The Modern White Man’s Burden (And How I Want to Carry It)

I recently heard a short interview on NPR with authors Claire Vaye Watkins and Marlon James. Watkins, a white female, had recently written an article expressing her concern over constantly feeling like she needs to write in such a way that panders to male critics. James, a black male, had written a response indicating that black authors often feel the same way in the pressures they face to write for an audience of white women.

This conversation got me thinking about something that’s been bouncing around inside my head for quite a while. I’ve thought a lot about race, given all the riots recently over the tension between the police and communities of color. I’ve also thought a lot about gender, given all of the studies that have been coming out regarding the economic bias against females in a variety of industries. Both of these have led me to a single conclusion: I am incredibly privileged to be a white guy.

Many pundits in the conservative media, as well as many people who I know personally, have argued that white males in contemporary Western society have faced “reverse discrimination.” They don’t see it as fair that it’s socially acceptable to celebrate femininity or “blackness” but not to celebrate manliness or “whiteness.” While I can see how they may feel slighted, I think that the claim of reverse discrimination is a bit petty and myopic, in light of what females and racial minorities have faced throughout human history.

I think the crux of the argument is this: white men don’t feel like they should have to be responsible for the sins of their ancestors. Many white males don’t believe that racism and sexism are still prevalent; many of us even blame African Americans and women for keeping racism and gender discrimination alive. Whether or not you believe that racism and sexism still exist in abundance today, I think the angry white men I’m describing believe that they don’t–and, therefore, that they are being unjustly held accountable for the wrongs of past generations.

An Admission of Guilt

I think that I used to be one of these white men. That is, I used to think that I was an objectively-minded human being, free from the racial and gender bias of my ancestors. Reading a great deal on cognitive psychology (i.e. The Righteous Mind and Thinking, Fast and Slow), however, has changed how I view my own objectivity. I am now painfully aware of my own biases. And, more specific to the issues I’m discussing here, I’ve read such books as The Half Has Never Been Told and A Woman’s Place? that have convinced me that I too am part of the problem.  I know that I am at least somewhat racist, and I know that I am at least a little sexist. It’s hard-wired into the society in which I’ve emerged and the cultural constructs with which I live. I am ashamed of my biases, it’s true; but, I know that the first step is admitting I have a problem.

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem encouraging the western colonization of indigenous peoples. That poem, called “The White Man’s Burden,” argued that it was the responsibility of white people to take over populations of other races and “civilize” them. Obviously, the idea has since been heavily criticized as Imperialist, exploitative, and degrading. But the “burden” in question was at the time forward thinking–a rallying cry for something the author felt needed to be done, a call to action. Now, over a hundred years later, I think there is a new burden carried by the white man–but with respect to his skin color and his gender. And it isn’t a burden of responsibility toward taking some sort of action; it’s a burden of guilt for actions that have already been taken.

Going back to the interview referenced above, Watkins made a comment about how she feels that women and people of color carry a certain burden of responsibility in their writing. They carry the expectation that their work should somehow be representative of their gender or race. And the work is often discounted because of their gender and race. When someone says to them “that was pretty good,” the subtext of that praise is often “for a black person” or “for a woman.” As a white man, I don’t carry that same kind of burden. I never feel like what I write has to somehow represent what it means to be a man or what it means to be white. And people are much more likely to judge my work on its own merit. People just see me as a person–not as the color of my skin or the anatomy of my private parts.

But I do carry a burden of a different kind, I think. It’s not a burden that I feel has been forced upon me; it’s a burden that I’ve taken up voluntarily. That burden, the burden of the modern white man who sees his culpability in the atrocities committed throughout human history against women and racial minorities, is the burden of guilt. It’s the burden of being the one in the wrong, and knowing it. It’s the oppressor’s shame, and the regret for the legacy that haunts him. That’s me. I’m a white guy, and that’s my burden.

For me, this burden isn’t a metaphor. It’s real and palpable; I feel it weighing on me even as I try to shrug it off. Just like a black man may worry about being judged for the color of his skin or a woman may worry about being judged by her gender stereotypes, I as a white man am worried about being judged as the oppressor. I am worried that people will see me as racist and sexist. I am worried that, when people of a different ethnicity or gender look at me, all they will see is the type of person who has been exploiting them for centuries. It’s easy to say I’m being too hard on myself, that it’s not my fault. But I can’t deny what I feel regarding what people like me have done to people like them. It’s a heavy feeling, and it feels like guilt.

