A few years ago, a tweet by writer Sarah Hagi spawned a slew of memes, t-shirts and tote bags that read: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man."
Writer Ijeoma Oluo says this quote is more than a pithy line about mediocre individuals given unlimited power — and instead, a system everyone plays a part in. Oluo writes about this in her new book, "Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America."
The book takes readers through history to show how white supremacy and more specifically white male mediocrity have become this country’s core ideology. Oluo defines white male mediocrity as “this idea that white men deserve political power and wealth and safety and security just because they're white men.”
White male mediocrity protects the belief that white men are perceived as stronger and more successful than women and people of color regardless of skill or achievements, she says.
“It's a system that protects mediocrity, that sets [mediocrity] as the goal,” she says. “And the idea that anything would ask for more of our systems — let alone the people within these systems — becomes a threat to the status quo and to our systems of power.”
This ideology serves as one of capitalism’s primary protections by convincing people to participate in the system, she says.
White men believe that greatness and prosperity are coming despite the realities of their financial situation or career, she says. But when the paycheck doesn’t come, white men often blame women and people of color for taking it away.
Every person deserves to feel safe and thrive, she says, but society’s leaders need to show they can make that happen.
“Who leads us and [who] we reward for their contributions should actually be making meaningful contributions that improve the lives of people in our society,” she says, “should be leaders that can effectively lead and bring prosperity to everyone, regardless of race and gender or skill or talent.”
In the book, Oluo highlights key moments to show how this system works from the way women were kicked out of the workforce after the Great Depression, to how women of color in politics are challenged for holding different views on equity than their white male colleagues.
While she says she could write 100 books on this topic, Oluo started by asking “fundamental questions about white male identity in America as a political and social construct” throughout history. She collected hundreds of stories and looked for common threads.
Race and gender are inseparably linked, she says, and protect both white supremacy and patriarchy in the U.S. But this leads people who are only impacted by one part of the white supremacist patriarchy to make a deal with the system.
Conversations around intersectionality must recognize that white women, for example, often use their proximity to white men to uphold white male power, she says. That can mean marrying, giving birth to, or emulating white men.
“In trying to align ourselves with people who are most impacted, we're going to also confront the ways in which we have been invested in the oppression of others as well and have been upholding these systems,” she says.“There's no way any of us get through liberation while holding on to our proximity to oppressive power.”
Oluo notes in the book that white male mediocrity is also killing white men and calls for a new vision for white masculinity. But she says white men and the people who raise them will decide what this looks like.
This system has most greatly impacted women and people of color for generations — but 70% of suicides in the U.S. are white men. White men and people who care about them need to reenvision how to define success in a healthy way that isn’t dependent on comparing themselves to others, she says.
“That's how we have set up our definitions of success in white male society: It is not your own individual talents, it is not your contributions to society, it's are you doing better at the end of the day than women or people of color?” she says. “And that's no way to live. That's no way to think about yourself. There is no self-love in that.”
People are “brainwashed” into upholding the current system instead of imagining something new, she says. Valuing the work done outside of the system by both communities of color and white men can help folks separate from this conditioning.
“What I argue is the path that we're on right now, we have very little to lose by trying something new and better by having faith in each other,” she says. “We created this system, and it's just one of many. And we can create so many more.”
Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: 'Mediocre'
By Ijeoma Oluo
The emails started coming in 2018. They would usually arrive after I had posted an article on race or gender, but sometimes they would appear at random. I still remember the first one, which shook me.
“I know you think I should kill myself because I voted for Donald Trump, because I’m white, because I’m a male, so I’m just going to, since that is the only ethical conclusion.”
The email listed the various hardships the sender had endured. Poverty, mental illness, discrimination. But none of that mattered, because I had shown him that the problem was that he was a white man and he should die. And so his death would be on my hands.
“I’m going to kill myself because that’s exactly what you want and will make you happy and I will teach you a lesson when the whole world learns about it.”
The email continued, describing how he was going to kill himself (with a Glock that he kept at home) and reiterating that it would be my fault. He then ended with a racist tirade, calling me a “worthless monkey bitch.”
I have received many violent emails from white men over the years, but I sat with this one for a while. I tried to process what I was reading and tried to figure out what I should or could do about it. In the end, I placed it in the same folder as all the death and rape threats.
