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What do white and minority men have in common?

November 1, 2016

I’ve been reflecting on this question ever since a lengthy conversation I shared with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about the social issues surrounding public education in the United States. During the conversation, my friend commented on his experience growing up in a small Montana school district in which it was “uncool” for boys to be smart. He expressed feeling like somewhat of an outcast because he was (and is) indeed smart, and his fellow classmates knew it. His comment struck me because a similar phenomenon is commonly documented in minority communities, where black students can be labeled “white chocolate” or “oreos” and native students can be labeled “apples”—colored on the outside but white on the inside—for excelling in school, suggesting that if one is good at school, she or he is less authentically ethnic than others of their skin color.

This parallel prompted me to begin questioning my perceptions of dominant culture and what exactly constitutes it. The typical assumption is that white males are at the helm of society and that the dominant culture is therefore defined and shaped by them. But is it? If it is, why do we see this resistance to education—which advances one within the dominant culture—among so many white men?

I am not a white male, so I cannot presume too much here, but my theory is that there is a large swath of the white male population that is, like males of minority populations, excluded from dominant culture in a way so significant that it stimulates visceral reactions against anything that smacks of white, educated elites, prompting them to reject even common-sense opportunities like public education. This theory makes sense in light of the widespread support for Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate.

So how are certain white males excluded from dominant society? They enjoy all of the benefits of their sex and skin color, don’t they? Why would they have any reason to feel threatened? My sense is that some very similar dynamics have played out in white communities in the old industrial belt and in rural America as have played out in many minority communities over the past several decades, during which manufacturing jobs have diminished and farming has been overtaken by multinational conglomerates. Thousands of white men, like minority men, have lost their livelihoods and their dignity as the jobs they once relied upon have been shifted overseas or to corporate control. They can no longer provide for their families without a second income or government support, and in our culture, when men feel wounded, they are taught to fight rather than to reflect upon and process their emotions. Since there is no single identifiable villain to physically fight, they fight both by scapegoating AND by resisting those who are still seemingly successful: white educated males and females (which explains the vehement opposition to Hillary Clinton).

What I’m suggesting here is that we begin to recognize the ways in which these white men have been made to feel devalued much as we have made it a national priority to recognize the ways in which minorities are sidelined and mistreated in our country. I am not suggesting that their experiences are identical (or that we forget about the very real history of racism in our country), but I am suggesting that white men will only become angrier if we continue to focus our attention on minority issues while diminishing the loss of dignity experienced by white men simply because they are white and we therefore assume their problems aren’t as important or worthy of attention as those of minorities. All human beings feel a strong desire for recognition and worth, and most will fight for that recognition and worth if it isn’t offered to them. So let’s include white men in conversations about marginalized groups because many of them have been marginalized—and we’re only making their feelings of marginalization worse by treating them as if they all enjoy the same benefits that educated white men from wealthy family backgrounds enjoy, because they don’t.

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