Let me offer an example. A few weeks ago, I commented on a friend’s Facebook post that I didn’t really like a show that my friend claimed to love. Well, that friend was a female and the show was Jessica Jones, a show that has been lauded for its depiction of strong women. My friend responded to the comment, insinuating that the reason I didn’t like the show was perhaps because I’m sexist. Of course, I vehemently denied it–the reason, I think, that I didn’t like it was the kind of storytelling (crime noir) it featured. Ever since the exchange, though, I’ve been unable to shake the possibility that she’s right. I know it’s silly, but I took the comment personally. Maybe I subconsciously disliked the show due to an implicit gender bias of which I’m not consciously aware. In either case, it validated my concern: I am being judged.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This new “white man’s burden” of willingly taking on the guilt and responsibility for the misdeeds of white men throughout history is, I believe, the first step to dismantling racial and gender discrimination. Biases flourish in those who most vehemently deny that they have them. Or, as Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” I know I have these biases. I accept the blame for how people like me have abused their power to exploit women and minorities. I confess. I’m guilty. And all I can say is that I’m sorry.

Showing My Support: How I’ll Make Reparations in 2016

So, “I’m sorry.” But, I get it. Sorry isn’t enough. People don’t just want apologies; they want justice. They want to be recompensed for the abuse they’ve received and not just for people to go on pretending like it never happened. I don’t know what the right answer is on how to handle affirmative action. I don’t know whether schools should admit 10% African  Americans, irrespective of academic performance, or whether companies should be forced to hire a certain number of women, irrespective of job qualifications. But I’m not particularly interested in public regulations here; in this post, I’m interested in self-regulation. What can I do personally to make up for the wrongs that have been done?

In my 1,000 Books Project that I finished earlier this year, one of my principle goals was to expose myself to ideas that are different from my own. (See the image above). So, I deliberately sought out material that challenged my way of thinking. But, now that the project is over, I think I’ve fallen back into just consuming whatever content I’m comfortable with. I still feel like I’m not pushing myself enough to see from the perspectives of others.
A few weeks ago, I read about a study revealing that only a very small minority of women are directors in the film industry. While I do not find it surprising, I do find it disheartening. Women are nearly 50% of the population but their creativity is buried in a variety of male dominated fields. Moreover, racial minorities are–in a global sense–a large majority. But I, as a Western white person, have minimal exposure to ethnically diverse content. So, given the lack of representation of women and minorities in media, I’ve decided on a new project for 2016.

Next year, I will devote an hour a day (on average) to consuming some kind of content produced by women and racial minorities. My reasons for doing this are two-fold: 1) to grow in my understanding of people who are different than me and 2) to use some of my privilege as a white male to level the playing field by specifically supporting the work of women and racial minorities.

Here are some ideas of the content I plan to consume:

  • Books (novels, poems, short stories, graphic novels, memoirs, non-fiction, etc. This one should be easy for me)
  • Podcasts (Missed in History, currently one of my favorites, is hosted by two women; I need to find more)
  • Magazine and Newspaper articles (I read Scientific American Mind and National Geographic, as well as online sources such as Slate and The Atlantic. I’ll plan on paying special attention to female and racially diverse authors, reading their stuff and following their work elsewhere).
  • Research publications (I follow academic research and read the articles I find interesting; ditto the above).
  • Blogs (Off the top of my head, Kenna Griffin, Molly Cantrell-Kraig , Angela Maiers, and Gini Dietrich are all female bloggers I’ve read in the past. I’ll follow them again and add more. I can’t think of a non-Caucasian blogger I know; I think that says something).
  • Film/TV with racial minority/female director or lead (Scandal, Madame Secretary, and How to Get Away with Murder are all on my Netflix list. And maybe I’ll give Jessica Jones another shot. When watching movies, I’ll pay closer attention to who the director is)
  • Musicians (I honestly don’t habitually listen to any female or non-white musicians that I can recall right now; time to change that).
  • Classes/Lectures (I listen to a lot of lecture series and audio courses; another food source for finding and promotion diverse content).

These are just a few ideas, but anything goes. As I consume this content, I’ll keep a log and periodical update this oust to reflect what I’ve uncovered. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

Now, if you are a white male reading this, why not take on the “white man’s burden” with me? Support women. Support racial minorities. These two marginalized groups have gotten the short end of the stick for far too long in western society. They deserve our undivided attention…



About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
This entry was posted in blog, Books and Reading, philosophy, Social Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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