catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 15 :: 2009.07.17 — 2009.07.30


White manhood and the new glass ceiling?

An African American chapel speaker had come to the campus where I had studied and currently work.  As his host for one chapel, I helped him put on his wireless microphone.  He looked at the pinkish headset, grinned and put it on.

“I guess this is supposed to be skin-colored.” 

“I don’t even see it,” I joked.

I remember that his chapel talks weren’t really about race, but later, we talked about the college’s diversity initiatives.  Having recently attained the status of PhD candidate, I had only been back at my alma mater a short time. Thankfully we had just had a series of meetings about improving diversity on our very white campus, so I had a small bit of knowledge. One (white male) department head had spoken about reserving a position in his department for a “diversity hire,” and I could sense some unformed questions looming in my brain.  After I explained what I knew, our speaker advised,  “Black men are in the best position to help white men deal with the fact that their voices are now marginalized.”

Marginalized?  Was that what I was feeling?  Not exactly.  It was more a sense of being unwanted for the first time.

I grew up in a very white suburb, attended a very white high school with a male principal, a very white church with male pastors, a very white college with a male president and mostly male professors.  I also worked in very white Christian ministries all led by men.  I had always felt wanted.  Even attending an African American Church in college and the nation’s most diverse university for grad school, I had always felt wanted.  As I branched out from bastions of whiteness, I grew to appreciate and even champion the diversity I encountered.  I have advocated for multiculturalism.  I have spoken up in protest when people said ignorant things about those they didn’t understand. 

I don’t regret any of this, but I suddenly had a strong sense that I, a white male, was approaching collision with a glass ceiling that was resulting from the success of the very things I had come to value and defend. 



My brothers and sisters from under-represented groups would undoubtedly scoff at my glass ceiling reference.  Lots of white men still get jobs and get published, and lots of women and minorities still get sidelined, if not denied access to the game altogether.  And then there are those pinkish headset mics that silently say to non-pinkish speakers, “We haven’t really been expecting you.”

The Declaration of Independence and our national hype about being the “land of opportunity” has created certain expectations.  The national reluctance to deliver what America promised to African Americans, Native Americans, women and various immigrant groups has been an inestimable disappointment.  Various reform movements have made progress, only to see racism, sexism and xenophobia systematically mutate to survive.  America has felt like a “set up” for lots of people.  The traditional dominance of white male voices in the United States is well-documented.  Important and necessary change has been on the horizon for some time. 

Growing up as a white male has created certain expectations within me. I expected to be wanted forever.  I never saw it as unfair that I was wanted and I never perceived being wanted as the counterpart to someone else being unwanted.  Unconsciously, I felt entitled to be wanted.  Now, I don’t feel wanted, and the absence of the wanting voice has created a new sense of doubt about my worth.  Now, I feel like I’ve been set up.

Sixteen years ago, in his USA Today essay “The End of the Great White Male,” John R. Graham wrote, “All around are the effects of a revolution that is both painfully distressing and totally confusing to what may become known as the last of the great white males.” In 1995, Luther Wright, Jr. coined the term “soulmaning,” stating that “incidents of whites claiming to be black have become more and more frequent.”* Three years ago MSNBC reported that diversity was growing in all but one of the United States.

If the change has come or is coming, what am I, a white male, supposed to do?  At this point, hiring statistics are off the table.  We’re in the realm of pathology.  I’m 35, married with two kids and I’m not really even remotely “established” in my career.  Any job I apply for will likely have applicants from traditionally underrepresented groups.  I don’t begrudge them a job, even a job I want.  I value their voices and perspectives.  I’m not charging anyone with “reverse discrimination” which implies that discrimination has a proper direction.  I haven’t finished my PhD and I haven’t published anything.   It is easy to imagine more qualified candidates for a professorial position.  The problem in my psyche now is that I wonder whether finishing and publishing will matter.  Given the opportunity to “stand and deliver,” will my white male identity provoke a “been there, done that” response?  Should I even try? 

And now I see it.  Joking aside, the curve of the pinkish headset over the smile on the brown face is obvious.

What my new friend had been saying was this:  for generations, re/o/su/ppressed people have had to work without knowing whether it mattered; without knowing if there would be a pay-off.  They have had to speak out, without knowing whether their voices would be valued.  They have had to work twice as hard as white men to get anywhere.  Sometimes they worked twice as hard and got nowhere.  But they learned how to persevere and they can help white men to persevere, too, if we will be helped.     

So, what am I supposed to do?  How about: stop whining!


The new white manhood

I feel within me (and other white males) some untapped value. I am not a hotdog on the kids’ menu of a gourmet restaurant!  But I can’t expect to be wanted. 

I am privileged, but not entitled to those privileges.  It is time I tapped into my deeper resources and got to know myself while getting to know the children of God who were unwanted in previous eras.  It is time for me to know what I sound like to them and receive their counsel.  This is not a call to political correctness, wherein we change our voice, “soulmaning” ourselves to validity.  PC will not allow us, or anyone else, to be known or valued for who we are in this new era.  This is a call for me to be authentic and persevere in developing and refining my own white male particularity for usefulness to God and others in our emerging social reality.

Will I take a lesson from the unwanted children of God throughout history and get to work?  Will I finish what I start and contribute my voice and my effort without knowing how it will be taken, and — this is crucial — without demanding that it be taken at all? 

Maybe someday I will be handed a brownish headset to amplify my voice.  I hope I can smile as I put it on, knowing that in some way, I’ve earned it.

* Wright, Jr., Luther.  “Soulmaning Race for Political and Economic Gain” Originally published in Vanderbilt Law Review 513, reprinted in Delgado and Stafancic Critical White Studies, p. 126.  “Soulmaning” is taken from the 1986 film Soulman, in which a white Harvard student poses as black to get a scholarship.


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