Looking back on my youth, I lived through and enjoyed in pop culture both the Average White Band and The White Shadow—as a teen, without an ounce of critical awareness, and as an average white boy, without a clue of my own blinding privilege.
As I entered college, the Reagan revolution occurred, and I recall vividly being drawn to the allure of reverse racism, the vapid claim that white men were somehow then the victims of a multicultural and gender revolution.
Rapidly approaching 60, I am both ashamed and more fully aware of who I was in my youth—a person I reject entirely but witness daily in teenaged and early adult white guys that I teach. One first-year student just wrote an essay—one I could have written myself at his age—passionately arguing he is not privileged even though every single example he offered (white, male, affluent parents) confirmed his privilege. His argument also bemoaned the “new” definition of privilege, a garbled argument at best, and railed against his belief that those with privilege today are being “criminalized.”
Juxtaposing my youthful ignorance in the cocoon of privilege with this student’s same delusion more than three decades later while the US watches as a parade of powerful and famous (often white) men are exposed for truly inexcusable behavior toward women and girls speaks to a disturbing warning: beware average white men.
Next, I’d like to juxtapose Garrison Keillor to a truism that almost every black person has been told repeatedly in their youth:
For decades, black parents have told their children that in order to succeed despite racial discrimination, they need to be “twice as good”: twice as smart, twice as dependable, twice as talented. (Gillian B. White) There’s one mantra many black parents drill into their children’s heads throughout their life: be twice as good. It goes that as black folks in America, we’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as our white counterparts. (Britni Danielle)
Work twice as hard to attain half as much—what a horrible way to navigate the world, so pervasive that entire communities teach this to their children.
Keillor is among the newly fallen—though his sin tempered as “improper behavior”—and like Al Franken, Richard Dreyfuss, and Matt Lauer, Keillor’s response is itself a hedge: “The story of his alleged misdeeds is ‘more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard,’ Keillor wrote.”
Among this new normal, these partial admissions among the Left stand in stark contrast to a Republican president elected in the wake of his own profane bragging about being a sexual predator and a Republican senate candidate receiving a standing ovation while visiting a church after being exposed for his own open secret—his predatory habits including girls as young as 14.
Myself white, male, and affluent/privileged in many ways grounded in those first two accidents of my birth—I am deeply burdened by the question that lies before us about the essential nature of men, of whiteness: Can these revelations about how many powerful men are monsters be traced to predispositions of being born a male, to some code engrained in whiteness (even as we know race is a social, not a biological, construct)?
I am afraid of the truth about being male, about the flawed consequences of being a creature driven by testosterone even with the capacity for reason, compassion, and ethical awareness.
I am terrified about the inability to determine cause and effect among the dynamics of being male, white, and powerful—that white men have disproportionate power may allow being white and male to be absolved, may allow us all to decry the corrosive impact of power.
It is that terror that brings me back to Keillor as much more illustrative of the converse of how blacks raise their children—twice as good, half as much: the average white man is allowed to be half as good to attain twice as much.
“I am disappointed in both reviews of Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems (April 2004)—nearly as much as in the anthology itself,” wrote poet Rita Dove in 2005, explaining:
Keillor dedicates his compilation to “all the English Teachers (especially the great ones),” and yet he neglects one of the cardinal guidelines for today’s English curricula—to select material that reflects the multi-faceted fabric of our society. Lake Wobegon’s Norwegian bachelor farmers may have in their youth been deprived of the smorgasbord American culture has become, but I would hope that nowadays even kids from the tiniest hamlets in rural Minnesota are a bit more informed about Walt Whitman’s multitudes than Mr. Keillor’s selection would have us believe. Young minds—hell, all minds—are impressionable, and an anthology overwhelmingly populated by white poets is likely to send the message that only white folks deserve and/or are capable of writing “good poems.”
Dove’s last charge reminds me of religious traditions that suggest God created man in His own image— the sexist language and the arrogance.
Dove’s last charge reminds me of the much smaller scale but none the less arrogant self-aggrandizing of the New Criticism movement—white men with literary power who manufactured standards of great literature both to match the sort of work they created but also to keep the evaluative gaze on the text (and thus, not on the white-male-only club they were creating, and that Keillor shamelessly perpetuated).
Could anyone be more mediocre than Matt Lauer, who earned $25,000,000 a year? Maybe Keillor, the grand patron of mediocrity.
And how does a country elect Barack Obama (twice as hard, half as much) and then Donald Trump—a man who can only aspire to Lauer’s and Keillor’s mediocrity, a man buoyed by his father’s ill-gotten wealth and a culture that allows wealthy white men to excel despite their mediocrity and moral decadence.
Keillor may too easily be swept aside as a mostly harmless minor celebrity, a victim himself of his era when men’s behavior toward women was seen as part of a normal “consensual seduction ritual,” Dreyfuss’s own effort to excuse himself as simply being “the kind of performative masculine man my father had modeled for me to be.”
Sin’s of the father and all that.
But Keillor represents more than the existential fear all women and girls must fear from all men as potential physical and sexual threats; Keillor is the quintessential average white man who is half as much but reaps twice the benefits on the wave of his privileges.
And yet as the veneer is being peeled back from men as predatory monsters, average white men themselves are desperately asking what if things are going too far, what if all the men guilty of sexual assault and intimidation are held accountable.
Yes, what if? Reckoning is a frightening thing for the guilty, and each time I read about another man hedging for the accused and punished, I am reminded, with some due gender irony, “The lady protests too much, methinks.”
Today the white male student who wrote the ham-fisted essay about privilege conferenced with me about his essay, and I was struck by how even though he is identified as privileged, he is confronted with a different world than I was. In another first-year class, a black young woman came into class upset about Lauer; she immediately said she was disappointed.
Both of those students share a naive view of the world, one shaped by the very average white men afraid of an overdue purging.
Both of those students, I worry, are not really being offered the promises they deserve, and thus, what if all the average white men face their reckoning?
We can hope, I think, and we should.