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Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power Book Review



Mediocre sets out its stall straight away and without compromise. Although this might provoke the most fragile of egos, it would do so because, well, the truth hurts.


Ijeomo Oluo claims that “Our entire society is built to ensure that white men hoard power”; that “White male mediocrity seems to impact every aspect of our lives, and yet it only seems to be people who aren’t white men who recognize the imbalance” and that “By making whiteness and maleness their own reward, we disincentivize white men from working to earn their privileged status.” Some bold claims, some might say, but Olou brilliantly exposes the emergence of white male power, and demolishes any myths that suggest the contrary. The introductory chapter alone, I believe, could win awards for its thoroughness and eloquence. It not only sets the scene for her book, but contains some immediate, unavoidable truths:


“The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

It’s as much a call to white men to recognise their complicity in an unequal society as it is a galvanizer for those who are not white men. This is not as some silly white men inevitably suggest, a doctrine of white hatred. Oluo quickly points out how white mediocrity harms us all - even those from poor/working class backgrounds who are suppressed by the same systems. She often focuses her attack on the systems that encourage inequality, not all white men.


 

One thing this book dives into from the off is the origin of white supremacy in America. Her hypothesis is that it has much to do with cowboys. I really liked this chapter because it is not a perspective I ever would have considered. She explains how white men, doing as they pleased, ravaged "The environment, exploiting and erasing Native people, and pulling a gun on anyone who stands in their way.” As the American settlers colonised the Natives and worked the story of struggle and victory into school history books, the idea of American heroism, that entered on white male power, became one of the strongest identifiers of American culture.


The history is all there, and it fits the narrative well, but white male power exists in much of the western world and it isn’t all down to the Buffalo Bill fantasy. I remember reading Mary Beard’s Women and Power, a book devoted to exploring the link between power and classical texts. Similarly, perhaps the bigger picture may have been missed. I wonder if by focusing mostly on American politics, Oluo misses some universal truths that don’t just lend itself neatly to her narrative?




History is very kind to the memory of mediocre white men.


Chapter 2 is an important exploration into the centering of white men in justice movements. White men who do involve themselves in environmentalism, feminism or antiracism are more likely than others to be doing so to appease their guilt, or to obtain a sense of saviorism. Neither of these are selfless and, actually, that helpful. What Oluo does is critique the lives of two men, Dell and Eastman, who were apparent advocates of the feminist movement in their younger years.


“Eastman and Dell are not special outliers. They were two white dudes who came into a movement and made it about themselves...Mediocre, highly forgettable white men regularly enter feminist spaces and expect to be centered and rewarded, and they have been. They get to be highly flawed, they get to regularly betray the values of their movement, yet they will be praised for their intentions or even simply for their presence”.

I completely agree with her sentiment, although her insistence on thoroughly detailing these two people opened the possibility of some people reading it, only failing to see the ubiquity in this problem. Although I valued this book and would recommend it, I felt there were times when some histories were explored with almost too much detail. Regardless of what I thought, it is clear that white men should next expect rewards for doing what’s right and they should not be praised for their mediocrity.


The centering of whiteness is explored further in this chapter but Oluo remorselessly goes after Biden and Sanders, not without justification, I may add. It was certainly interesting to learn about Biden’s “bussing” policy, which changed on a whim to suit his election strategy. He says there is not a racist bone in his body but Oluo provides clear examples of him not supporting motions for equality for black people.


Sanders, often seen as the pinnacle of a white male ally, is also not so innocent. When he was asked directly about racial matters, especially about racial economic topics, the subject often pivoted back to class; we need, the line went, to look at issues that affect us all, and not just a few. This was demonstrated superbly by this:


“When he was asked about how to keep voters focused on the issues in the midst of Trump scandals, he replied, “I mean, I think we’ve got to work in two ways. Number one, we have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But equally important, or more important: We have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.” Oh man, fuck this. Seriously? Who exactly are these “ordinary Americans” whose issues are more important than the destruction of our environment and the systemic racism and sexism that are literally crushing women and people of color in this country? Hint: they don’t look like me.”

The chapter goes on to assess the angry white men who engaged with Sanders purely because of his classist approach, 12 percent of which ended up voting for Trump in the election. It must be stressed that some issues that affect women or people of colour, will not be addressed by focusing only on class, as Sanders often did.


 

This book centralises the racism experienced in America and, although I think it would have been valuable for me (not that this book was written specifically for me, like the entitled white man I am) to have more universal lessons to learn from, there are some transferable narratives. Chapter 3 discusses the education system in America and how it aims to keep people of colour segregated, if not entirely out of education. It reminded me of what I have read about regarding the lack of diversity in Oxford and Cambridge Universities, here.


In almost every chapter, Oluo refers to a collective response of white men that inevitably succeed any reference to race or equality. No better example of this can be found than in Chapter 4, which analysis the response of those who deem themselves to be “not-racist”. This is perhaps one of the most important chapters as it actively tries to dispel the myth of white non-compliance. White people are compliant, some more than others. And whilst some recognise it, some perpetuate damaging actions by naively denying it. I find the most impactful words are the ones that reflect personal, lived experiences and thankfully, this book provides them. One cannot deny the honesty that Oluo writes with.


