My black sons wanted to know: What’s it like to be a white male right now?
Answering that question was more complicated than I expected.
At the dinner table one recent evening, I was chatting with my two sons when my 16-year-old popped out with “Dad, how does it feel to be a white male right now?”
I stared at him for a second. Of course he doesn’t know what it feels like to be white; my wife is black, and our sons are mixed race. I’ve forgotten again that the world doesn’t see my sons as versions of me. I sometimes think I would be a better dad if I remembered this more frequently.
How does it feel to be a white male? I could be flip and say it feels the way it always has. Everybody knows white men can’t jump and can’t dance. I could tell my sons what they probably already know: that being white and male comes with its privileges. The latest New York Times/Equilar CEO compensation study showed that top chief executives (almost invariably white males) receive hundreds of times more compensation than employees earning the median salary at their companies. I unfortunately have had to apologize to my family for apparently squandering my privileges on journalism and other dissolutions, which is why we rent instead of own, tend to take staycations, and can’t pay for college without full-on mortgaging our retirement (hah).
I could say that my skin color doesn’t come with privilege Wite-Out I can use to fix problems. It doesn’t preclude one from being molested as a boy, suffering from anxiety, getting passed over for jobs, flubbing opportunities, and having sheer bad luck. White men are, however, less likely to experience stressful life events than any other American demographic, which counts as a true privilege. But here’s the real white man’s burden: Given our status, we are surprisingly unhappy. We have the highest rates of suicide. It’s been suggested that because of our relatively easy lives, we often don’t know how to deal with setbacks, and so white men suffer depression at higher rates than black men (though white women are even more likely to have depression). And for whites between 45 and 54 with no more than a high school degree, especially white men, “deaths from despair” (suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses) have skyrocketed, and have surpassed rates for blacks.
But that all would sound defensive. It is true that I have had moments when I wondered if other people think the world would be a better place without — well, not so much me as people who look like me. #MeToo wasn’t just about white males, but during its most intense months, I often felt as if we should be called “blight males.” The stories of pain, inflicted mostly by white men, were heart-rending. And the sheer number of them made me wonder: Was my skin color now a kind of scarlet letter? Did people who encountered me presume I have serial assaults in my past, or that I am at least a harassing boor? That I consider myself better than them?
I did a mental accounting of actions, gestures, and remarks I have made in my life that may have been inappropriate. I had to stop because, even if I don’t think I’m hiding a terrible past, it occurred to me I might be so utterly privileged I wouldn’t know when I’ve crossed the line from socially inept to socially unacceptable.
I don’t say any of these things to my sons, though. I don’t want to elicit their pity (what dad ever wants pity from his sons?). I also don’t want to say, “OK, kids, here’s my worst act,” as if that defines me. I don’t think any person, even a white male, should be defined by his or her worst act, let alone the worst acts committed by members of their race.
So I tell them white men, like every other kind of person, vary widely (some of us can even jump). I can’t speak for other white men, even other egghead small-town Midwestern transplants. People of any type can misuse power when they have it, and my kids should be prepared to speak out against such abuses. It’s impossible for me to say what my whiteness nets me from situation to situation, and sometimes it’s easier for me to see where it’s made me a target. I say that they should try very hard to learn what stereotypes and biases they’ve developed, and work to counter those.
Finally, I tell them being white and male will never again make employers automatically prefer me. I believe (at least, I hope) that such a distinction will now go to people of color and to women, which is a good thing for my profession and for society as a whole — and, when they enter the workforce, for my own sons.