Was reading the Harper’s article on the women of the alt-right, and I was like, wow, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fascism stuff catches on in a bigger way. I don’t mean the outright Nazi stuff. I think most people will ignore that bitter core to the belief, but I do think that more and more the alt right is gonna learn (maybe with female influence?) to wrap that bitter core in a sweet, chocolate coating of racial resentment.
The reason they’ll be successful is that most white men believe, all else equal, that they are at a disadvantage when compared to women and people of color. I think this is a common belief in red states and rural areas and amongst less-educated people and Republicans and Fox News watchers, but, honestly, it’s scarcely less common in blue states and cities and amongst people with graduate degrees who listen to NPR. Here in San Francisco, I am fairly certain that if I were to sidle up to most white men and say, “You know what? The pendulum has swung too far, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s hard for a white guy to get a promotion,” they’d be like, “You know what? You’ve got a point.”
And the thing is, many of them would be cool with this state of affairs! They’d be like, “You know what? It’s fine. We’ve benefited from so many hundred years of oppression. It’s time for other people to catch up. So white guys will tread water, or even fall behind, for a little while, and women and ethnic minorities will have their time in the sun.”
There is this idea out there that, all else equal, non-white people have an advantage when it comes to hiring. Even liberal white people will be like, well, because of racial disparities and unequal distribution of wealth, not all people have the same opportunities, so at any given level it’s hard to find black people who meet the qualifications of a job, BUT if a black person reaches that level, then he or she will have an advantage over an equally qualified white person. Many men also believe something similar is true for a woman.
And I totally understand where this idea comes from. It’s what you hear on the news all the time. And it’s not just Fox News. If you listen to NPR, you’ll hear all about how there’s a need for diversity. You’ll hear CEOs and other decision makers and leaders telling you how desperately they want to hire diverse candidates. People will constantly be telling you that what they want is diversity, diversity, diversity.
So I don’t think you’re racist if you think (all else equal) non-white people have an advantage. I think this is a totally rational belief that is a reasonable response to the information you have been given. And I think it’s easier to have this belief when you’re not particularly successful.
For instance, I do think that men have an advantage over women in YA publishing. And yet I am certain that some men in YA believe the opposite: they think that because YA is a field dominated by women and by female readers, women have the advantage over men.
That too is a rational belief: if I look at bestseller lists, it’s all women. And my own career hasn’t taken off. Given that, it’d be sort of galling if somebody came up to me, as more than one person has, and said, “You’ll do fine in YA, you’re a man.”
And sometimes, when I read articles where best-selling authors complain about the sexism or racism they’ve experienced, I’m still like, welp, but it didn’t stop you from topping the charts, did it? I know it’s wrong, but it IS annoying to hear successful people complain about how tough they’ve had it (on the other hand, if they don’t complain, then who will? Because when unsuccessful people complain, it just gets chalked up to sour grapes).
So I get it. I totally get it. White guys, don’t worry, I’m not saying you’re racist just because you think you’re not gonna get the job simply because you’re a white guy.
These are two diametrically opposed beliefs: the belief that prejudice is still empowering traditionally-empowered groups; and the belief that affirmative action has leveled the playing field such that, all else equal, minorities now have the advantage. And yet it is very difficult, through one’s own experience, particularly if somebody is from a traditionally-empowered group, to tell which one is true.
But…I tend to come down on the side that traditional mechanisms of prejudice ARE still in ascendance, and that decision makers’ verbal commitment to diversity tends to break down precisely at the moment when they might actually need to make decisions to support it.
For instance, I first encountered these opinions in my MFA program. Our faculty was entirely white. Not a single non-white person on the permanent staff (this is still true, so far as I know), and yet whenever the white students discussed nonwhite students they’d be like, “Oh yeah, she’s certain to get a teaching job, because she’s black.”
Meanwhile, during the following three years, the program hired FIVE new professors. All were white, four were white men. Each time, the hiring committee was like, “We made an effort to find the best candidates. We really wanted a diverse hire. But the best person turned out to be so-and-so.”
And I realized something: the idea of affirmative action is itself a tool of racial oppression. The notion that nonwhite people find it easy to get jobs and get promoted means, paradoxically, that it’s seen as an act of moral courage to hire a white person. Because there is so much “pressure” to hire non-white people, hiring committees find themselves being like, “Welp, he’s a white guy, but I guess we can overlook that because he made such a good impression!”
In this way, the feeling of beleaguerment that white guys seem to have is itself turned into a tool for oppressing other people. And the thing is…that feeling seems to me to be so unnecessary. I mean I know some people are reading this blog post, and their hackles are going up, and they’re being like, “Here’s another person blaming white guys for the world’s troubles.”
And I mean in some sense I am, but I’m also not blaming any one specific white guy. It’s really not about specific white guys. It’s about systems. Like, even those guys with the tiki torches in Charlottesville: they’re not responsible for this system. They’re merely cogs within it, just the same as all the rest of us.
Even the word ‘system’ is maybe the wrong one, because I also don’t believe it’s in any sense mechanical or intelligent or organized. All we have here is a bunch of free-floating ideas that evolve and are perpetuated through something akin to evolution. And the ideas that tend to survive are the ones which modify individual behavior in a manner that perpetuates themselves. And this idea–the notion that white guys are, all else equal, at a disadvantage (which is a slightly different idea, I’ll note, than the idea that white guys are not in charge, overall, or that they’re not the most powerful group)–has perpetuated itself precisely because it gives white guys a reason for hiring more white guys! It has perpetuated itself because at the moment when you’re considering hiring a non-white person, you can tell yourself, well, actually, out of this slate of candidates, it’s the white guy who’s going to have the most trouble finding a job–the others are fine, they’ll land on their feet–so I’m going to hire Eric or Andrew or James or David. And as a result of this notion, more white guys land in positions of power and, thus, are able to spread this idea to their students, colleagues, and employees.
Now I’m sure that after reading my take, lots of people will be like, but…a white guy really DOES have to be twice as good as a non-white or female candidate in order to succeed. To which I’m like…okay, again, I don’t think that is a per se unreasonable belief to have. (I define a “per se unreasonable belief” as something so self-evidently false that I refuse to even argue about it, like the notion that black people are genetically inferior).
But maybe just look around? Is that really true? Because people talk so much shit about affirmative action, and yet I’ve noticed the opposite: non-white people and women who’re in positions of power tend to be way more organized and competent than white colleagues who hold equivalent positions. Furthermore, when hiring committees are offered a choice between a white guy and someone else, they will usually pick the white guy.
And that’s the end of the blog post.