“White male privilege” and the Civil War

October 29, 2018 by Joshua
in Freedom, Models, Nonjudgment

Frances Hesselbein is a hero and mentor to me. Her TED talk’s bio is too brief to covers all her achievements, but gets the top ones:

One of the most highly respected experts in the field of contemporary leadership development, Frances Hesselbein is the President and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, founded as The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and renamed in 2012 to honor Hesselbein’s legacy and ongoing contributions.

Mrs. Hesselbein was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor, in 1998 for her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976–1990, as well as her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.” Her contributions were also recognized by the first President Bush, who appointed her to two Presidential Commissions on National and Community Service.

I’d copy the Awards section from her Wikipedia page, but it’s too long!

Her birthday is this week and I watched West Point’s Center for Oral History’s interview of her, titled, “There Are No Challenges, Only Opportunities.” She recounts many of her lessons and stories from her life. I recommend clicking and watching. She recounts a story I’ve heard from her in person starting about the 32:00 minute mark. Here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: A few minutes ago you mentioned that the Army and public education are very important to the American democracy. Could you touch on the connection between the U.S. Army and democracy?

Frances Hesselbein: Yes. We were able to have a democracy because in 1776 we were determined that this was our country, and this was America, and so…when you think of the Founding Fathers, who sat around the table, as different as they were. At that time, George Washington is seated, and he has 314 slaves. Beside him was my ancestor, John Adams, who never owns a slave.

Not even one slave. Now, all of those men sat around the table; as different as they were, they were able to build a nation. What was it, 36 or 37 years later, we fought a bitter Civil War so that we would not have slavery, and I had six members of my family who were Union soldiers, and we have a trunk of their letters. And William writes home, “Dear Mary, I know why I’m here; to save the Union and free the slaves.” But that was what they said.

To each other. And when you think how hungry they were at times, and how hungry their families were. We have some touching letters from Mary and William, and Mary talks about sometimes it’s so hard to find enough food. These six Pringle brothers all went, and they left wives and babies on six remote farms. So he writes, “Dear Mary, as soon as it’s springtime, be sure you plant potatoes. They will be very good for you, and you can save them all winter in the dirt cellar.”

Now, when we look at our wars, and we remember what happens to our families, we need to be so sensitive, so appreciative. They sustain the democracy, and have since the very beginning.

I got to thinking about the six brothers who lived on farms, didn’t own slaves, and left their families to fight in the Civil War. They voluntarily risked their lives to fight for the freedom of people they never met.

Frances’ story reminded me that I read the word privilege a lot in the media and from NYU, where I teach—in particular, “white male privilege.”

Frances’ ancestors risking their lives, even if all the men in the family, were just one group. How about the Union army in general?

American military deaths

I found the following, which showed that over two million men served the Union, nearly half the eligible men. They were mostly white men who didn’t own slaves. I suspect a negligible number of women served in the military, let alone died fighting to free slaves.

civil war deaths

How does one reconcile 2.1 million white men risking their lives—28% of them killed, wounded, captured, or missing—with saying they are privileged?

Needless to say, compared to tens of millions of slaves, even two million others risking their lives is small, though not negligible, and many Confederate white men fought to keep slavery. But the northerners who fought and died didn’t own slaves. And a negligible number of women fought.

How do these millions of white men fit into the story of being privileged?

The Civil War was just one war—the nation’s deadliest—but many men died in other wars. Just considering American military deaths in those wars:

casualties by war

I don’t normally talk about race and sex this way, but matching the language of people who talk about “white male privilege,” I understand the deaths were mostly white men, though non-white men become over-represented by the Vietnam war.

I’m not sure the breakdown in military deaths between men and women in all those wars, but I found this table of Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics from the National Archives:

Gender Number of Records
Male 58,212
Female 8
Total Records 58,220

8 out of 58,220 says that 0.01% of U.S. military casualties were women.

White male privilege

I searched “white male privilege.” The first link, 5 Signs That White Male Privilege Is Alive And Well, contained this passage:

Bringing up white male privilege (or white privilege to many women, too) almost inevitably triggers a counterargument that basically follows the following format: 1) Said white dude defends the fact that he has worked very hard to get where he is. 2) White bro then proceeds to tell you exactly what his specific hurdles have been and how he navigated them. 3) He finally concludes that based on his personal experience, he is immune from being part of wide-sweeping systematic privilege. Bonus points if he somehow throws in that women and minorities have received help that he, a white man, didn’t get.

You’ve heard some version of this, I’m sure. It’s a conclusion that can only be reached by someone who wholly rejects well-established studies of feminism and race, so trying to bring them to a level to suddenly accept these disciplines is almost futile. What you can do, though, is present some real world examples of how white men are better set up to succeed in society. It doesn’t always work, but you can at least see them work a little harder through their Olympic level mental gymnastics routine.

Setting aside her dismissive and snarky “white dude” and “white bro,” how does someone like that writer settle “white male privilege” with millions of white men fighting, hundreds of thousands of them dying, injured, or missing, to free slaves of others?

Is this issue only in the past?

