Tony Smith: This notion of responsibility that you all have mentioned, and how we take it or don't, is crucial. I think the ways we, as individual white males, work to rearticulate our identities feeds off of our privileged position, which allows us to disidentify with the particular Other that it presently behooves us not to be. While I agree that I "am suffering...along with all my brothers and sisters of all colors and creeds," my suffering is mediated through a seine of privilege. To speak of our oppression as white males is like eating a food which I like, but of which I can't eat too much, otherwise I get sick. There is a danger inherent in claiming too much oppression. The danger is that we might start to believe it. What good does it do any of us to create a system wherein we are all oppressed? That sounds more like a reification of what presently exists and it raises a big question for me: how does change occur when our personal political strategies put us at odds with claiming the power to implement visionary policies?
I worry about this because, if the oversimplified polarization between white male and all others continues to dominate discussion, change is less apt to occur. In our society there is an accepted, even sanctioned, space wherein resistance to white male power can take place. But as long as the white male is the focus of this resistance, the white male remains in a position of power; this is hegemony in action. We must be willing to explore the ways that the white male identity is configured in a society that it is raced, classed, and gendered. I believe it is critical to place the white male identity in the mix. Not as a tool that stirs the mix, but as yet another ingredient.
Whitewashed notions of a pure meritocracy must yield to the social realities of their historical placement. The difficulty of being a white male who supports affirmative action, in this increasingly stratified and factioned discussion, is that the white identity is the too often attached to notions of power and control. I am unable to reduce my whiteness to a brief answer to the question of "what does it mean to be a white male?" I can only offer my experiences which stem from roots buried deep in a small rural town in Northern California. My whiteness is not the one of money, it is not the one of privilege, my whiteness is more a memory of food stamps and a single mother. How does this experience figure in the picture of dominant white culture? It doesn't: the poor white is missing. And yet, here I stand and I experience the privilege of my color everyday. But my path into the academy was one more characteristic of the lower classes: through the body. It was only via an athletic scholarship that I gained access to this University. Everyday I am forced to reconcile personal issues of entitlement and privilege as I have seen others, as deserving as I, encounter powerful resistance. The longer whiteness is equated solely with privilege, the longer we all suffer. Placing the white male identity in a position of power and privilege which is there to be usurped, reifies the very positioning in question.
My discussion of this issue is not intended to reduce the importance of questions around race and gender; rather, it is to begin an investigation of how white male identity has been, and continues to be, constructed. It is inappropriate to insist upon a common or generic collection of advantages, or present disadvantages, in our discussion of the white male and affirmative action. In clinging to outdated definitions of power and what it means to be in control, the white male who aligns his politics with the right has separated himself from those he calls alien and alienated himself from the possibility of new perspectives. It has become crucial to dissect the meaning of white privilege.
We know from our experience how difficult this task really is. And not just for white men. Each of us in our daily practice claims certain attributes and we acknowledge moments of oppression. In a recent article called "What's a Straight White Man To Do?", George Yudice claims "the politics of identity and the politics of disidentification are premised on a dialectic between claims of oppression and attributions of responsibility." I think he may be on the right track here, but I am not fully convinced. Is he claiming that we have to take responsibility for our own state of oppression and that we also have to be sensitive to the ways we are implicated in the oppression of others while simultaneously emancipating ourselves from structural politics which fail to address issues of the environment, foreign policy, and economics? Where do we stand if we are capable of reaching this place? If we are successful in reaching this space, it seems to me that we remain in a position of privilege. It seems to me that the position of a reflexive agent who is capable of accurately assessing their position in relation to others is a position of privilege. So, once again, we encounter the danger of claiming that white males are oppressed.
Sometimes I feel like I am conveniently oppressed. I feel like I am oppressed just enough to maintain my identity as a resister to all that is wrong in the world. My oppression maintains my claim of marginality. My power is made more manifest by my denial of it. This position is full of contradictions and questions. I am left asking whether or not all white males are privileged to act "queer on the streets but straight within the sheets." We do come from very different places. Some white men are dealing with the "pain" and discomfort of being placed in the "good old boy's club" and not knowing the password. Is this what oppression feels like? Is the oppression white men experience similar to the oppression other groups encounter? It seems like I come back to the same questions time and time again. In the end, I am left wondering if the ways white men are allowed to feel really do maintain the hegemonic relations of sexism, classism and racism. Are white men really to blame?
So I return to this question of responsibility. I believe we are fully implicated unless we act. But, are my actions representative of my desire for a community of progressive white males or am I only engaged in personal identity politics? I can't help but feeling like the question of my oppression is representative of my privilege. And yet, if I am not free to name the things which I believe are oppressive, am I not oppressed? I exaggerate the point because it sharpens my question: how can I begin to act as an agent of change if I do not acknowledge my limitations and those things which limit me? Reframing the dyad of oppression and responsibility as a dialectic may be one way to begin working through this perplexing terrain. All that said, would you guys laugh if I told you that I really do feel constrained by my role as a progressive white male?
Sean Heron is a 6ft 1in tall middle class straight white male with blue eyes. He is studying for a masters degree in urban planning at UCLA. Before his stint in the world of academia, he worked for 5 years as a housing and community developer, 3 1/2 of those years were spent working in the Tenderloin Neighborhood of San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.
David Lee Keiser is an Italian-Jewish New Yorker who currently divides his time between teaching writing in Oakland, writing poetry himself, playing the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, and attending graduate school. He has worked as well as a special education teacher, crisis counselor, group home manager, and gourmet food salesperson and stockboy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Rofes is a doctoral student in Social and Cultural Studies at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. He is a white, Jewish gay man who has worked as a schoolteacher, school administrator, nonprofit manager, and HIV-test counselor. He is the author of several books, including the recently published Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic.
Tony Smith is a doctoral student in education. Prior to his career in graduate school, he played professional football. His work is focused on placing the body in places reserved for the mind. He is a white guy who is curious to know what it means to be white. At present he is teaching at UC Berkeley and completing his dissertation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Matt Wray has worked as a chimney sweep, a taxi driver, an environmental activist, and a bike messenger. Currently, he makes his living as a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley, where he is a Ph.D. student in Ethnic Studies working on a dissertation about white trash. He is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 1996 by Sean Heron, David Keiser, Eric Rofes, Tony Smith, and Matt Wray .