as girlfriend, job, wealth, and status didn’t easily materialize. That, and an imagined sense of cultural oppression by liberals and feminists (though specific examples of how exactly white men are oppressed are elusive).
Culturally conservative young white men who feel oppressed by mainstream culture are actively recruiting and gaining power. They tipped the scales (along with the Russians) into electing Trump, and they continue to grow their numbers by polishing a narrative that centers around the (imagined) disenfranchisement of white men, especially young Christian white men.
For some young white men, especially those starting their adult life with meager resources, little family support, and lack of sensible mentors who might talk some sense into their heads, this narrative can be appealing.
I Was Lucky
Thinking about my own time as a young white man, I couldn’t remember feeling a sense of entitlement. I felt isolated and even alienated at times, but this is practically universal for young people, at least at some point in their lives.
Kia pointed out that since I’ve always believed women are real people, and deserve equal rights and opportunities, it was easy to meet and talk to women. So I usually had a girlfriend.
Score 1 for a feminist upbringing. Thanks Mom. And Dad too.
I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley, in racially integrated neighborhoods and schools, so seeing a mix of skin colors and cultures always felt normal to me, not threatening. I knew recent immigrants personally, and I knew my own family’s immigration stories well (one of my grandfathers was Italian).
I went to a public university when tuition was much more affordable, and I graduated (in the early nineties) into a booming economy. So finding work was relatively easy (though I hustled, temping and freelancing so I could carve out time to work on music).
So regardless of my character, I was never going to end as a resentful, immigrant-hating, misogynistic nationalist. I was too lucky (in terms of upbringing, environment, and economic timing).
What’s Wrong With Entitlement?
To some extent, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of citizen entitlement. Citizens should feel entitled to free speech, equal rights and protections under the law, clean air and water, public safety, economic opportunity, and in my opinion, free universal healthcare and education (early childhood through university).
But entitlement starts smelling rotten when it includes the “right” to a relationship, great job, social status, or confirmation of one’s cultural superiority. And it’s this kind of entitlement that nationalist and racist groups leverage to increase their numbers.
So maybe there’s a twofold approach to address toxic white male entitlement:
- Social and institutional changes (like universal healthcare and education) that will relieve some of the crushing pressure and debt that MOST young Americans feel these days. Scarcity psychology is closely tied to racism and nationalism.
- Engaging with young white men who might be trapped in a cycle of resentment, and steering them toward the light.
As to the latter point, real friendships with women and people of color are probably the most effective means of psychological transformation, in terms of steering someone away from misogyny and racism.
But women and people of color do enough emotional work in this world; they can’t be expected to tolerate a bunch of bullshit racism and sexism to provide free therapy for emotionally stunted white men. Kudos to those who are up for it, but it’s not their job.
I think the responsibility of engagement falls to people like myself. White men who are established in their careers and families, and who might be able to lead by example (away from racism, sexism, and nationalism).
How do I do this? I’m not sure. I only have a few friends under thirty, and none of them are at any risk of joining any kind of racist or nationalist group.
On this blog, I can keep writing and sharing my thoughts, and stay willing to engage with anyone who is up for respectful debate. Last time I wrote about racism, I felt disheartened by some commenters who pushed back, attempting to justify their racist attitudes. But then I remembered that though change rarely happens in the comments section, it can often happen later, after reflection and the integration of new experiences.
I can keep considering and grappling with issues of race, gender, and cultural transformation in the fiction I write.
I can recommend fiction, film, and television that might increase understanding and empathy across ethnic lines. For example Insecure by Issa Rae on HBO, a super entertaining show that might also open a few minds.
I can vote and lobby for social and political change that reduces youth debt and increases youth opportunity. Less scarcity = less tribalism.
I can call out and question racist, sexist, and xenophobic attitudes when I encounter them in conversation.
As an individual, there’s only so much I can do. But many individuals putting in a little effort can change the tide. And the tide needs to be changed; “Trump Youth” young white males with fantasies about retrograde gender roles and ethnic superiority are on the rise, and actively recruiting.
One last thought: I don’t just care about this issue out of some general sense of obligation. And I don’t feel guilty for being white or male. Mostly I care because people I love have experienced racism and anti-Semitism, and I want it to stop. Just last week Temple Sinai in Oakland, where my wife and I are members, was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. Hate crimes like these are on the rise.
What do you think? Whose problem is this? How do we address it? Or do you think this isn’t really a problem?