March 8, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsLiterature

Quo Vadis, White Guy?

It’s a question that keeps coming back to me: Why are white guys so angry? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against white guys, being one myself. It’s just that the collective anger seems incommensurate with any cause.

On the whole we white guys aren’t making less money than others doing the same work. We aren’t barred from positions of power in business, politics, churches, or academe. Nor is it—and here I should specify that I’m talking about hetero white guys—that we’re not allowed to marry whom we want or even use the bathrooms of our choice.

Every so often I even hear calls to form some kind of organization to protect the interests of straight white males, but such an organization already exists; it’s called America.

Now, I do believe in America as a grand experiment in equality, human dignity, and social justice; but it’s an experiment still very much underway. We’ve even made some real progress since our beginnings when women weren’t allowed to vote, African Americans counted as three-fifths of a person, and indigenous peoples—many of them eliminated by genocide—counted even less. But these are pretty low bars to surpass.

It may be the case that those of my brother white guys who are beset with this anger are feeling somehow left behind by history. As Gloria Steinem recently said, “This past presidential election was partly a backlash against the challenge to and loss of outdated gender roles” (New York Times)—which recalls what Van Jones said on CNN on election night: “This was a white-lash against a changing country.” It may even be that this feeling of being left behind by history arises from actually being left behind by history, at least in part. Indeed, gender roles are quickly changing in our world of rapid technological developments, greater global consciousness brought about by digital media, the emergence of new forms of work, and the waning of older forms of labor—the latter of which can bring tremendous stress into one’s existence. Being an impoverished white guy includes many difficulties. There is plenty of room for compassionate understanding here. But compassionate understanding should be no excuse to slow down the rate of historical change. Try being an impoverished person of color or woman or LGBTQ person. There were times back in my twenties when, though I cannot say I was ever really impoverished, I struggled financially; and I cannot remember once thinking that if only I weren’t a straight white guy, it would have been easier—quite the opposite.

The last time I checked, our world was still pretty accommodating to hetero white males. If one’s basic expectation is the kind of special treatment that white guys received in the past, then I suppose the present might seem cruel. But that old ship has sailed, and it’s a good thing too; we need greater diversity in our world—people of diverse backgrounds, diverse points of view, diverse voices—if we are to survive and flourish.

As a lifelong student of literature, I often look to poetry for signs of the times. Although there are plenty of straight white guy poets whose work I admire, much of the more compelling poetry I encounter these days comes from persons of color, women, and persons whose sexual identity differs from the old heteronormative mold: John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Derrick Austin, Liz Acevedo, Natalie Diaz, Nathaniel Mackey, D. A. Powell, Nikky Finney, to name a few. Might it be that these persons coming from their various backgrounds and experiences have picked up on modes of beauty, power, and truth that the world desperately needs? (I ask this as a straight white male poet haunted by the very real possibility that much, if not all, of my work fails to speak in any relevant way to the present moment.) Anyone at all aware of where we are now should know better than to ignore the many, new, and various voices we need in our world. I don’t really think that history has left white guys behind, but too many of us are turning our backs on history.