Last month I asked “What automatic thoughts come to you when you think of straight white men?“. I also explored the topic with Psychology Today‘s Editor-at-Large, Hara Estroff Marano, in an audio recording for a piece there, White Men and Preconceived Notions.
Some updates. . .
First, context. However obvious, I’ll still say that the following is a personal account with all the biases of someone just talking to the people he came across in a month, not trying for a representative sample or to account for biases. My goal was to explore life, not publish in a peer-reviewed journal.
Everyone seems to go through stages talking about race. First they seem to shy away from it. Then something changes, I believe when they see I’m not looking for outrage or to condemn. Then they talk like a burst dam. They seem filled with thoughts they want to share but don’t get to.
I find this pattern engaging and frustrating. Engaging because their thoughts seem heartfelt. They seem relieved, like they welcome the chance. Frustrating for two reasons. One, I don’t get a word in edgewise for a while. Two, because they sound remarkably similar to each other.
When I ask their thoughts on white men, they mostly say a few similar things:
- They don’t look at people as groups. They tend to look at the individual and not judge.
- They acknowledge that others do.
- They accept that they do too.
- On their thoughts, they volunteer that they see white men as vanilla—that is, they don’t think much of them. They’re regular.
- After a while, they’ll volunteer that they think white men tend not to know what it’s like for everyone else, that white men have an easier time in life.
That’s about as far as people get on their own. I should mention, these points are only what they say relevant to white men. They talk at length about race and sex in other ways. A lot. People seem to love talking about race and sex. I’m doing it now.
When I ask if they think of white men as privileged, they generally agree. They tend to believe life is easier for white men than any other group. They seem awkward about saying it.
I offer a couple examples from my life that were hard—writing my PhD thesis and finishing marathons—and how others suggest that when I say I did something hard, they suggest that actually, for me it would be easier because the system is set up for me.
People tend to acknowledge that a white man offering that something is hard prompts them to expect that actually, it isn’t that hard for him because society is set up for him. They seem mixed on whether that expectation comes from their view of history or maybe, just maybe, it came from a preconceived notion based on his skin color and sex.
Now it starts getting interesting.
When I ask if we want to promote diversity in the US by promoting people from other groups, then in places where white men aren’t in the majority, should we promote them there, like in Africa or Asia.
People seem opposed to that idea. White men would take over. They’ve been doing so for centuries—for as long as they could.
One of my doormen, who isn’t white, spoke vigorously at this point, which he’d talked about with others before: if white men are so bad, he said, he asks people to name a place where things improved after white men in charge were replaced by others.
Anyway, people seem to catch themselves in a discrepancy, presuming that white men want to take over, but earlier saying the vanilla stuff.
I offer that when many groups suggest that they suffer from others’ preconceived notions about accidents of their birth like skin color, sex, and sexual preference, others empathize and try to support them. When white men suggest they suffer from others’ preconceived notions about accidents of their birth like skin color, sex, and sexual preference, others often say, “Actually those are reasons you cause suffering to others.” They might add, “That you would think you suffer shows how little you understand what suffering actually means or the experience of genuine suffering.”
People look intrigued at this point.
I ask if they feel like they understand white men, but white men don’t understand anybody else. That notion appears familiar to them, apparently because history and school teaches about white men more than everyone else, so everyone learned about them, but they didn’t learn about everyone else.
I share that I don’t feel like because people in history books share my skin color and sex that they represent me. I don’t think Napoleon, Hitler, or Donald Trump represent me in the slightest.
Here’s the big point that I’m writing all the above to get to. I ask people:
Imagine if your entire life, every time you said you suffered, people said, “actually that’s an example of you causing others to suffer.”
How would that affect your life?
Or another version:
Imagine every time you said you worked hard at something, people said, “actually that’s an example of how easy your life is.”
How would that affect your life?
People so far have seemed to get that there’s something profound there that would trouble them if they experienced it. I don’t think they get that if they tried they could imagine the results.
White men seem to realize there’s something there that affects them that they hadn’t thought about.
Not that I’m a psychologist, sociologist, or whoever studies these things, but I feel like there’s something there.
More than one friend has warned me that although they know me and so understand me, I should be careful saying it with others since they might interpret me as promoted white supremacy or neo-Nazism. I’ve chosen not to preface all this writing with explaining how I’m not a white supremacist or neo-Nazi because no one would call anyone not white writing these things a white supremacist or neo-Nazi. To think someone with my background remotely white supremacist of neo-Nazi could only result from judging me for my skin color.
My main points, based on casual conversations with people in my social circle, so not a representative sample and subject to many biases, are that people seem to think they don’t harbor strong preconceived notions about white man and what ones they do they consider mild.
But when people explore their thoughts, I see consistent, strong preconceived notions.
On a personal note, it’s relieving for people to acknowledge that they probably have trouble accepting white men suffering as others do.
I don’t think people put the effort in to try to imagine a life where when you said you had a problem people said no, that’s you causing others problems or when you said you worked hard they said no, that’s you having it easy.
I recommend imagining it.
Anyway, just my thoughts exploring a perspective on life I hadn’t before, yet has been a part of every moment of my life.
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