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Four Dilemmas for White Men in These Times

Unique pressures and unique opportunities for white men today.

“That hurts your heart hearing that. It’s very different. I didn’t have a lot of those talks.”
—Patriots center David Andrews, on hearing his Black teammates’ talk about racism

Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

1. How to Stop Talking So as to Listen Better

Recently I found myself in an unusual fishbowl situation: sitting in the outer circle of white teachers listening to an inner circle of 10 teachers of color describing what it was like working in their schools.

One man, a school dean, described parents stopping him in the hallway, assuming he’s the janitor. Another—a math teacher—related the experience of being stopped by the police “numerous times” when driving to or from the school. “They assume either I’ve stolen my new car or that I’m a drug dealer.” A woman of color described her experience of being “basically invisible” at faculty meetings.

As the stories went on and the sorrow and outrage mounted, a familiar itch began to rise within me: I wanted to say something. I wanted to empathize, I wanted to summarize, I wanted to apologize. I wanted to tell my story, though I had nothing comparable to offer.

Keeping my mouth shut, I realized what I needed to do: to listen, not to speak. Speaking can be a way of not listening; we talk so as not to hear. It’s time to let other people do the talking. As Jonathan Jackson recently wrote about growing up Black: “The stories of Black people go untold because the fatigue of writing them can feel insurmountable. Leaving them buried is sometimes a better cure than digging them back up. To learn how to recall pain, without risking drowning in a sea of trauma, is not always possible.”

Listening can provide space to speak about what has felt unspeakable.

What a time to be a white male. Between #MeToo and BLM, we are living through a moment when comfortable cultural narratives have been ruptured and stories unheard by white men for generations are now being told.

As a white man of a certain age, I have learned to be comfortable taking the floor, standing at the podium, having something to say. What I am finding now is that what’s needed is for me to acknowledge what I am hearing with careful, compassionate listening. This is a time to be curious, to bear other people’s pain without trying to take it away, to understand more fully the complex experience of being Black, Brown, female. In the words of Mr. Jackson: “Imagine everything we don’t know about the Black lives we render invisible because we do not do the work to see them.”

Imagine what it might mean to white men to truly see the lives of those we have rendered invisible.

2. How to Bear the Uncomfortable Feelings the Present Moment Creates

Listening in this time of broken narratives asks white men to manage their emotional lives in ways that can collide with the “male code” of stoicism and emotional control. I think there’s a reason why I have the impulse to talk rather than listen: Listening brings feelings of sorrow, confusion, shame and guilt, and loss, among others. When I read about the true history of our country—the things that have been done to people of color and Native Americans in the name of “the white race”—I often want to cry. I feel helpless in the outrage.

As we cut through the collective denial about gender and racial power dynamics, it feels at times as if my whole life history is up for grabs, as if I am walking through a house filled with distorting mirrors. What is really me? Who and what can I be proud of?

There is great sorrow in all this. That’s why I was so relieved to read David Andrews’ reference to his heartache while listening to his teammates talk about their experiences as men of color. Finally, a white man is talking about the emotional work he is doing. It takes some bravery to acknowledge the sorrow embedded in these times, and hearing a 300-lb, 6’3" professional football player—the captain of his team—talking about how his heart aches can legitimate the undercurrent of feelings we may want to push away.

Many of us white men are not particularly good at dealing with sorrow and loss. No one really has a corner on that market, of course, but our emphasis as men on not showing vulnerable feelings can work against us in coming to terms with the present day.

We have the chance these days to broaden our feeling life as men, and our connection to the rest of the people on the planet. Will we take that chance?

Nicholas Kwok/Unsplash
Source: Nicholas Kwok/Unsplash

3. How to Acknowledge the Power of Whiteness When We Don’t Feel Powerful

I am standing in front of a seminar of teachers (back when teaching was face-to-face) giving a lecture on shame and human development. I love talking about shame—that sticky sense of personal defect—since it’s been an intimate part of my emotional life for as long as I can remember. I wanted to include something about diversity in this talk, so I make reference to the fact that “shame is an equal opportunity employer” and go on to say that the sense of defect can be connected to any aspect of the self—skin color, height, weight. “You can feel too dark, too light, too tall, too short.”

A hand shoots up, belonging to a young teacher of color. She asks, “Where are you coming from with this?” The question confuses me since I’ve given this talk a million times, as does the early interruption (again, white man = really comfortable having the podium). She makes some points about Black people and shame and asks me about the assumptions I’m making in my talk. I will admit here that my memory of this fraught moment is fragmentary because I felt really on the spot. Like, have I said something racist that I didn’t even realize? Have I made a complete fool of myself? (Hello, shame).

But I do recall she said, “Where are you coming from with this?” So, I talked about my own experiences of shame growing up Jewish in an anti-Semitic suburb of NYC and how that sense of defect has been a part of me ever since. And I explained that those experiences have led to my interest in how shame connects to being marginalized by a dominant culture.

There was silence, then the woman said, clearly surprised, “I didn’t know you were Jewish until you said that.”

Now it was my turned to be stunned. I thought, “How could you not know that I’m Jewish?”

Which was a silly thought in retrospect because my whiteness was all over my body, not my Jewish heritage. What this person of color saw first looking at me was my white skin. That moment taught me a really important lesson: When you’re white, that may be the first thing that people of color notice about you. And you need to be aware of that and deal with it. When I could acknowledge where I was coming from as a Jewish man, some of the tension drained from the moment. I suppose I became more than just “some white guy.” And as a white man, I had a lot of power in being willing to look—however clumsily—at what the signifier of my white skin meant in the interaction. When seen through the lens of my whiteness, I was a person of privilege. When seen through a Jewish lens, I became someone who might understand oppression and the lack of privilege.

As white men, we need to understand the significance of white skin, even if you hardly feel “white.” Or privileged. Even if you don’t feel it, you are privileged by virtue of the pass that being white gives you in a culture that oppresses people for the color of their skin. People will bring their assumptions about whiteness to our interactions. And it’s on us to prove that we are not clueless about the complexities of gender and racial dynamics at this historical time.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers or know what to do or say. Most of us these days don’t know what to do or say. One of the most liberating statements I’ve read was by sociologist Crystal Fleming, author of the book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race: “We’re all stupid about race. I’m stupid about race.” We are all stupid because we grow up in a culture that has made invisible and mute the very power dynamics that shape our lives.

As a white guy, you may feel like you need to know what to do, not be caught out, look like you’ve got this. Acknowledging uncertainty may be risky, but to the degree that we can get out of the “dominant” position to one of equal standing, equal uncertainty, then we have the chance for a meaningful encounter.

Is this even possible? If white men occupy an inherent “dominant position”—even if unwanted—simply by virtue of their whiteness in our society, how can we remedy that? Which brings me to the fourth dilemma: how to get out of the one-up position as a white man.

Two more professional football players offer a glimpse of how to do that, and I will discuss this dilemma in my next post. Stay tuned.

More from Sam Osherson Ph.D.
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