Ijeoma Oluo's Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
Understanding White Men – Without Coddling Them
Jude Ellison S. Doyle
Think White Guys Are Overrated? There’s a Book for That
Beware of the Woke White Male Feminist
Beyond the Limits of Whiteness
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America was published in 2020 by Seal Press.
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Understanding White Men – Without Coddling Them
Jude Ellison S. Doyle
The inner life of the angry white American man has become a subject of much discussion in recent years. Yet, even for progressives, “understanding” frequently turns into coddling. The discourse of “toxic masculinity” roots itself almost entirely in violent men’s feelings, insisting that if they could only open up and learn to cry, they’d stop oppressing people. Criticism of whiteness devolves into excuse making about “economic anxiety.” Whether we rebel against white men or serve them, their feelings are the most important thing in the room.
What a relief, then, that Ijeoma Oluo does not coddle anyone in Mediocre. She is scathing on the subject of how white men get the most by doing the least. I groaned in sympathy with her story about learning that an untalented male “feminist” comedian in her social circle had been accused of sexual misconduct. Oluo was horrified that she’d pretended his jokes were funny: “We were that desperate for a white man not to be trash that we treated mediocrity like it was a masterpiece.” What is funny is Oluo’s history of the New York Men’s League of Women’s Suffrage, in which members were promised that “no member would be called upon to do anything. The main function of the league would be to exist.”Empathy can only function in concert with accountability.Click To TweetOluo skips psychoanalyzing white guys, focusing instead on the specific political and economic advantages of white cis manhood and how those advantages are maintained by suppressing everyone else. If there is a fault to Mediocre, it’s simply that Oluo’s subject is too big for one book. She takes on different facets in each chapter, but I sometimes felt I needed her to draw one big picture for me. Still, the book is a bracing reminder that empathy can only function in concert with accountability: “In a world where many people of many different races and genders are bullied, where many people feel left out and overlooked, it is white men who are choosing to turn that pain and fear into self-harm and murderous rage,” Oluo writes. “I’m not sure how much of it can be prevented by simply listening to them.”
Jude Ellison S. Doyle (they/he) is the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown and the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why and Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power. Their commentary on gender, culture and power appears regularly in Medium's GEN and across the Internet.
Think White Guys Are Overrated? There’s a Book for That
Damnit, Ijeoma Oluo, I wanted to write this book first. Having never met you, I have little choice but to hate you for timing this book so well that any other public writing on the topic may seem like ersatz follow-ups piggybacking on ideas you have already sealed within the public discourse.
You see, I know firsthand how violently red-faced and reactionary white men can be when called out for their mediocrity. Any time a demographic with a death grip on social and economic power responds that way to criticisms from marginalized people, you know there must be a deeply entrenched historical framing behind it. That framing is that white men’s greatness—and the concomitant mythology that America is built upon it—is the most pervasive lie that has ever been told. And Oluo gives us a deep dive into that story that is well thought out and substantive.
White men’s greatness—and the concomitant mythology that America is built upon it—is the most pervasive lie that has ever been told.Click To TweetThere is, I believe, a trend in the trade publishing industry to think of popular feminist texts as manifestos or personal memoirs that often read—to activists, academic feminists, and anyone looking for hot takes informed by more than personal anecdotes—like elongated Facebook posts. Perhaps due to her background in feminist journalism—where she regularly contributed to outlets such as Jezebel, The Guardian, and Medium—Oluo is a seasoned vet at communicating what is under the hood of the social problems that can be observed in public view. I haven’t yet read the title she is best known for, So You Want to Talk about Race, but I am aware that it is a New York Times best seller.
In Mediocre, Oluo describes the conspiratorial myth-making that undergirds that fundamentally American belief in white male exceptionalism. It’s not that white guys can’t be great; it’s that the very architecture of inequality in this country (and, yes, the world) relies on dominant narratives about the inferiority of Black people, Brown people, and white women (Oluo notes how white men historically resented the achievements of white women, but she falls alarmingly short of indicting how historically complicit white women are in white male mythology. White women have shown themselves consistently to be more Nancy Reagan collusion than Lucretia Mott resistance). That belief in the innate inferiority of 69 percent of this country is bookended by the false claim that white male dominance in nearly every field (save for athletics) is a meritocratic outcome of white guys being better. But, as she points out, if white men run our ineffective systems of governance, the criminal enterprises of Wall Street, and the Russian-infiltrated tech industries responsible for misinformation fueling domestic terrorists (who are, again, overwhelmingly white men with their white women accomplices), then why aren’t white men being held responsible for being terrible at so many things in the way any other group would be if they had a similar record of incompetence? We wouldn’t keep hiring Muslim women into investment banking and appointing them to the Department of the Treasury if they crashed the markets once a generation.
“White male mediocrity,” Oluo argues, “is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and … everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent” (5). This dominant narrative, unsurprisingly, was crafted by white men themselves, and Oluo supplies a fitting historical example in the case of Buffalo Bill, the stage name for William Cody, an itinerant trapper, teamster, soldier, farmer, and wannabe celebrity who finally reached fame in the mid- to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for his record numbers of bison and Native kills. Cody used his stage plays to aggrandize and reenact the violent stories of his heroism. He puffed up his kills as skilled sportsmanship and bravery, but in reality, Cody was shooting fish in a barrel. Backed by railroad companies and the Ulysses S. Grant administration, Cody lent his trigger-happy hand to a genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples of the Plains Nations. He, alongside other white mercenaries, shot herds of grazing bison out of moving train windows, leaving seas of them dead to rot on the prairies. The master strategy to exterminate the herds was William Tecumseh Sherman’s settler-colonialism war plan to starve out, forcibly remove, and annihilate Natives. Like so many white men’s heroic tales that would come in generations after, Cody was remarkable for no other reason than his wanton disregard for humanity and brash, avaricious ego. It is more historically accurate to say that Cody formed his violent livelihood with government policy assistance and the technological advantages handed him by corporations, who saw him and other white male mass murderers for hire as doing their bidding. Over a hundred years later, a mistake of a man who failed at everything but slaughtering and lying to his audiences about it is cemented in the national memory as a canonical American hero.
There are rightful critiques of Oluo’s work, including those from her Black contemporaries who would say that she writes mostly for the point of view of white audiences. There is a point in the book where she consults Robin DiAngelo, of White Fragility fame (or infamy, depending on which review you’ve read of it), about race relations in the context of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign: “I asked [DiAngelo] what she thought about the role of white men in racial and gender equality,” Olou recounts. “She agreed that we absolutely have to find a way forward with white men: ‘We absolutely need them.’” Yeaaah, that’s a no from me, and speaks to a million other critiques I have of people who look to DiAngelo for any damn thing. “Mediocre” could also be the title of an anthology of White writers and internet sensations claiming to do antiracist work (looking at you, Jane Elliot). But even though Oluo lets white women off the hook far too easily, this book should be for white people. They are the only group that falls on their swords to excuse the routine violence, delinquency, and menacing actions of their sons, fathers, uncles, and husbands, who ransacked halls of Congress and conspired to take elected officials hostage at the very suggestion of sharing a modicum of democracy with the rest of us. It also reminds me that mediocrity would be aspirational for many of the men Oluo references, and maybe she should start there in the revised forward to her second edition.
But is Mediocre worth reading and should its bold banana-yellow cover sit alongside other race titles that gather behind us in our video conferencing backgrounds? I find Oluo to be engaging, historically curious, and to have a discussion-worthy grasp on the intrinsic problem that White masculinity poses to this country. The book was released before the terrorist attack on the Capitol and Donald Trump’s second impeachment, but it really doesn’t need references to either for its relevance. The White male mediocrity that threatens democracy, humanity, and the structural functioning of this country isn’t going anywhere for now. Having a book within public reach that keeps those hit dogs hollering when you call out the proverbial emperor of white masculinity for having no clothes is always welcome from where I stand.
Saida Grundy is an assistant professor of sociology, African-American studies, and women’s and gender studies at Boston University and the author of “Manhood Within the Margins: Promise, Peril and Paradox at the Historically Black College for Men” (forthcoming with University of California Press). Her work to date has focused on gender, race, and politics within cultures of Black elites— specifically men. Her academic publications have tackled the role of race and masculinity in campus sexual assault and conservative corporate influences on Black male student success initiatives. Most of her public writings and commentary can be found in The Atlantic, where she is a regular contributor.
Beware of the Woke White Male Feminist
Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre is anything but: it is a brilliant, necessary, and timely intervention. Not to mention, prescient: with the image seared in our minds of hordes of entitled, deluded, and deeply mediocre white men storming the Capitol to stage an insurrection, it is obvious how important it is for feminists to take aim at white male privilege.
