comments_image Comments

Ten Things to Keep in Mind When Talking About How White Men are a "Problem" in the Age of Obama


We are finally talking in an explicit way about what it means to be white (and male) in America.

Some of these conversations have been necessitated by the country's demographic changes.

The election of Barack Obama (twice), and the Republican Party's deep devotion to the politics of white racial resentment have also helped to force a national conversation about the meaning of Whiteness.

And as I and others have talked about in great detail, the recent murder sprees in Newtown and Aurora, where young white men have killed people by the dozens, have demanded that we discuss the relationship(s) between white masculinity, gun culture, and violence.

Many white folks have not responded well to these types of conversations.

Despite the opposition and shrill voices, the flurry of discussions online and in the mainstream media about the meaning of Whiteness in the Age of Obama is a positive development.

What was once an inside game of Left leaning cultural critics, scholars, and social justice types is now more fashionable and mainstream. As such, a chorus of voices are joining the conversation.

Many of these new voices are tempted, quite naturally, to call out the the deleterious impact of Whiteness and White elites on America (slavery; Jim and Jane Crow; racial inequality; labor market and housing discrimination; wealth inequality; genocide against First Nations people; the Great Recession caused by an almost exclusively white financier and banking class), as well as the world (Colonialism and Imperialism; environmental destruction; two World Wars).

These moves are exhilarating. Yet, they often lack precision, a thinking through of end goals, and a consideration of the long plan going forward.

Despite what some would believe, writing and research about the meaning of Whiteness and White Privilege did not begin with Peggy McIntosh's widely read essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

However, many people have discovered that popular essay and have stopped there.

One must not forget that there is a rich literature on Whiteness, as well as the social, political, and cultural history of "white" people in the West and the Americas.

For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of America's greatest intellectuals, was writing about the twin concepts of Whiteness and White Privilege more than one hundred years ago. Andrew Saxton, Theodore Allen, Hubert Harrison, and others did foundational work in thinking about Whiteness, class, politics, and race in the early to mid twentieth century.

More recent scholarship by a range of academics such as Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, Thandeka, Ruth Frankenberg, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Cheryl Harris, Richard Dyer, Toni Morrison, Ian Haney-Lopez, Charles Mills, George Yancy, Joe Feagin, and Nell Irvin Painter have explored Whiteness--its history, psychology, and meaning--in deep and meaningful ways.

Gifted African-American writer-philosopher-artist-intellectuals like James Baldwin and Richard Wright also talked against Whiteness and the "curious ways" of white folks in their fiction and non-fiction works.

Of course, Tim Wise is one of the foremost public intellectuals and activists discussing Whiteness in the United States today.

I would not expect that the average person who is interested in exploring Whiteness and White Privilege would sit down an become an expert on the topic.

That would be an absurd standard which would prevent many good and insightful voices from participating in this much needed conversation. But, we should all strive to be more rigorous in how we think about and discuss these matters.

As someone who has written about, researched, and thought a great deal about Whiteness, I would like offer the following suggestions and guidelines for our "national conversation" going forward:

See more stories tagged with: