But What About the White Boys? : An Analysis of White Fragility in the US
On February 12th, in the midst of Black History Month, Jennifer Percy, a writer for Esquire magazine, published an article, titled “An American Boy,” that speaks on behalf of the “lost” white men of the 21st century. Looking at the current US political climate, many might claim that the US stands in the midst of a second wave of Civil Rights movements. As media and social circles are forced to recognize the realities of systemic inequality, racism, sexism, and homophobia, many white men have found themselves lost in disillusionment as they question their place within the changing society. Yet, responsiveness from the white community, exemplified by the Esquire article, has been notoriously defensive and individualistic, catering to the emotions of guilt-ridden individuals, rather than acknowledging the life experiences of marginalized communities. In this way, whiteness has manifested in the emotional fragility of white men as they wrestle with the dismantling of their racial and gender privileges, some of which they feel a rightful ownership of.
“An American Boy” tells the story of Ryan Morgan, a young High School teenager caught at the intersection of Wisconsin’s conservativism and the large social push for political correctness. As a young man, growing up in a secluded section of the rural state, Ryan struggles to come to terms with his racial and gender privilege. The article begins with a retelling of an incident in which Ryan is smacked by a young woman, and in turn smacks her back. The incident is followed by an in-school suspension and a court date, at which he pleads not guilty. In essence, the author works to paint a narrative of innocence and misunderstanding on behalf of Ryan, showcasing his white masculinity as the root of his interpersonal issues.
The article itself is blanketed with moody images of Ryan; face set in a glare of resounding frustration, lit by dark red and orange lighting. His features communicate the narrative of a young man lost in the stereotypes of oppressive white masculinity, placing Ryan as the victim of social change and identity politics. “The kids in school, ‘they called me a woman beater. I don’t think anyone actually thought I was. They were just giving me crap. It was just a stressful time.”
In many ways, the article’s efforts to make the reader sympathize with Ryan mirror social tendencies to defend the normalization of whiteness within the US. In the face of mass incarceration, police brutality, and increasing numbers of hate crimes by white supremacists, Ryan’s narrative undermines the push to hear and recognize the truth of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Just as Black Lives Matter was followed by All Lives Matter, so too is black history month challenged by the perceived victimhood of Ryan Morgan, white-washing the historical account of inequality within the US.
As the narrative continues, Percy refrains from adding commentary to Ryan’s life, confining the article to a simple telling of the context in which Ryan lives. Juggling the dividedness of both divorced parents and school politics, Ryan takes on the moderate approach both inside and outside of his home. Politically he feels that “it’s better to be a moderate, because then you don’t get heat… We want everyone to be happy.” However, this “moderate identification” is, in reality, a false sense of neutrality. By believing oneself to be neutral and without blame, it becomes easy to remain complicit in the human rights violations against black and brown people across our nation. Doing nothing is still an action and a choice.
Percy’s article, while seemingly neutral, represents white masculinity as supposedly misunderstood. Though Ryan does not wear a MAGA hat, or preach xenophobia or white supremacy, the article communicates the unchecked white guilt and entitlement that has manifested itself within the white working class. By pitting Ryan as one who unfairly inherits the baggage of historical wrongdoing by his ancestors, Percy undermines the social responsibility of white folks within the system of racism. In a sense, Percy poses the question ‘What about Ryan’s innocence?’
In this way, it can be easy for white men to claim victimhood in reaction to movements such as #MeToo and BLM. These feelings of a perceived personal attack, in the eyes of white men, often occur in moments where whiteness as normal is disrupted by celebration of diversity and difference. You can think of this as a decentralization of whiteness. White fragility is a reaction to this experience.
In my own journey as a white, cisgender male, the different phases of personal deconstruction have been difficult but powerful. It is through this discomfort that I have been able to dissect the ways in which whiteness functions within my own life; as a reactionary system of ignorance and disempowerment. When I use the term reactionary, I mean that whiteness is in a constant state of evolution. Birthed as a manifestation of ethnocentrism and racism, the evolution of whiteness is contingent upon the ways in which marginalized people resist its power. Thus, after eight years of US leadership in the hands of our first African American president, whiteness reacted by electing a white, male, capitalist and bigot, Donald Trump.
When I read Jennifer Percy’s article, the overwhelming thought that enters my brain is fear. This fear is accurately described by James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time as a tyranny of the mirror; an inability for white people to love themselves whilst also facing their history as oppressors. Whiteness not only marginalizes and dehumanizes black and brown bodies, but also discourages the formation of a complete sense of self within the white community. By veiling history through a whitewashed lens, we perpetuate an ignorance of self which pits the white community against all people of color.
So, when I hear white men victimize themselves, claiming that they are being stereotyped as racist and sexist, my immediate reaction is to say, it is not about you. It is about the system that made you. The cultural circuits of inclusion and exclusion that have weaponized white masculinity as the means of promoting the racial wealth gap in the US; the continued enslavement of black and Latinx bodies in our prisons; the continued shootings of innocent people by police; innocent citizens of our so-called land of the free. By victimizing themselves, white men communicate that they wish to retain their privilege, and what must follow is that they also communicate their support for inequality and oppression.
In her book, Salt, Nayyirah Waheed captures the reality of white guilt and white fragility through the medium of poetry:
i think one
of the most pathological
things i have ever seen
then telling them that
pain and anger
making you sad.
— white guilt (Nayyirah Waheed, Salt)
To react to history with anxiety and sadness is to make the other’s pain about yourself. To react uncomfortably when a blockbuster film showcases an all-black cast is to perpetuate success as only allotted to one type of person. To feel guilty for being white is to say that your emotions matter more than those of whom you are hurting. And the consequence is not only placed upon them–upon their bodies–but also upon yourself, as you internalize the lie of white superiority, and the process of internalizing this toxicity spills over into everyone else’s lives.
Growth is found in spaces of groaning; places in which one’s framework for seeing the world is challenged. When asked what is needed from the white community, a close friend of mine responded, “courage.” We need courage to enter into these spaces of groaning, to lean into a history not told by the victor and to deconstruct our way of knowing ourselves. Without courage, white folks will continue to fall back into the defensive arms of fragility and guilt.
If I could tell fellow Jennifer Percy, and all other white folks, one thing, it would be instead of taking time and money to victimize white men, completely disregarding and disrespecting Black History Month and the history of racism in the US, take a moment to allow for the decentralization of whiteness. Do some research. Move beyond white guilt. Whatever you do, do not make inequality about yourself and do not co-opt oppression against the dismantling of white masculinity. Rather, find courage within yourself to learn without speaking and recognize that white folks cannot complain that their own knife has caused pain to another.
About the author: Levi Clum is a student at Seattle Pacific University studying Cultural Studies and Philosophy. His personal interests include the intersection of religion and inequality. In his free time he enjoys writing poetry and playing music with his friends.