I remember receiving on my 17th birthday a letter from the government that neither of my sisters received, telling me I had to register by my next birthday. I’m curious if she knows that this nation orders every man to register with Selective Service, making him eligible to be drafted to risk his life.

How does she reconcile the draft and millions of, as she might put it, white bro’s service and deaths? Are there laws requiring women to risk their lives that have resulted in millions of their deaths (hundreds of millions going outside the U.S.)?

Some may call it a privilege to serve, but I’m not asking about the privilege to choose to serve but the legal obligation of the draft to serve whether you want to or not.

Here’s a sample letter I found. I’m not sure if it was actually sent, but I’m sure many boys and men, and no girls or women, received letters with similar wording and threats (my emphasis):

Dear Sir,

This is to bring to your notice that, as you have completed your 18 years of age on 11st May 2014, so as a rule under United States Law, you need to get yourself registered under the Selective Service System of the country.

As you know selective service system maintains the data of all male U.S. citizens and male immigrant non-citizens between the ages of 18 and 25. It is absolutely essential that every male above this age has to register with the selective service system to authenticate citizenship in the United States. Failure to register yourself under this may also lead to cancellation of your United States citizenship and consider you as a foreigner.

As we already have a copy of your birth certificate stating that you were born in New York on May 11th 1996 at New York State Hospital, which clearly shows that you have completed your 18years of your age on this 11th of May 2014.

Please consider this letter as a reminder to register yourself with the Selective Service System. Look forward to your registration by June 10th 2014, else you should be prepared for consequences that may be severe.


Wilson John
Selective Service System

Don’t women suffer too?

Hillary Clinton said,

Women have always been the primary victims of war.

which sounds remarkably insensitive to men who serve and die, until you read the next few words

Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.

which puts the insensitivity to men far beyond merely remarkable. Does she believe that women’s suffering is greater because they lived? Does dying not count as suffering?

Even concluding that women’s suffering is greater for living doesn’t make sense. If their suffering was a fate worse than death, then they could choose to stop living, but they don’t. And we don’t know the men’s suffering before they died, though we can bet that few were humanely killed. How many survivors come back with PTSD, lost limbs, and other injuries?

I imagine the statement lost her many votes, and not just from men. I was surprised to read from the same source that the United Nation Security Council in 2000 arrived at a similar conclusion, stating that “civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict.”

What do people with such beliefs make of stories like this one in the Guardian in November 2017:

Male rape and sexual torture in the Syrian war: ‘It is everywhere’

When Sarah Chynoweth was asked to report on sexual violence against men and boys in the Syria crisis, she had no idea of the scale of the problem

A passage from the article:

I met one man who suffered from painful and debilitating injuries as a result of sexual torture, and a few aid workers said anal injuries were not uncommon for men who had been detained.

The accounts were heart-rending and horrific. They were also abundant. At a large refugee camp in Jordan, I met a group of women who were eager to talk about the issue. According to them, men and boys are routinely sexually abused during detention in Syria, a comment echoed by other refugees, and scores of men had been detained by different armed groups. I asked them to guesstimate how many men in the camp had undergone sexual violence while in detention. They said, “Between 30% and 40%. We cannot think of any family who doesn’t have someone [who was detained and sexually abused].”

Other refugees told me how armed groups would conduct raids on homes, during which “they raped everyone” – both women and men. I heard that phrase a number of times from refugees across the three countries.

Is the Syrian War an outlier? I don’t know.

Before and after Michelle Obama and others brought media attention to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and torturing 276 schoolgirls in April 2014, they had killed and tortured many times that number, often focusing on men and boys, which didn’t garner media attention, despite being in larger numbers.

This February 2014 article, Nigerian boarding school attack by Boko Haram gunmen leaves 59 pupils dead, officials say, reported in the headline that “pupils” died. Paragraph seven noted, “The police chief said all the victims in Monday’s attack were boys.”

Are these stories outliers or is it possible the suffering of men and boys is more systematically underreported? And that when it is reported it’s downplayed?

Are other views possible?

I’m not saying the above is the last word. There are many related points of view. I’m only asking how the proponents of the concept of white male privilege reconcile their conclusions with this history.

Is it possible that they missed some experiences and perspectives?

Is it possible that white men aren’t as homogeneous a group as they suggest? Are the white men who fought against slavery basically the same as those who fought for it? If not, how do they group them (us) all together? What are the effects of grouping all white men as one unit?

Is it possible that white men suffer in ways the proponents of white male privilege don’t recognize?

The article referring to white men as “white dudes” and “white bros” cited the current leader of the United States as the first sign that “white male privilege is alive and well,” stating

Need any proof that white dudes can do whatever they want? Think about this for a moment: Our current president, who had absolutely zero experience in politics, was elected even after it was revealed that he was racist and misogynistic.

“White dudes can do whatever they want”? Is she suggesting that Donald Trump represents all white men and no one else?

If Frances’ “white dude” ancestors and their millions of comrades at arms could do whatever they wanted, what does risking death to undo slavery count for?

If they and the hundreds of millions of men who have had the legal responsibility to sign up to follow them didn’t want to die, is it possible there is more to the story?

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