Why Are ‘Liberal’ White Men Asking Us To Stop Fighting For Our Rights?
Here’s what the world needs less of right now: “liberal” white dudes deriding the marginalized for having the audacity to fight for equal rights.
I’ve rolled my eyes at Mark Lilla, who wrote “The End Of Identity Liberalism” for The New York Times; Kevin Drum, who wrote “Let’s Be Careful With the ‘White Supremacy’ Label” for Mother Jones; and Cal Newport, who wrote “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It,” also for The New York Times.
That the conservative movement has embraced an anti-diversity party line is nothing new (though the egregiousness of its current stance is startling). That many Democrats have decided to embrace this platform as well, in an apparent effort to expand their power, is deeply troubling.
Indeed, the parallels between the conservative and liberal movements right now are chilling: On both sides, white men are controlling the narrative. And on both sides, these narratives are relying on the scapegoating of minority groups, and the repudiation of a fight for civil rights (because, to be clear, “identity politics” is code for civil rights).
How can we have a conversation that actually progresses the liberal cause when the white men whose voices have always been privileged over everyone else’s are actively fighting to maintain the status quo? Why are major, ostensibly liberal news outlets allowing these men to take center stage?
And: Why is no one listening to those who stand to suffer most under a Trump presidency?
Taken collectively, the recent white-men-take-on-minorities stories present a picture of a party moving in a dangerous direction. Taken separately, they provide glimpses into the specific ways liberals are turning against the marginalized.
In his piece, Cal Newport, the millennial computer scientist, brags about his lack of social media accounts — the 2016 equivalent of the classic curmudgeonly line, “I don’t own a TV.” Newport argues that we should all just disconnect:
“In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.”
Yes, Newport, who doesn’t engage with social media at all, is here to tell the rest of us that the content we create and the time we spend using social media is worthless. To support his argument, he offers up the success he’s experienced during his own career as a cisgender, heterosexual white man in academia. “In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle.”
What Newport fails to realize is that social media has proven to be a way around the gatekeepers that have traditionally waved him through while halting the progress of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and those with disabilities. If he’d been hanging around on Twitter and Facebook with the rest of us, he’d have witnessed how folks like Luvvie Ajayi grew a blog through frequent social media use that led to a book that became a New York Times best seller. Hers is a successful career that was 13 years in the making — 13 years of hard work that Newport has diminished to “low-value activity.”
For Newport, social media is a negative force in one’s life because, “A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”
I cringed when I read that line. It’s as if Newport is entirely unaware of the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe he thinks it’s just a hashtag and not the real-life struggle of Black people to convince this nation that our lives matter. When you’re a white man and your life is a series of reflections of white male greatness — accurate or not — you have the luxury of dismissing the need to feel as if you matter to the world. It’s amazing that not once in this essay does Newport make a single attempt to get intersectional or to consider that what he counts as social media’s chief weakness — helping people center the value of their lives — is also its most incredible strength.
Mark Lilla comes off as equally ignorant, blaming Trump’s ascent to power on diversity instead of racism. This incredibly problematic view, based on his narrow white male perspective, has been roundly, and rightly, denounced. Damon Young, editor-in-chief for Very Smart Brothas, recently took Lilla to task in a brilliant takedown:
“The wrongness of Lilla’s premise is centered in a very specific type of White male myopia that, because he’s an academic, he believes himself immune to. Although he rails against ‘the bubble,’ he’s a product of it. The concept of ‘diversity’ — of wanting it recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated — isn’t just some sort of classroom rhetoric or academic thought exercise. The recognition of and sensitivity to it is vital because it literally saves lives.”
You’d think the biting responses to Lilla and Newport might dissuade other white men from dismissing and blaming minority groups fighting for their rights. Instead, in the wake of those pieces, Kevin Drum tumbled into the conversation with a piece for Mother Jones that chided us for our reckless usage of the term “white supremacy.” Drum also took it upon himself to defend Bernie Sanders, who recently got into hot water for pushing back on “identity politics” and suggesting people of color and women are incapable of fighting for their humanity and literally any other issue at the same time.
In his remarkably poorly researched think piece, Drum explained how our use of “white supremacy” is an overreach:
“Petty theft is not the same as robbing a bank. A lewd comment is not the same as rape. A possible lack of sensitivity is not a sign of latent support for apartheid. Bernie Sanders is not a white male supremacist.”
Guess he didn’t catch this piece on white supremacy from Ijeoma Oluo in September:
“I’m not willing to create a safe space for you to be able to elect White Supremacy into law without being called what you are: an unabashed, willful proponent of White Supremacy. There is no ‘middle ground’ to be found here. There is no ‘compromise’ between equality and violent White Supremacy. And there is no ‘gentler way’ of confronting racism when my basic humanity as a woman of color is not enough to sway you against electing a regime that is built on the hatred and fear of people who look like me.”
I again cringed when Drum further explained that, “This isn’t just pedantic. It matters” — as if we’re the ones who need to be reminded that racism and white supremacy are more than just words to be flung around by liberals when discussing conservatives and the “alt-right.” Yes, it matters, and so do our lives, which are feeling precarious in a way that the lives of white men are not as we head into a Trump presidency.
And here’s the thing: what Drum highlights about Sanders’ views isn’t anything we don’t already know. We are not clamoring for diversity for diversity’s sake — one Clarence Thomas is enough. We’re fighting for qualified individuals who understand our issues to stop getting passed over because their skin has more pigment than tartar sauce. Sanders is acting as if we can all just safely assume that if a liberal white man is asking for our vote, then he can be trusted to make working class interests a priority. A history full of white male leaders have proven that to be untrue, yet Sanders is advising us that it’s the Latinas who deserve second guessing.
Drum is defending Sanders without at all considering that maybe, as white men, neither should be trying to define what is or isn’t white supremacy, or who should or shouldn’t be able to have their needs addressed by their elected officials.
The worst part is that all of these white men are acting as if they’re the voice of reason in this post-election political fallout, when really all they’re doing is shouting for whiteness to be re-centered in our politics.
But just because the men we’re hearing from can’t seem to figure out how we can advance equality in this nation and win elections, doesn’t mean there isn’t a way. It just means the wrong people are being turned to for the answers. Big-name publications are highlighting those who will be affected very little by the Trump administration, when what they should be doing is looking to those of us most affected by injustice. They should be letting us decide what is or isn’t too great a political sacrifice for justice for all. They should be elevating our voices.
It’s disheartening that with the information that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, the Democratic party isn’t doubling down on diversity. Instead, their thought leaders are starting to echo the calls of the Right to “make America great again” with a return to focusing on a group that is only going to continue to get smaller: the white working class. (And to be clear, this isn’t about the working class itself, since that group is racially diverse, and only getting more so; it’s about, specifically, white people in the working class who white politicians are clearly focusing on.)
There are a number of steps the Left should be taking right now to regain political power — and chastising the marginalized citizens of America who’ve supported them for wanting our humanity recognized isn’t one of them. We didn’t fail the Democratic party, the Democratic party failed us . . . again.
The Right isn’t concerned about my interests at all, and with it becoming increasingly clear that the Left is leaning toward shoving them aside, I’m finding it easier to understand those who opt out of voting completely. The written responses following the election have been discouraging, and I hope soon, the Democratic party recognizes that it is possible to make real progress a priority in politics — otherwise, what’s the point?
It’s probably too much to ask that white men keep their out-of-touch advice to themselves in 2017 — so I, unlike Newport, will continue to soak in all the diverse voices that flood my social media and continue to read sites like The Establishment that give women and writers of color a platform to be heard.