The World As a Safe Space for White Men
Are any of us genuinely surprised by Trump’s bragging about sexually assaulting women while Billy Bush chuckles along like a buffoon? Of course not, least of all those of us who have experienced life as white males.
I guarantee you John McCain wasn’t surprised one bit, despite his feigned outrage, after more than a year of witnessing Trump’s horrible, bigoted behavior. Neither were the equally “offended” Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan and just about every straight white male spanning the political spectrum.
I know this because I’ve seen elements of Donald Trump in thousands of white men since I was a child: peers and authority figures, teachers and police, celebrities and politicians, friends and family and coworkers.
It’s not that women or men of color or gay or queer men aren’t capable of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, nor am I saying they’re not capable of being assholes in general. My point is that no other group does these things with such ease and confidence and prevalence as straight white men because no other group enjoys a seemingly universal immunity to the consequences.
For as much as conservative (and many progressive) white men, in particular, have come to love posting snarky tweets about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, there is no person more easily offended and so readily accommodated as the American straight white male.
No, not all white men, for those of you who so desperately need that disclaimer. Of course, I imagine white men who understand all this don’t need the disclaimer in the first place. They can take a macro view without personalizing the message: that white male privilege commands a consideration of white male hypersensitivity that simultaneously denies that consideration to everyone else.
Hell, simply exist as a woman who says “no” or a person of color who doesn’t laugh at your racist joke.
All of these and more are met with shrill and emotional ranting by straight white men online of all backgrounds. If you’re a woman saying these things, expect rape and death threats. If you’re black or Latinx or Jewish or AAPI or Muslim, prepare to have racist responses so vile that they border on parody.
None of this behavior comes from a place of strength; it is, at once, a combination of insecurity and a firmly-held entitlement to social comfort that is constantly enabled through privilege that, when violated, feels shocking.
It is why, for example, a man like Donald Trump can be so unnervingly confident as to believe he — unprepared, unqualified, unsatisfactory — would make a good president while also being so exasperatingly sensitive that a clever salvo by any woman has him waking up in a cold sweat at 3 am to rant on Twitter.
It is why every woman in America has experienced dealing with a mediocre, overconfident white male colleague as the coerced art of tolerating clumsy arrogance while having to anticipate — and prevent — hurt feelings over honest feedback or, you know, asking that the job be done.
It is why conservative white men will confidently adorn their social media accounts with American flags and guns and military iconography because all of these things supposedly represent strength and honor, but somehow, the sight of a black man exercising his Constitutional right to protest on a football field reduces them to sputtering messes claiming, essentially, that NFL games should be safe spaces.
It is why Matt Damon, for all of his “wonderful progressive wokeness” on other issues, nearly had a coronary when Effie Brown, a successful film producer and black woman, suggested there should be more diversity in a project they were considering.
From balking at claims of racism to stealing ideas from women in the workplace to claiming that you can sexually assault women because you’re a “star”, there is a continuum of aggressive and abusive behavior by white men that goes unchecked because of this unspoken assertion that the wants and needs and opinions of one demographic supersedes those of everyone else.
The world is a safe space for white men. The streets we walk, the places we work, the schools in which we study and teach, every police department and restaurant and city park, every form of public transportation, almost every channel on television, Congress, the Supreme Court, and, yes, even the White House currently occupied by our first black president, a man who has spent the last eight years reconciling his policy goals with racist white male lawmakers and constituents who can’t bear to see a black man in his position succeed.
We all know this. Those of us who have experienced life as white males, regardless of background, have two eyes and two ears and functional brains (though not always voluntarily), and regardless of what any one of us may claim, we can see the larger disparities. Maybe not the microaggressions or the smaller bits and pieces of white patriarchy that permeate every facet of society, but numbers do not lie and videos of black Americans being shot are crystal clear to anyone with sight, and we know — WE KNOW — what sexual consent means.
This is less a matter of ignorance and more an unyielding belief inculcated from an early age, however implicity— even if we didn’t ask for it — that the world is our oyster. Over and over and over again, we are told we can do anything, and if not anything, that we at least deserve to be the best at what we can do.
So, no, when I listened to Trump and Billy Bush engage in their third-tier, disgusting fratboy chatter, I was angry, but I was not surprised. Because as awful and unacceptable and predatory as his words are, I have heard far, far worse in my relatively shorter lifetime: as a child, in school, in the Army, at college, from perfect strangers on the street, in taxicabs and barbershops, you name it.
Wherever two or more white males are gathered, more often than not, this sort of thing can be expected. No, not all white men, but it’s often enough that even I, a white male, can feel my blood pressure rise and my stomach tense up when I get around a group of other white men — regardless of whether we know each other — and I wait for the other shoe to drop: the racist comment (thinly-veiled or not), the snapped whisper or loud shout to check out some random woman walking by, the time-honored tradition of insulting other men by implying they’re women or gay, and the list goes on.
And then, I have to decide: do I let that moment pass unchecked, or do I say something? How do I say it? Should I be gentle or aggressive? Is it worth it in that moment? By asking if it’s worth it or if I decide not to say anything, aren’t I making it harder for women or people of color or other LGBTQ folks (yes, my fellow queer white males, you’re responsible here, too) to navigate the world free of oppression?
Even I, as a white male, am pressured to respect the integrity of that white male safe space. I can’t begin to imagine how much harder it must be for folks who don’t look like me to negotiate those situations.
Regardless, the world is changing, and more to the point, America is changing.
Like the death of a once-glaring star, white patriarchy has become dim and obnoxious and bloated, devolving into an embarrassing, violent collapse that has been so shockingly on display this past decade.
The election of Barack Obama and imminent victory of Hillary Clinton, the first black man and woman, respectively, to lead the free world, have only hastened a demographic shift that is sweeping aside the last groans and eyerolls of a straight white male electorate that, historically, could not be bothered to consider other lived experiences.
And so, here is my advice for others who experience (or have experienced) life as white males (straight, gay, queer, non-conforming, however you identify): if you are inclined to fear these changes, you’re shit out of luck. The train is leaving the station, and it would be wise to reevaluate your life choices because it doesn’t get any easier from here. If you are cognizant of these oppressions and you care about them (and you should), call them out. Challenge these moments. Expect more from other white males. Listen. Listen again. Listen some more after that. Speak out. Support women and people of color and LGBTQ folks in leadership. Amplify their voices. Have the courage and strength to recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats.
None of us asked for the world to be our safe space, but if we truly care about equality, which means more than just lip service, we have a solemn obligation to challenge white male entitlement wherever it exists.
And really, it’s the very least we can do.
Charles Clymer is an Army Veteran and writer based out of Washington, D.C., where they live with their girlfriend and two cats. They proudly identify as gender-nonconforming and prefer the pronouns they/them. They have been published in several places and quoted by Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. You can follow them on Twitter here and on Facebook here.