Why We Need to Talk About White Male Violence
Memorial to Ms Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, March 2021. Photograph by Ms Mary Turner/New York Times/Eyevine
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a white man. I am one – have always been one – so it’s maybe unusual that it’s suddenly at the forefront of my mind. But after what seems like endless bouts of doomscrolling the news, reading about police killings, kidnap, Asian hate and worrying sexual harassment stats, it’s given me pause to reflect on where I fit in to it all. More than anything, I keep thinking back to a powerful interview that the academic and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Professor Toni Morrison gave. In a clip from 1993 that circulated widely last summer when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, Morrison is speaking to the talk show host Mr Charlie Rose, who asks her whether she is a “victim” of racism. Morrison explains to Rose that he’s posing the wrong question, and instead flips the conversation to focus on the white people who practise racism and asks, “how do you feel?”
She continues, “If I take your race away and there you are, all strung out and all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. Part of it is, ‘Yes, the victim, how terrible it’s been for black people’, I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one… If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
Fanboying over Toni Morrison comes easy, but this message has stuck with me.
Though Morrison’s interview took place nearly 30 years ago, her words are just as relevant today. Sadly, it seems we still only focus on the victims of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia rather than the culture that allows for and even encourages it. When tragedies such as the shooting of six Asian American women in Atlanta, Georgia or the murder of Ms Sarah Everard occur, it’s common to turn to other people of Asian descent or other young women to talk us through the fallout. This is important, but it puts the onus of the discourse on the victims, when we need to be talking about the perpetrators. In other words, there’s a whole conversation we’re not having here – and it involves white men.
“There’s a whole conversation we’re not having here – and it involves white men”
Before you let your ego cloud your judgement, it’s important to look at the reality. Trans people are not bullied and murdered by other trans people; they are, overwhelmingly, bullied and murdered by cisgendered people (cisgender describes a person whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex). The vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence against women (and against men) are, also, not women. In the year leading up to March 2020 in the UK, 84 per cent of victims relating to sexual offences were female. A woman is killed by a man every three days in England and Wales. Serial killers are, overwhelmingly, white men. The numbers are there. So how has it happened that we speak about “violence against women” without even mentioning who is committing that violence?
Dr Jackson Katz, an educator and expert on male violence (and a white man) sums it up well in a 2013 TedTalk: “We talk about how many women were raped last year, but not about how many men raped women,” he said. “So you can see how this passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term violence against women is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at the term violence against women, nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it.”
This practice of taking the responsibility off men has the effect of giving men an excuse to not pay attention. But what has become increasingly clear is that it is men (particularly white men) who need to be talking about it, not least because in most patriarchal societies, our words hold weight.
This is where the reflexive “not all men!” can tend to creep in, but I encourage you to resist the kneejerk urge. We all want to be perceived as good people, but when the numbers look like this, how can we be under any illusion about who the blame lies with? Of course, not all of us are rapists or sexists or murderers – and nobody, truly nobody, is suggesting this – but if the white-man tree is consistently producing rotten apples, we have to consider that there are some problems at the roots.
“Of course, not all of us are rapists or sexists or murderers, but if the white-man tree is consistently producing rotten apples, we have to consider that there are some problems at the roots”
For a lot of guys, it’s hard not to take it personally when someone calls out your gender and your race as problematic. You didn’t choose to be born male, you didn’t choose your race, why should you be blamed for the actions of others? What’s worth remembering is that this is all much bigger than us as individuals – we live in a society, after all, which is governed by forces larger than ourselves. In her new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy Of White Male America, Nigerian-American bestselling author Ms Ijeoma Oluo writes: “The greatest evil we face is not ignorant individuals, but our oppressive systems.” This is something that bears repeating if you feel a little hurt when someone points out a home truth about white people or men.
Plus, when we take it personally, we miss the point. Speaking recently on a podcast with The Cut, Oluo puts it incredibly well: “I think it’s very easy for white men to feel targeted because they are the biggest threat, but our identity isn’t built on vanquishing them.” She also had some really hopeful advice to give: “I wish that white people were less pessimistic about their ability to grow. White people who get that something’s wrong need to be having conversations in whiteness about, ‘What could we be? What could we offer up? What identity could we have, that isn’t tied to oppression and exploitation and violence? What could we create?’”
Unpicking the systems in which we were brought up is difficult, especially when those systems could be benefitting us. But we have to start looking deeper – what we’re doing now (essentially nothing, except putting more cops on the beat) isn’t enough. And so, when we talk about the murders of eight people including six Asian women in Atlanta this month – and when the officer held a press conference and said that the man who shot these innocent people dead had “a really bad day, so this is what he did” – we need to realise that we’re really talking about the entitlement of white men. We’re talking about the distorted anger and psychosis that this entitlement breeds, and the terrorism (let’s call a spade a spade) that follows. So why is it that the focus is on the victims of this violence and not on the people who are doing it and the systems that they are a product of? And why aren’t more of us speaking up about it?
It’s easier said than done. In the online swamp of Twitter and clickbait and short attention spans, it’s easy to get into messy, thorny territory. You don’t want to feel like you’re talking over someone or just trying to prove you’re “one of the good ones”. But staying quiet means that we’re also complicit, and I’ve reached a point where I’d rather openly say that I care, and get it wrong sometimes, than just sit back and pretend everything is fine.
“We need to work out how to be a part of the solution without relying on everyone else to educate us”
We also need to work out how to be a part of the solution without relying on everyone else to educate us. We can make a start by challenging other white men on their racism and misogyny, and by examining our own identities and how whiteness and maleness shapes our experiences of the world. It can be terrifying to look back at things we may have done in the past that we didn’t realise were damaging at the time, or that may have made someone else feel uncomfortable. But confronting these things is the only way to move forward.
In practice, moving forward means doing your research and looking around and thinking, “Huh, why is my entire social circle made up of other white men like me?” It means reading more books by black women and looking at who you follow online. It means getting into the habit of calling out your guy friend who talks about women in a demeaning way. If you find out he’s a raging misogynist and it harms your friendship, is it a friendship worth maintaining? Reflect on how your position at work as a white man perhaps gives you the power to make things better for the people of colour in your workplace. In other words, if you are in a position to do so, do your part to make racism and sexism as socially unacceptable as you can.
Because, at this point, how can we possibly sit back and say nothing? How can we read the news that 97 per cent of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment without doing some serious soul-searching? How can we accept that the women in our lives avoid jogging after dark for fear of being raped and murdered without screaming ourselves sore at how unjust this is? Is it really because we don’t care? I think a lot of us do care. But that isn’t enough, we’ve got to start showing it. There’s plenty of work to do.