What Are White Men Feeling in The Age of Woke?

What a time to be alive

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What a time to be alive. Despite the barrage of controversy our country endlessly endures under the Trump presidency, millennials are driving forward one of the most progressive or “woke” periods in our nation’s history (at least, in our generation’s collective memory). From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Jazz Jennings, and Anne Hathaway to Chrissy Teigen, activism, and advocacy for historically marginalized groups is arguably at an all-time high. Still, there is one group that has been painted in direct opposition to the many movements that have erupted in the age of Trump—white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian men.

While there are certainly White men who have made major strides for progressive movements, such as Tim Wise and the late Anthony Bourdain, some millennial white men have found themselves on the fringe of these movements—reticent to offer perspectives or contribute to driving the conversation forward for fear of losing relationships or being villainized.

“I don’t really have any attachment to being a white man,” said Dan Sevigny, 28. “[But] I have to choose my words carefully. Even though I don’t have any views that are against anyone, it makes me nervous to join the conversation and say something that might piss somebody off.”

While Sevigny suggests conversations around race, gender, class, and sexuality heighten his awareness of the potential fragility of others, a July 23rd New Yorker article, citing educator Robin DiAngelo, suggests that it is, in fact, “white people [who] lack the racial stamina to engage in difficult conversations”—not people from oppressed groups.

Perhaps, then, everyone is feeling and perceiving the eggshells (whether they’re self-imposed or derived from other people’s discomfort). So naturally, we struck up several conversations with white men to better understand their feelings about social justice movements and how they hope to become part of the solution.

Sevigny remains aware of the impact the recent societal “wokeness” has had on his personal relationships. An addiction-recovery specialist and founder of Recovery X, Sevigny avoids discussing sensitive topics at work to create a safe, healing space for the communities he serves. But he has found a way to join the conversation in some movements—namely the #MeToo movement.

“When the women’s marches were going on, I started a program called Women’s Fights to teach women free self-defense classes,” Sevigny said. “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have direct experience, but I know lots of women and could see this was a real thing they were experiencing.”

Still, racial movements have left some white men perplexed about how they can do more.

“With Black Lives Matter, I wanted to be there at those rallies to support, but I didn’t feel safe, and that was confusing for me,” Sevigny explained. “My one friend was on Facebook saying ‘kill white cops,’ and as a white guy, I don’t like to see ‘kill white people.’”

While Chris Raybon, 30, self-identifies as a “half-white, half-black” man, he also claims that “no group racial or otherwise—is central to” his personal identity. Thus, when reflecting on the role white men play and can play in a progressive society, he offers a nuanced perspective for white men who struggle to understand the source of anger and sometimes apparent hatred from marginalized groups.

When considering hateful and violent comments made towards white men (such as “kill white people”) Raybon suggests, “you can’t talk to every white man as if he’s the same—especially when it comes to highly sensitive and polarizing topics. For example, there are many white men who are racists, and many more who are not. You can’t talk to all white men like they’re racists or it won’t resonate and will just breed more anger and resentment. People are so many different degrees of woke. So you have to be careful not to mistake ignorance for malice.”

After gaining a deeper understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement via explanations from people of color, Sevigny shared that he realized that for many people of color, Whiteness symbolizes an oppressive “power,” and he “wished he would’ve gotten more involved” in movements to end that imbalance of power.   

On the flip side, Raybon also believes “white men have to understand that a lot of the vitriol is the same type of thing every other marginalized group has been dealing with for essentially the duration of our country’s history.”

“They have to understand that it’s usually not personal, it’s more of a cry for acknowledgment and for change from those with the power to bring change about,” Raybon says. “Just as a white man may feel it’s unfair to be labeled and treated as the oppressor for something they personally didn’t do, it’s unfair for a black person to be shot by a cop because of some stereotype about black people that doesn’t apply, or for a Mexican child to be taken away from his family through no wrongdoing in his control, or for a woman’s career trajectory to be thwarted by her failure to accept a sexual advance, or for a member of the LGBTQ community to be the victim of a hate crime for no other reason than some irrational phobia or religious belief.”

Explanations and perspectives like those provided by Raybon are precisely the types of “tools” Sevigny believes White men need to be provided to understand and “go [along] with” organizers of these movements.

Will Sturek, a 34-year-old white male actor, echoes Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, who says in her new book “people are hard to hate up close.” He suggests that one of the biggest chasms between white men and these movements is the lack of proximity to the experiences of marginalized groups.

“There’s this weird disconnect when it’s just on the television,” Sturek offers, referring to the harrowing stories of sexual assault against women and police violence against black and brown people. “You respond more when it’s friends and people that you know.”

Both Raybon and Sevigny echo the sentiment that all people—not just white men—will become more involved when it becomes personal.

“A lot of times when we start referring to large, general groups and terms like “oppressor” and “the oppressed,” the people we’re really talking about get dehumanized and the message doesn’t connect,” said Raybon. “Personal, human stories always connect.”

Sturek also challenges all men, especially white men, to go outside of their comfort zone to connect to these movements and stories with empathy. While many progressive conversations have surely taken white men to task, some of those same white men convey a sense of longing to understand and help solve the biggest challenges facing our generation.  

“For me, it’s more about understanding. You have to view it from the other side. If more people would do that, things would be much smoother in the world…for the rest of time,” Sturek chuckled out a lofty, but truly dreamy, solution.

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activism Racial politics Woke
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