A few weeks later I received another email from a different sender. The message, with slight wording differences, was essentially the same. This white man was going to kill himself and I was to blame. A few days later I got a similar message via Twitter messenger. A few days after that, another email.
As the threats of suicide piled up, I began to see a coordinated campaign to harass me, and as disturbing as it was, it was also sadly fascinating in what it revealed. These men were trying to terrorize me with what they saw as the only logical conclusion to my anti-racist, feminist work: the mass suicide of white men. They wanted me to know that they saw my work to end violent misogyny and white supremacy, and they saw that it was a threat, not only to their norms and their status but to their very lives.
These men wanted me to know that they were miserable, they felt screwed over, and they felt demonized. They wanted me to know that the only option available to address white male patriarchy was either to maintain the status quo that was making us all miserable, or death. They wanted me to know that they were not capable of growth or change and that any attempts to bring about that growth or change would end them.
Nobody is more pessimistic about white men than white men.
I am the mother of two boys. Two beautiful young men who were born as beautiful babies full of endless possibility. It was shocking to watch how quickly the patriarchy came to claim my sweet little boys. They weren’t even in preschool before I had to battle a world that wanted to take everything that was soft and kind
and generous about them and turn those traits into hardness, cruelty, and dominance. I watched my older son, who had the most brilliant smile I have ever seen, struggle under the weight of being repeatedly told by society that his loving, open nature was a weakness.
The teenage brain can be a very dangerous place. As young people grow and get ready for adulthood, their world is rapidly changing—as are their hormones. A great day is often the best day of their life and a bad day is often the worst. And if you ask a teen how they are doing on a bad day, if they are willing to talk to you at all, you may hear that every day they’ve ever had is bad, and every day they will ever have will be bad. Teenagers often have difficulty projecting themselves into a different, better future. It can be a very scary time, and the consequences can be very real.
I could have lost my son, the driving force of my heart and soul, to this despair. I’m forever grateful that part of him wanted to live, and that part decided to reach out for help.
It has been years since that terrifying time for my family. We worked with some great therapists, spent a lot of time healing together, and my son grew out of his hardest phase. Not all families are so lucky. Sometimes there is no intervention that can save our children from the claws of anxiety and depression. It has only been in the last two years or so that I’ve been able to relax somewhat— feeling confident that we made it through the worst of it, that I was going to see my baby grow into a man.
Then, early in the morning on August 14, 2019—two weeks from my son’s eighteenth birthday—I got a call from the King County sheriff’s office that there had been a report of shots fired at my house. I was across the country, getting ready to head home from a conference. We do not own any guns, and my son doesn’t have any friends who own guns, so I knew there was a strong chance this was a hoax. But what if. They were going to send officers to my home.
I sent a neighbor to go knock on the door, then on my son’s window. My son had been sound asleep, unharmed. But the police had received a call from someone pretending to be my son and stating that he had killed two people in the house. They were going to send an armed response. To my home, where my son was alone and barely awake and very confused.
What if we had fought so hard to save my son only to lose him because an angry white man decided to send armed cops to our house at six a.m.?
When I read the emails I receive from white men threatening suicide, I read them as someone who knows what the despair of suicidal thoughts looks like. And when I look at the threats and harassment that I and so many women and people of color have received from angry white men, I know what that despair looks like when it’s mixed with the entitlement and bitter disappointment of white male mediocrity.
I don’t know if the men who emailed me were actually considering suicide; I doubt they were. I think they were just having some sick, twisted version of fun. But when I look at white male identity in America, I see it all. I see the desperation, the disappointment, the despair, the rage.
White male identity is in a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition. The love, admiration, belonging, and fulfillment they have been promised will never come—it cannot exist for you when your success is tied to the subjugation of those around you. These white men are filled with anger, sadness, and fear over what they do not have, what they believe has been stolen from them. And they look at where they are now, and they cannot imagine anything different. As miserable as they are, they are convinced that no other option exists for them. It is either this, or death: ours or theirs.
I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us. When we look at the history of white male identity in this country, it becomes clear that we are only stuck in these cycles of reactionary violence and oppression because we have not tried anything new. We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.
Excerpted from "Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America" by Ijeoma Oluo. Copyright © 2020 by Ijeoma Oluo. Republished with permission of Seal Press.