I want to use this opportunity to engage with Oluo in what I take to be very much a “yes, and” spirit. One of the most interesting parts of her book to me was the identification in chapter 2 of woke, white male feminists as frequently (though not inevitably) problematic, and the related tendency for white men to center themselves in progressive social movements. As she writes, a man in this camp will “sometimes… subconsciously work to maintain his position above those he is trying to ‘help’ by elevating himself even further above them with his selfless deeds, by re-centering the goals of the group to maintain his social and political power, or by quietly exploiting or abusing individuals he is claiming to help—or perhaps a combination of the three.” I want to elaborate a little on the dynamics I take Oluo to be positing here, in the interests of trying to see whether I’ve gotten her correct or not.With the image seared in our minds of hordes of entitled, deluded, and deeply mediocre white men storming the Capitol to stage an insurrection, it is obvious how important it is for feminists to take aim at white male privilegeClick To Tweet
So suppose you are a white man who finds yourself in a liberal, progressive, or explicitly feminist milieu—whether by dint of your beliefs, social circumstances, or (more likely) both of the above. And yet, as a white man, you have nonetheless acquired a sense of entitlement to be looked up to, admired, and centered by others—and to be at, or near, the top of any salient hierarchy. Then it follows that your positionality or beliefs (which may be sincerely held) will generate a hierarchy of moral and social values that you will tend to want to be high up in. Relatedly, you will want to be seen by others to be high up in that hierarchy: to be, and to be perceived as, woke, evolved, admirable.
It may be objected that surely your values will forestall this kind of moral-cum-social climbing (which would see you, at best, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons). I don’t think that is necessarily so, though, for reasons Oluo’s book makes beautifully plain: white male mediocrity is often deeply unselfconscious. As she writes, “Often these men are completely unaware of their hypocrisy because they are not doing anything out of the ordinary by centering themselves when they’ve always been centered, or by taking advantage of those who have always been taken advantage of—they’re just living according to the norms of society.” Moreover, people who come into the world with a birthright that includes being the norm, the default, as well as the higher-ups and the center, do not have to perceive themselves from multiple angles as much as the rest of us do. (That some nonmediocre white men do manage to become properly self-reflective is a credit both to them and to those who have taught or encouraged them to do so.)
It may also be objected that the hierarchical mechanisms posited apply to women and people of color just as much as white men. While possible, in the abstract, I believe that more marginalized people generally have at least two moral advantages here: One, the stakes are higher for them (so their egalitarian and feminist values will typically be more deeply held). And two, they will often have more experience at having their mistakes pointed out to them and then responding reasonably.
Mediocre white men’s lack of practice and skill in dealing with criticism, let alone at losing face and making amends, was beautifully illustrated by Oluo’s story of the comedian who made his name with his “woke” repertoire, and then turned out to be a misogynist and a sexual predator. He subsequently abandoned his woke persona, started railing against political correctness, and was embraced by the alt-right and men’s rights activists. He is by no means unique in this: Louis CK, Jamie Kilstein, and (for a non-white example) Aziz Ansari all began mocking the egalitarian values they were known for espousing shortly after they were discovered to have fallen afoul of them.
I found Louis CK’s apology for his long history of sexual harassment and predation telling: not only was it weak, but he could not help but position himself, the great comedian, as the subject of deep admiration on the part of the female comics he’d abused. (He used the term “admiration” and its cognates five times in his brief statement.) Not only was this unnecessary (it would have been enough to say he had power, without attributing lavish mental states to his victims); it also had the effect of erecting an ad hoc hierarchy in which CK was not, or not only, the proper target of dismay and consternation. It depicted him as a local deity around whom others orbited.
This morally dubious framing, not to mention CK’s subsequent devolution into his new, anti-political correctness shtick, makes perfect sense if we conceptualize his behavior in terms of domineering and self-centering, together with unselfconsciousness. Originally, he found one hierarchy, a “woke” one, to portray himself as ascendant with respect to, inasmuch as he was once admired and liked by people with egalitarian and feminist moral values. This was all the more so because he occupied a fairly small niche, since, as Oluo notes, woke white male comedians are vastly outnumbered by reactionary ones, who punch down at their targets. So CK was revered for being one of the few to punch up—as well as, intermittently, to point out his own foibles. (Somewhat ironically, he ascended a moral hierarchy in part by acknowledging his own shittiness, and being—or seeming to be—relatively self-aware about it.)
