I have been thinking a lot about how the emotional shackles of white masculinity relate to the low numbers of white men showing up for interpersonal anti-oppression work. In a previous post, I reflected on the gender dynamics that play out when men show up in groups that are working on unlearning whiteness. I observed that while women usually do most of the social and emotional labor in these groups, they are also able to get their needs met in terms of working on their conditioning. I speculated about why these spaces might not feel welcoming to white men, but I only touched on what it would mean to do anti-oppression work in a way that truly meets our needs.
“Hey,” you may be thinking (or yelling at the screen), “anti-oppression work isn’t about white men’s needs! It’s about dismantling white male supremacy.” I get that. And, I feel strongly that dismissing white men’s needs is ultimately counterproductive. I believe that no one does this work, over the long haul, unless they’re getting something out of it. I like to tell myself I’m motivated solely by my selfless commitment to social justice. But I know that’s not entirely true, and believing it is dangerous. If I’m not able to connect to how anti-oppression work contributes to my own liberation, I could end up operating out of guilt, and a sense of obligation to help the oppressed. White savior complex, however, is not liberating for anyone.
Last night, I went to a gathering of my white UNtraining friends to bid farewell to a white cishet man who has to leave the Bay Area. He and I shared a tender moment of sadness about his impending departure and mutual appreciation for the ways we’ve been able to support each other as men. I was intensely aware of how rarely I experience that kind of trust and vulnerability with other men (besides my spouse). It was a poignant reminder of the spiritual and psychological price we pay as white men for our involvement with these systems.
I want to be as clear as I can that I am not rehearsing the “oppressed white male” narrative. It is beyond dispute that white men still control all the major social institutions and, as a group, wield disproportionate political power. Not only that, we receive compassion denied to others and get treated with sympathy when we rape or commit mass murder or ruin the country. But none of this alters the reality that many of us experience loneliness because our social conditioning makes it difficult to sustain same-gender friendships. The harried pace of modern life is a factor, but as Mark Greene argues, the source of our loneliness goes to the core of modern masculinity.
As young boys, we’re trained to avoid showing physical or emotional affection with other boys and never, ever to express vulnerable emotions. We’re conditioned to experience relationships as contests for dominance or as means to an end, but rarely as ends in themselves. Authentic connections, however, require emotional safety. I don’t feel particularly safe with most straight white men, and several men have told me they feel similarly. No wonder we experience loneliness!
Male training not only sets us up for emotional isolation, it also instills in us a disconnected, instrumental mindset that prepares us well for colluding with systems of oppression. Paul Kivel has given a name to the narrow and rigid set of attitudes and behaviors that define manhood in opposition to ostensibly feminine traits such as empathy and emotional connection: the act like a man box. This construct not only discourages men from living full emotional lives, it encourages racism, misogyny, and other forms of dominance and violence. This is one of the reasons I believe that healing ourselves and dismantling oppressive systems are not separate projects.
The good news is we have already begun a deep conversation about the culture of hegemonic masculinity and its harmfulness to men. Contrary to what some conservatives argue, this conversation is not a blanket smear of masculinity and men. Their reaction does have a parallel, though, in the way white folks often react to having our whiteness named. In both instances, the group in question has long enjoyed the privilege of being seen as just normal, generic individuals, unmarked by “difference.” This is a hard privilege to give up. I admit that I feel myself flinch every time I’m reminded that my white male identity shapes how I view the world.
The unmarked individualism of white masculinity also allows us to blame harmful attitudes and actions on isolated bad apples. This absolves us from responsibility for, or even awareness of, the ways that whiteness and masculinity create the social conditions and worldviews that reinforce the racial and gender hierarchies we benefit from.
If white men are to heal ourselves and participate in transforming society, we must begin to take responsibility for ourselves, personally and collectively. For me, personal responsibility begins with taking responsibility for my own feelings. Being stoic is great when changing a flat tire in a blizzard, but if I’m unable or unwilling to express vulnerable feelings, I’ll probably end up feeling isolated. Personal responsibility also means being aware of how I cause harm, even unintentionally: by talking down to women or people of color, or talking over them, or expecting them to take care of my ego, for example. It’s difficult to be aware of my impact on others if I’m disconnected from my own feelings.
Collective responsibility might be harder to wrap one’s mind. For one thing, masculine identity entails a basic ambivalence. Though we expect to be seen as unmarked individuals, we also want to be seen as men. For the latter identity to be positive, however, we have to take responsibility collectively for what manhood means. This doesn’t mean we have to be accountable for every bad act of every individual man. It does mean recognizing how we are complicit (actively or passively) in celebrating male violence and domination or punishing those who venture outside the “act like a man box.”
Collectively, we need to replace the act like a man box with an act like a human box. In the latter, we will give one another the space and support to be our full selves. We will call each other on our sexism and racism and “locker room talk.” We will celebrate the strength of character that it takes to tell the truth about ourselves, even when we’re afraid or confused or just sad. And, of course, we will reject any impulse, external or internal, to construe our human feelings, or the sharing of them, as somehow weak or unmanly.
I ended my previous article by arguing that, as white men, we need our own spaces to work on our social conditioning. I want to reiterate that conclusion here. To liberate ourselves from the emotional shackles of our conditioning, we need to cultivate trusting, emotionally vulnerable connections as men. If this sounds as scary and unthinkable to you as it does to me, that’s because our distrust and fear of each other is at the very foundation of white masculinity. And it is why we must begin our work with each other. Our liberation and other unthinkable possibilities await.