In each of the last four workshops I have led on racism and white privilege, angry white men have made their presence known. In Butte, Montana, a participant became disturbed at “the softball questions” the other attendees directed at me and launched into a story about personal injury he had received at the hands of a person of color. In a class of third-year pharmacy students, a man declared through gritted teeth that the only thing that mattered was whether or not you worked hard. A GreatFalls participant demanded that I retract my “guarantee” that a person of color would have been treated far more harshly than was I when a policeman let me go even though I had been stopped for speeding late at night in a small, rural Kansas town while driving someone else’s car that did not have proof of insurance or registration. And a participant in a class of two-year college students responded to my description of the history of white privilege by asking, “Who ever said that life was fair?”
Back in the 1990s, I used to encounter angry white men in anti-racism workshops on a regular basis. In most cases they had been somehow required to attend the training either through a work obligation or a religious expectation. In almost every instance, those who spoke up tried to disrupt or derail the presentation, often by trying to take over the rhetorical space. One participant attempted to shut down the entire training program because, in the end, he felt threatened by an analysis of racism that focused on privilege and power.
During those years, we did not yet have the language of microaggression, white fragility, or toxic masculinity to describe what was going on. My colleagues and I did develop strategies for addressing the training dynamic introduced by angry white males:
- a white male from our training team was always the first responder;
- we never went more than two times over the net with any one participant;
- sometimes we would request a one-on-one conversation with the participant at the next available break rather than continue a plenary debate.
These methods de-escalated the immediate tension and allowed the workshop to proceed. They did not, however, get to the underlying root of the issue: that angry white men acted like their reality should define everyone else’s.
After the last four workshops, I have begun to wonder if I am doing any better these twenty some years later.
To be certain, the angry white men I have encountered in these last several weeks appear to have been emboldened by a political climate in which belligerent and bellicose behavior in public is being modeled by a sitting U.S. President. Pundits are lauding such behavior on national television as a reasonable response to the perceived excesses of political correctness. In the 1990s, I could not have imagined a future in which a former White House chief strategist would declare in public that the label of a racist should be treated as a “badge of honor.”
So I have begun to do the following:
- explain that I am not trying to convince anyone of anything in a 60–90 minute workshop. Instead, I want to simply be certain that my ideas are understandable. With nothing to push against, invariably the angry white men begin to look deflated;
- treat every question — against all evidence and common sense — as genuine, devoid of malice, and worthy of a response. Again, this takes participants off guard. They seem to listen better when I respond in this manner as opposed to ignoring them, calling out their behavior, or shutting them down;
- appeal to the patriotism of participants by explaining that if we cannot hold true to the values of democracy, full participation, and inclusion that we claim as a nation, we might as well close up shop and go home.
A week after I spoke at the two-year college, I was in a meeting with the professor who had invited me to speak in her class. She said, “I had an odd experience. Remember the white male who got so angry?”
“How could I not,” I replied.
“Well, he came up to me later and apologized for his behavior.”
“Really?” I said.
“Not only that,” she explained, “but when I asked him if he was satisfied by how you had responded to his questions, he said that he was. And,” she added, “he told me he had learned something.”
I think that this man may have been somewhat of an exception. Epiphanies after such brief encounters are not only rare but also usually short-lived.
Yet, at the same time, as someone who has been — and still occasionally is — an angry white male, it is my job to find ways to connect with, challenge, and invite angry white males to consider other ways of viewing and responding to the world. Until other white men and I do so, we will only find the voices and actions of angry white men ever more shaping our world.