“I do not seek out these angry white men. I don’t know any people of color who do. Yet they find us. They send us online messages out of the blue letting us know that they think they are better than us. They scream from cars telling us to go back to where we came from… I’m surprised at how those who claim they would be better off without us can’t seem to leave us alone.”

This section, which expands on the great migration and of how it sealed the fate of the American south off the back of its racism, is very interesting. It provides a succinct summary of how systems of disadvantage that impacted the lives of people of colour, also impacted the lives of white people. It’s just that white people felt entitled to climb up the hierarchy, whilst black people were all-too-aware of the place that society had put them in. Both sets of people were unempowered and exploited, but one still supported white supremacy and one did not.


One more thing to say on this chapter is that, for me, it included one of the most powerful paragraphs of the book as it perfectly illustrated how ineffective white liberalism can be.


“As I read the articles about Charleena and listened to police recordings of officers quickly deciding to end her life and endanger the lives of her children, I saw the anguish of her family on the news. I saw all of it and knew that liberal, self-identified “antiracist” white Seattle would share a few upset Facebook posts and that would be the end of it. There would be no marches that looked anything like the ones that took place in Ferguson. There would be no widespread cries for justice. And when it was determined that no charges would be filed against the two officers who shot Lyles seven times, there would be little outrage in the streets.”


 


The book goes on to talk about the impact white, male entitlement has on women, which reminded me of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez. Invisible Women details with expert precision the ways in which society has been set up by and for men. It also reminded me of Slay in Your Lane, a book that boldly chronicles the lived experiences of two black women. As Oluo states:


“The power and ego of entitled white men—who maintain firm control of the vast majority of government offices, manager’s offices, corporate boards, and other realms of leadership—remain the biggest obstacles that most women face in their careers.”

She supports this with the unavoidable facts that, in America, “Women are still paid significantly less than white men; Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic women barely earn half of what white men make. Surveys show that between 30 and 80 percent of women report having been sexually harassed in the workplace.” I have written a lot about feminism, intersectionality and racism in the workplace, but this remains one of the areas that some men just blindly ignore. Indeed, there are lots of examples of incredible insecurity by white men, such as not communicating with other women when a woman is in charge. A reminder that antiracism without a feminist approach is ineffective.


I really like her dedication to the past and present women of colour who are changing American politics for the better, despite the vast and persistent threats and challenges they experience. Oluo gives hope that women like Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib and Omar are speaking up for those who have been marginalised for centuries.


White men, on the other hand,


“They will be able to be the most radical without being branded as too radical. They can be the most violent without being branded as violent. The most racist without being branded as racist. They can focus almost exclusively on the needs of white men without being branded exclusionary or divisive. Women, people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ + people—they are afforded no such grace.”

Again, this is why white men need to speak up.



 


The book finishes with a chapter on sport; an thoughtful, interesting example of how white people react to black protest.


“When Black people threaten white authority, even mildly, there is often a price to be paid.”

Reading this, we can make glaring comparisons with how white and black people respond to protest. When black men have taken a stand in sport (and, generally), white men exploit their protests as an opportunity to make stereotypical comments of black aggression, and evoke white fear. This is a poignant end to the book - fear is surely one of the biggest drivers that uphold racism.


“Professional leagues, including the NFL, have given money and time to raise breast cancer awareness, to fight hunger, and to provide toys to poor children. When we look at the response to peaceful, unobtrusive protests against the killing of unarmed Black men, we need to ask ourselves why so many white Americans saw these protests as an insult.”

I will end this review by talking about Oluo’s conclusion. Have a read of this:


“So much of what makes a white male angry is the climb and the hierarchy.” But I think it’s more than just the climb. It’s the expectation that many white men have that they shouldn’t have to climb, shouldn’t have to struggle, as others do. It’s the idea not only that they think they have less than others, but that they were supposed to have so much more. When you are denied the power, the success, or even the relationships that you think are your right, you either believe that you are broken or you believe that you have been stolen from.”

I’ve said it before in this review and in other articles I have written, that white men often feel entitled. And this can have dangerous, even fatal consequences. In America, in 2017 there were 47,173 suicides in 2017. Of those, 70 percent were white men, and the rate of white male suicides is rising.


But, to go full circle, Oluo recognises that the systems of oppression that disproportionately affect people of colour, also exist for other minorities. As she said in her introduction, power can hurt anyone. Whilst marginalised groups usually feel the effects of white power, white men can too and, moreover, can also suffer because of aspiration of power.


“Now, as we reach the apex of hypercapitalism that makes it harder and harder for white men to hold out hope that all they’ve been promised will actually be theirs, we see their desperation lead to terrorism, self-harm, and the catastrophic destruction of our environment.”

Power, as it is, is not fit for purpose. It gives too few people too much responsibility and influence, whilst it simultaneously gives most people pain. The entitlement that white men feel inevitably causes anger and resentment when they don’t get it, and the suppression of marginalised people creates an even more direct route to disempowerment and suffering. White supremacy, capitalism and racism uphold these hierarchies that damage so many and if we are ever going to obtain equality for all, these systems (the core of which are all rooted in power) need to be torn down.


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