But his domineering, shitty behavior extended, much less subtly, to the many women he abused, for example by masturbating in front of them without their consent, or at least under coercive circumstances. And these patterns meant that, when he was exposed, he gave an inadequate, self-aggrandizing apology, and then swiftly reinvented himself as a “brave,” “truth-telling,” and (in reality) reactionary comic: one hierarchy replacing another in a relentless quest to be looked up to. (So much for his promise, in the closing lines of his 2017 apology, to “step back and take a long time to listen.”) As Oluo puts it: “Ultimately, if a white man’s abuses are discovered and he’s no longer able to freely center himself or to elevate himself above those he feels entitled to oppress, he will often completely reject his previous declarations of allyship. When challenged, he will go back to the open misogyny and racism that will always put him first.” In Louis CK’s case, we should also add transphobia.
Oluo’s book has done so much to explain and help us to resist these and many other such dynamics. If we are warier of the woke white male feminist because of it, then so much the better.
Beyond the Limits of Whiteness
I finished reading Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America a few days after the January 6 riot in Washington, DC, which felt more than appropriate. Beyond being super relevant to that day’s events, the book has been a helpful tool in interrogating the widespread finger pointing in its aftermath — as so many white people in power have scrambled to distance themselves from what was just done in the name of white power. Oluo writes in the book, “I don’t think we are withstanding what is happening right now. We are coming apart as we grow increasingly polarized and as our power structures work to further insulate themselves from any responsibility to the people they claim to serve.” For all the white men seeking absolution in this moment, like the conveniently outraged (and frequently racist) Mitch McConnell or Joe “this does not reflect a true America” Biden, reading Mediocre might provide a better understanding of how their own careers have been built upon a status quo that allows a white rioter to storm past armed police and put their feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, while American law enforcement regularly murders Black people just for walking in the park.The United States has been fundamentally structured to encourage (any) white man to dominate over Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.Click To Tweet
Whether it’s tying Buffalo Bill and the violent theft of Indigenous lands to the 2014 Ammon Bundy standoff in Oregon or connecting the demeaning responses to Shirley Chisholm’s run for president in 1972 to the current attacks on Ilhan Omar and “the Squad,” Oluo underlines over and over again that the United States has been fundamentally structured to encourage (any) white man to dominate over Black, Brown, and Indigenous people — teaching these men not only to expect scant consequences but also that they’d be able to write the story of their domination as well. Mediocre feels especially effective in exposing that narrative, and it notably manages to do this by consistently returning to the effects of white supremacist patriarchy on Black women and others who are not white men.
In the same group of dominators described by Mediocre there are of course many women and white people of other genders too, including not only Lauren Boebert but Nancy Pelosi herself — a leading figure in the racist treatment of Omar and a longstanding advocate for capitalism and American domination worldwide. The book references these white women (and the role of people of color, too), but it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how their actions are informed by the same systems. This makes sense, given the title and focus of the book, but readers who aren’t deeply familiar with feminist theory might leave confused about how systems of oppression interlock to perpetuate a widespread allegiance to domination.
This uncertainty was raised for me by the title itself, and the preference for the term “white male” in the book and, more particularly, “maleness” over “manliness.” It’s certainly a limitation of the English language, and not Oluo’s, that “male” is widely used as an adjective to describe men while also being used as a term that describes a type of so-called “biological sex” on one end of an imaginary sex binary. Yet I found myself wishing that the book might explain its own usage of these terms a bit more, since “maleness” is still defined by some dictionaries as “the fact of being the sex that fertilizes eggs” and thus could be interpreted as not including all white men.
This isn’t just about semantics (English dictionaries, after all, are themselves wrapped up in imperialist white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy) but more about breaking down the ideology of sex and gender at the heart of these systems. The very concept of organizing society along binaries — of forcing humans into two rigid “opposite” “biological” categories at birth and then creating “inherent” characteristics linked to those categories in order to form hierarchies — is a project of white supremacy, and thus very relevant to Mediocre. As recent books by C. Riley Snorton, Sabrina Strings, Saidiya Hartman, Imani Perry, and others have powerfully unpacked, the exaltation and differentiation of whiteness, to further the violent domination of colonized people, has been partially justified by portraying Indigenous, Black, and other people of color as having a less defined (and thus inferior) sense of sex, sexual orientation, and gender. And this project continues.
All of which is to say that imagining “a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others,” as we are encouraged to do in the conclusion of Mediocre, may be difficult without also explicitly challenging these categories — and imagining (or remembering) a world untethered from them altogether.
Imran Siddiquee is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker challenging systems of domination. Their writing on white supremacy, patriarchy, and popular media has been published by The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Longreads, and others. They are the communications director for BlackStar Projects. @imransiddiquee