I’m a natural to review Ijeoma Oluo’s new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Seal Press, 2020).
I am White, male, American, and when I taught at the University of Texas at Austin, I routinely joked that “the secret to my success is that I’m mediocre, and I know it.”
That comment came in conversations with students about inflated faculty egos, partly as a caution to myself. In universities, the coin of the realm is being a big thinker with original ideas. But most of us aren’t big thinkers, and original ideas are rare. Rather than being satisfied with being competent—a hard enough standard to meet—professors too often puff themselves up, a weakness to which White guys are especially vulnerable. My quip wasn’t the result of a lack of self-confidence; I was simply suggesting that an honest self-assessment helps one do useful work.
If “mediocre” seems unkind, how about “ordinary”? I’m not special, but I live in a culture that designates people who look like me as the standard. A White supremacist and patriarchal society (we’ll get to capitalism later) props up White guys not because we’re superior but precisely because we’re not. White guys need the unearned advantages to keep alive the fantasy that we deserve to be on top. That fantasy is not harmless—our embrace of dominance means subordinating people who don’t look like us, which creates an incentive for White men to remain clueless.
That’s why Mediocre is not a threat to White guys but a gift, offering the social/political tough love that we need to see society—and ourselves—more clearly.
Oluo’s book is an engaging mix of American history, political analysis, and social commentary, brought to life through stories of her experience as a Black woman. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy read. No matter how often I face the depravity of patriarchy and White supremacy—the injuries that men and White people inflict on women and people of color—the realities are jarring, as they should be. To not be shaken by suffering would be to abandon some of one’s humanity. To ignore the fact that we White guys benefit from these systems would be to abandon any humanity that remains.
Oluo isn’t suggesting that all White men are evil or that no White man makes important contributions:
“I am not arguing that every white man is mediocre. I do not believe that any race or gender is predisposed to mediocrity. What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent. … The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”
White men are not genetically lacking. We are just more likely than others to fail to understand the realities of patriarchy and White supremacy and less likely to challenge those systems.
If White men’s mediocrity served only to puff us up in our own eyes, it would be unfair but less threatening. But Oluo points out:
“This is not a benign mediocrity; it is brutal. It is a mediocrity that maintains a violent, sexist, racist status quo that robs our most promising of true greatness. …
Our culture has shaped the expectation of greatness exclusively around white men by erasing the achievements of women and people of color from our histories, by excluding women and people of color as heroes in our films and books, by ensuring that the qualified applicant pool is restricted to white male social networks.”
Mediocre offers ample evidence for her thesis. The first chapter grounds us in the pathological American mythologies of brave men taming the frontier, embraced by Buffalo Bill at the end of the 19th century and still present in the self-indulgent anti-government fantasies of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and similar “patriots” in the 21st. From there, Oluo takes us on a painful tour through White masculinity in higher education, social movements, sports, politics, labor, and business. The especially sick and sad history of the American South gets special attention, but no region is spared.
And no one is spared, including White men who have written about social justice for three decades. Like me. White guys like me routinely acknowledge that we will never fully understand, let alone experience, the effects of sexism and racism in the way someone like Oluo does. But Oluo’s skillful weaving of her own reactions, both intellectual and emotional, to that “violent, sexist, racist status quo” reminded me how true that is, and how easily I can forget it in day-to-day life.
The book constantly forced me to face my limitations. Like many, I’ve followed the careers of “The Squad,” four women of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. When I read Oluo’s account of the legislative activities of those representatives, I realized that I had been more focused on their effect on partisan politics than on their policy agendas. I had unconsciously ignored the work they do and had stuck in the personality-driven news coverage.
One more example. I don’t like football and haven’t paid attention to the sport since junior high. I knew the history of segregation, that clichés like “on the field, all that matters is your performance” were absurd. But the stories of Black players being beaten, even killed, by not only White opponents but also by teammates were new to me. Oluo’s history of White male supremacy in the game, along with insights into the current racial politics of the sport, reminded me why I should pay more attention, even if I never intend to watch a game.
I can imagine some White men dismissing the book as “identity politics.” If that term means a simplistic assessment of people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, and class, I agree that’s a problem. If identity politics means that people in one group can simply declare a “correct” interpretation of an issue and denounce those who disagree, that’s a problem, too. But this book doesn’t practice that kind of identity politics, instead analyzing systems of power and asking for accountability. And Oluo points out that White male identity has always driven our politics.
How to encourage White men, who need Oluo’s book the most, to engage with Mediocre? That requires thinking about how White men will react to her analysis. Here are four possibilities:
• Rejection and embrace of reactionary politics: White men aren’t the problem, but rather the solution, and should be in control without multicultural constraints, and they have a “right” to use intimidation and violence to protect their status.
• Regret about history but rejection of the implications: Yes, in the past White men did damage, but that’s history and today’s problems aren’t our fault.
• Reconciliation without reckoning: Yes, White men are still a problem, but we have to accept each other and all try to get along.
• Acceptance and action: I have lived with unearned power and privilege that comes in White supremacist patriarchy, and even if I haven’t been an active agent of evil, I’m responsible for my part in changing the social norms that elevate me over others.
How do we move White men to that fourth option?
One tool is the argument from justice. If we truly believe in the moral principles we claim to hold around human dignity, solidarity, and equality, we have to embrace a critique of unjust systems. That’s a powerful argument but doesn’t always move people to act. It’s also important to make an argument from self-interest. Whatever material advantages we may risk losing, when we work for justice we gain a deeper sense of our own humanity and a richer connection to others.
Oluo is appropriately skeptical about the argument from self-interest, the “feminism helps men” argument.
“Sometimes it may seem like justice is disadvantaging you when the privileges routinely enjoyed are threatened. But you have to do it anyway, because you believe that women and people of color are human beings and that we deserve to be free from oppression, even when that means you personally have to give some things up.
When that true commitment to equality isn’t there, when white men waltz into social justice movements with their privilege unchecked and expect to feel rewarded and comfortable at all times, they slow us down. They also hurt people, and they compromise the integrity of our movements.”
Oluo’s caution is necessary: alone, the self-interest argument is dangerous. But if we want to advance social justice, we have to create spaces in which people in the dominant classes can imagine themselves living with a self-respect that is more meaningful than dominance. Should everyone in those classes be willing to accept radical change without concern for self, to create a world in line with our stated moral principles? Yes. Will anyone do that based on principles alone? I doubt it. People—White, male, and everyone—need a meaningful sense of self to thrive.
My experience in the radical feminist movement—and subsequent writing and organizing efforts around issues concerning race, economic inequality, and U.S. warmongering—have put me in places where I was held up as one of the “good White men,” a designation that Oluo refuses to indulge. Her critique of how folks like me move in social movements was most uncomfortable to be reminded of, and therefore important, for me: “Mediocre, highly forgettable white men regularly enter feminist spaces and expect to be centered and rewarded, and they have been.”
No matter how much I acknowledge advantages I have, I have them. When I acknowledge those systems of oppression, I often get more credit than people who are the targets. Statements that can raise my status can have the opposite effect for others. Again, Oluo is on target:
“Studies have shown that pretty much any time a white man talks about equality and justice, he is praised. It is seen as proof of his broad leadership abilities and his magnanimousness. But women of color are never praised. They are seen as bitter, divisive, vindictive, and self-serving.”
Oluo’s focus on White supremacy and patriarchy is appropriate, but it’s also useful to separate White and male. White supremacy can benefit women, and women can be agents of White supremacy. Patriarchy can benefit non-White men, who sometimes promote male supremacy. And all White men don’t have it easy. Capitalism creates a relatively small number of big winners, a larger group of the comfortable, and a lot of losers. Even those who are economically comfortable in capitalism can live under the thumb of those with more wealth and power. Some of those “losers” are White men, as Oluo explains:
“How do you keep the average white male American invested in a system that disadvantages him?
You give them whiteness. You give them maleness. You give them an identity that will provide a sense of victory in good times and bad. All you need to be successful as a white man is to be better off than women and people of color. And all you need to do to distract white men from how they are actually faring is to task them with the responsibility of ensuring that people of color and women don’t take what little might be theirs.”
But Oluo avoids any false equivalency. Men and women, White and non-White, are not in the same position:
“The mediocrity of the constructed white male identity is not only disappointing for them, but devastating for those of us who are the first to be sacrificed when the predictable fruits of mediocrity come to bear. Those of us who are not white men are the labor to be exploited, the scapegoats to blame, the bags to punch. All this anger distracts us from noticing how we’ve built a system that has never benefitted anyone except the most powerful white men, the select few who hoard the profits made from the systems of race and gender and class.”
That’s a reminder that contemporary human societies are not only unjust but unsustainable, facing problems without easy solutions, perhaps beyond solutions at all. No matter how wealth is distributed, eight billion people on an ecologically exhausted planet won’t work much longer. “Right now white manhood is on a suicide mission,” Oluo says, and I agree. But the whole human species is on a suicide mission.
The end of patriarchy, White supremacy, and capitalism is a necessary but not sufficient condition to dealing with the multiple, cascading ecological crises we face—not only rapid climate destabilization but also soil erosion and degradation, chemical contamination of land and water, and species extinction. The human future will be defined by “fewer and less”—fewer people consuming much less—either because we plan for it or because the ecosphere imposes it.
One response to that may be, “That’s easy for you to say as a White man living comfortably in the United States.” Fair enough, but if it is so easy for people with privilege to say such things, why are so few saying them? I think the answer is that we are scared, and rightly so. No matter how one analyzes human failures to date, the human future is distressing. But as James Baldwin said, in the context of facing White supremacy, “The only way you get through life is to know the worst things about it.” Ecologically, the worst is yet to come.
None of that, however, detracts from Oluo’s analytical clarity and eloquence in Mediocre, an achievement that came at a cost. She begins the book’s conclusion by acknowledging that the process of researching our country’s violent racism and sexism, “while living as a Black woman in this country, had been slowly wearing away at my soul.”
She describes the reactions to her writing, such as her first book, So You Want to Talk About Race:
“These men wanted me to know that they were miserable, they felt screwed over, and they felt demonized. … 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.”
She refuses platitudes and asks a hard question about the idea of love as a solution: “What does it mean to truly love white men who feel entitled to status and are angry at the world when they do not get it? And what would it mean to love the same people whom those white men seek to harm?” What does it mean for me to love other White men—to love myself—as long as patriarchy and White supremacy exist? Oluo forced me to think more deeply about questions that have long bedeviled me—part of the gift of the book to White male Americans.