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  • Dan Connors

White men- Heroes or entitled mediocrities?

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America Ijeoma Oluo 2020

We like to think that in some important way that the world is fair- in that the people who work the hardest and have the best brains eventually succeed and deserve their privileged perch above society. This is the myth of meritocracy. When you look at the people who sit atop the world of business, politics, and popular culture, you don't necessarily see the most talented, smart, or deserving folks that the world has to offer. Instead, you see mediocrity coupled with luck, privilege, and ruthlessness. You see white males.

White dudes have been taking a lot of criticism in recent years, (as well they should since they've pretty much been running things since forever). As a white male myself, I'm always trying to reconcile my identity with the expectations of the world on us, coupled with the obvious privilege we enjoy by virtue of birth. Obviously all white men aren't alike, but I'm constantly trying to reconcile white maleness with the tendency for my pale brothers to behave like spoiled, entitled assholes.

Mediocre is the second of three books I'm reading this year about white male privilege, all written by black women, and it looks like the tide may finally be turning against the patriarchy once and for all. Ijeoma Olou is a Nigerian born writer who currently lives in Seattle, and has already penned one other best seller, So You Want to Talk About Race. She weaves her own experiences with tales from history to tell the tale of how white privilege has promoted a wealth of mediocrity from people who knew their status protected them from the trials that others had to endure.

This book jumps back and forth between fascinating characters from history (Buffalo Bill) to current beneficiaries of white male privilege, (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders) and pulls no punches as it rips into the stupidity and hypocrisy of white men who were both ill intentioned and well-meaning. The Bernie bros, eager white men who worship Sanders, cared less about the racial or feminist aspects of helping those they were supposed to be helping, and more about lecturing women and minorities about how Bernie and his crew alone could fix the class struggle at the root of everything.

There is a great chapter on higher education in America, showing how white males have been consistently given a leg up on jobs and careers through colleges, while white politicians like Donald Trump made fun of higher ed for others. College education exposes people to diversity, teaches economic and political realities, and helps most who use it, yet conservatives have turned against higher education as too liberal and threatening to their positions of ignorant privilege. And while Donald Trump continually made fun of higher education, he made a point to tout his own studies at Wharton and how smart it proved he was. There seems to be a double standard where white men think college is good for them, but don't like it for others.

Olou devotes one chapter each to the history of racism in America, and sexism in America. The stories are familiar and powerful, and her perch as a black woman gives her a powerful perspective on how white maleness has stunted the success of both minorities and women. When either group started getting out of line, society clamped down on both of them cruelly. During World War I, when a great migration of black families came North to escape from poverty, terrible riots took place that signified a white backlash against perceived threats. After World War II, when a women took to the workplace to keep factories running while men were at war, white leaders demanded that women be fired so that men could take their place again as the leading bread-winners of society.

There is a long chapter on football that seems out of place, and another one on inspiring women of color like Shirley Chisholm and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez that seems a bit one-sided, but otherwise the book is a fitting rant on how our acceptance of white male mediocrity hurts all of us.

For those of us who are white males, this could be a tough read, and many won't be brave enough to dive in. I don't mind trashing on white men because transcending that identity is the way forward from the straitjacket we've been stuck with. I may be a white male, but that's way down on the list of my identities. Above that, I'm also an accountant, a father, a husband, a writer, a Cardinals fan, a cyclist, and about a dozen more identities. If you get most of your self-esteem from your race or gender, you've got a problem.

White male identity is a dark place, the author claims. White men are backed into a corner where they are supposed to be seen as the all-knowing, all-powerful leaders, but more and more in this complex and diverse world they don't know what to do- and it scares them. White maleness is as much a prison as a castle to them, and we all lose when talent is wasted while mediocrity is rewarded. This book is all over the place on the issue, but tells some great stories and shares an important perspective. I recommend The Sum of Us, and Caste before I recommend this one, but all three are moving portrayals of how the sins of racism and sexism hurt us all- victims and perpetrators alike.

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