Bad Subjects, Issue # 26, May 1996
In October of last year, Eric Rofes, a graduate student in education at UC Berkeley, called together a group of five white men to form a panel for an upcoming conference on new issues in education. Our chosen topic was public discourse around affirmative action and we were particularly concerned with how white men were and were not figuring in these debates. It seemed, as Eric pointed out, that white men were most visible in these debates in two ways: as "angry white men" celebrated and lionized by conservative commentators or as "whiny white males" demonized and derided by liberals. Suspecting that both labels were little more than media stereotypes, we wondered who those white men really were. And, we wondered, what, if anything, did they want? Furthermore, why were there so few white males visibly and vocally protesting the assault on principles of gender and racial equity? Where were progressive white men on this issue? Where did we, as white men, stand?
In the face-to-face discussions, phone conversations, public presentations, and email exchanges which are the sources for this article, our conversations ranged over a wide array of topics, but we found ourselves returning again and again to questions of identity. Although we come from different class and ethnic backgrounds, have differing sexualities and markedly different work histories and experiences (see our short biographies below), we share common identities as white, male, thirty something graduate students (except Eric -- he's 41). However, in the course of getting to know one another, we have found that we have somewhat different ideas about what those identities mean. We also discovered differences in our thinking about what it means to identify or not to identify with whiteness and masculinity. Consequently, our discussions focused less and less on the political effects of affirmative action and more and more on questions of whiteness and masculinity. Questions arose about our different locations: how do our differences complicate or challenge the stereotype of "white male?" On the other hand, are our personal identities really that different from hegemonic masculinity? We talked about when and how we first became aware of our whiteness and our masculinity. What kinds of attitudes, experiences, and ideas, what kinds of bodily felt reactions has this awareness generated? We discussed what it might mean to be a race or gender traitor; i.e., what are the politics involved in identifying or dis-identifying with whiteness? with masculinity? Each of us has at times experienced not wanting to be white and/or male -- what does this have to do with being in support of affirmative action? What sense of responsibility do we feel as a result of our position as "white men?" How do we deal with this? Do we ever feel our white maleness as a burden, as an oppression? As we talked, our questions seemed to lead us not to answers, but to more deeply felt, not yet articulated questions.
We are acutely aware that talking about and analyzing white male identities is not the same as fighting for affirmative action. But we do believe the former is a necessary form of political activity, and one that is generally disregarded by both liberals and conservatives. As for the latter, some of us have done significant work supporting affirmative action. At times, we feel that what we are doing is exploring new forms of white male-bonding, trying to form a new sense of male identity and solidarity, one that is not based on domination of white women and people of color. At other times, we worry that our sense of whiteness and masculinity is more in line with dominant ideologies than we would like to believe -- that we are living and giving breath and form to dominant gender and racial constructions even as we try to fight them. In what follows, we have tried to be honest about both the potential of and the limits to this kind of political praxis.