Being White and Male (and in Solidarity)
In a time of Rising White (Male) Nationalism (II)
Last week, I offered a first part of a discussion on my experience of being white and male, in the post Trump election period which is also seeing a rise in visibility and bold-ness of white nationalist movement and rhetoric. I suggested that there were things that Mr. Trump was saying and doing that was providing an environment in which white nationalists appear to be feeling increasingly emboldened, and that regardless of my politics or positions, as a white man, I benefit from what’s going on.
I began a call to action in which I invited us as white men to begin taking action by examining (borrowing from Kimberle Crenshaw) the intersections of our identities (I started examining our identities of white-ness and male-ness) and how our privilege from these identities also intersect.
I’ll push forward with this aspect briefly to point out that being white and male are only two of our identities, and the rest of our identities also include different access to privilege and/or experiences/histories of oppression. I, for example, am white and male, and 50-something, a parent, in a committed relationship with a woman, a home-owner. All of these other identities make up different aspect of who “Rus” is, and all of these which I have identified here also have some privileges attached that people who do not identify in these ways do not have.
This interlocking and mutually supporting experiences of privilege complicate my work for justice, and my efforts to act in solidarity with others. I don’t have the space to detail the ways these forms of privilege intersect nor how this complicates my work. I mention this here to take note that my comments here are an attempt to be as complete as I can, but within a context that is somewhat incomplete.
In terms of continuing my call to action, I want to explore some practices that I’ve found successful in my efforts, and which to varying degrees drive my activism. I offer these as a way to begin thinking about how we may reach out to, engage and organize white men as a part of a broader social justice movement that continues to push forward in the months and years to come. As Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “the universe bends towards justice.” We are a part of the universe and our efforts are a part of this bending towards justice.
Continuum of Engaging
Several years ago, I developed “the Continuum of Male Engagement” (Continuum-of-Mens-Engagement-revised) as a tool to strategize which men or groups of men we are striving to engage to combat gender based violence. In short, this continuum describes how men can hold a range of attitudes or beliefs that position them to be opposed to our work, a range of beliefs that could be described as “neutral” or un-committed, and a range of beliefs that position them to more potentially become engaged or take action.
The continuum of male engagement is then, a tool to consider how to identify and reach those men who are most likely to become engaged and active in efforts to combat gender based violence; and then develop strategies to engage them in activism and leadership.
It seems to me that a similar dynamic likely exists for white men in regards. Some white men are fully on board to the white nationalist call and perspective that appears to be locking in with the Trump administration. But far more are likely on the fence and there is a significant number of white men who do not support Trumps apparent white nationalist, male supremacist agenda. Our most effective strategy, it seems to me, would be to mobilize them to create a constant counter-narrative to focus our efforts on those that are on the fence, and those who are opposed.
We can work to engage those who are “on the fence” by listening to their concerns, doubts, and acknowledging their experiences. And then offering them an analysis that takes their concerns, doubts and experiences in a way that builds community. Striving for racial and gender justice does not mean that white folks and men lose out. Consistent and constant experience and evidence demonstrate that when we achieve another step towards racial and gender justice, we all make out better. There is something that keeps them “on the fence” – something(s) about what Mr. Trump is offering or saying, or what the white nationalists are arguing is speaking to them. BUT, there is also something about the c all for justice and equity that also speaks to them. Our job, it seems to me, is to understand what it is about both sides that is speaking to them, and then frame our message to meet them where they are.
We can more deeply engage those who are “interested” by providing some clear and concrete ways that they can move to action, and providing them a sense of support to do what they may be hesitant to do. In some of the work I’ve done, I refer to this as moving people “from bystanders to allies.” I’ve also recently seen some work that describes concrete ways for white folks to move from “actors” to “allies” to “accomplices.” The general notion is the same: if we want folks to move from a more passive stance to different forms to taking action, they need several things:
- Concrete ideas of what they can do, and how what they are doing will make a difference
- The tools to do what it is that they can do
- Confidence that they can do what we’ve asked them to do
- A sense of community that they are going to be supported in doing what we’re asking them to do
Calling in and Calling out
A part of what I’m offering here is a way to both call in, and call out people (in this case, white men). We all have a tendency, I think, to want to call folks out when we disagree with them. We want to point out all the ways that they are “wrong” or how firmly we disagree with them. There surely are times when calling out is an appropriate response. There are some behaviors, actions, or words that need, deserve…indeed require that we call them out.
Calling out has been a way for us to hold others accountable for their actions or words, and the impact of these actions of words. There are times when our behaviors or words are so hurtful that being called out is warranted.
But calling out also has some significant limitations. Calling out, in effect, is finger pointing (which finder depending on how strongly we want to call out the person). It tends to be labeling and shaming. It separates the person(s) we’re targeting from whoever the “us” and generally discourages conversation or dialogue. We may well be justified in calling others out, (Lord knows I can justify my own calling out tendencies), but calling out doesn’t build community. Calling out, generally, puts people on the defensive and doesn’t create an opening for them to critically look at and change their ways.
“Calling in” on the other hand, is another way to hold each other accountable. Calling in assumes that people of good will can make mistakes – even atrocious ones. It assumes that people of good will want to be good as well as do good. Calling in also assumes that most of us, of privilege, may in fact not be totally aware of all the ways we express our privilege. The vast majority of the time, when I’ve become aware of my privilege, it’s been because someone else pointed out that this or that behavior was, in fact, privileged. Rarely have I come to notice my own privilege based on my own insight.
I know that part of my hesitancy, at times, to challenge folks on behaviors or actions that I find offensive has been feeling stuck. I don’t really want to call them out, but haven’t felt confident to be able to call them in. As I’ve practiced, I’ve found that it really is easier than I expected. And many folks are actually willing to be held accountable and be made aware of their mistakes.
I’m not suggesting that we have to choose between calling out or calling in. But our work to be accountable and to hold each other accountable, to move forward towards justice, to proceed closer to the beloved community requires us to have a more nuanced and complex set of tools. By developing our skills, confidence and comfort to call people in, we in fact also broaden our tools to call people out.
I feel a need to acknowledge that being accountable is not necessarily fun. While I’m more than willing to be accountable for the good I do, I’m less enthusiastic about being accountable when I do, shall we say, not so good. But in the end, I’ve always benefitted from someone else being willing to hold me accountable. Growing is hard – they call it growing pains for a reason. But once we’re on the other side of the pain, we realize we are better for the growth.
Our work as white men, as white people, and as men, seems clear in this current climate. The evidence seems to be mounting (in my home state of Kentucky, nationally, and to a large degree internationally) that we’re heading into a time of very strong head-winds pushing against the progress towards a beloved community. It’s time for us to double and triple down . It’s time for us to connect more deeply with each other (in all the multiple and wonderous ways that we are each other). It’s time for us to clarify our collective vision of the beloved community and the path from here to there.
© 2016 Rus Ervin Funk