Examining what it means to be a white man is not typically what comes to mind when thinking about how race and gender shape individuals and society. However, with white men making a significant difference in the US presidential election and with increased awareness of police shootings of black citizens in the US, we’re undeniably refocusing the lenses of gender and race with white men clearly in view. Spaces are trending about white people challenging racism and spaces that invite discussion of gender norms for men and folks of any or no gender identity. But what does it look like to create a space for addressing whiteness and masculinity, with particular attention on white men? Social activist Mitch Lewis was wondering just this question when, in January 2016, he created Questioning White Masculinity, a project on Facebook with 150 members and rising.
Questioning White Masculinity (QWM) is “a radical space to put white masculinity under the microscope and build an ideological and practical framework for mounting broader, more natively-based challenges to it, (i.e. by white men themselves).”. Crowded in a corner of a Boston café, Lewis told me how he arrived at founding this space, where he locates hope for white men in racial and gender equity activism, and how the recent election is like the “boss level” in a video game.
Not surprising, Lewis gets a lot of his ideas about masculinity from his father, whom he describes as “open-hearted and warm…not like dads of most of the people I know – stand-offish, cold, shaming me when I was weak or when I cried.” I asked how he thought his dad was able to defy gender norms when clearly many of his peers were complicit to them. Lewis believes that it had to do with class and career status. Coming from a privileged class background (his father was a lawyer and his grandfather was in real estate in NY), Lewis’ father may have gained social permission “to have feelings” and to name his feelings of guilt. Lewis emphasized how lucky he feels to have grown up as he did with a dad who wants to address guilt and who often said: “if I’m not feeling guilty then I might be a psychopath; people who don’t feel guilty can do the things that Stalin and Hitler did.”
As far as ideas about race and whiteness are concerned, the 35-year-old Cambridge, Massachusetts native looks back on his youth where he recalls, “a whole lot of what I did was a lot of not wanting to be white.” He speculates that, “If, as a white guy, you really take stock of things as they are and you listen to other people and you face that, there’s inevitably going to be a huge amount of alienation.” I found myself struggling with this concept.
As Lewis sees it, “white men are born into a situation where we are told it is our birthright to occupy space and inhabit the world as we do, as people with multiple privileges. Those of us that ask questions about the status quo generally find that the more we question things, the bigger the gap becomes between the way things should be and the way we begin to find out that they really are. We most often grow up with the privilege of not having to be conscious of this. Plus we don’t get a chance to consent to our lack of consciousness.”
Okay, but alienation?
“The alienation can come from the feeling that all this time you didn’t know the truth, but it can also come from what happens when you start to question things that everybody around you takes for granted. We may become alienated from people and things that we once felt intimately tied up in, and vice versa. What happens when you start calling out friends that you had for years on their racism and sexism? What if they are not receptive to your criticisms?”
This brings us to Questioning White Masculinity. Lewis created the group because he “wanted to make a space where ANYBODY could come and speculate about the subject, in a space that welcomes it and wants to amplify it…where white men who are ready for this discussion should come, too.”
My immediate thought was what about men who perhaps aren’t ready for that discussion?
A large number of white guys would not feel at all comfortable in a space like QWM, from Lewis’ perspective. From the group’s Facebook page, what transpires is that QWM appears to be drawing social-justice-conscious folks engaging in in-depth conversations grounded in a strong working knowledge of the politically-correct language. Lewis has just begun developing a second space for the conversation that he doesn’t see being had.
“This other space is key to me because, in my journey, I can remember hundreds of times I didn’t get something because of my privilege; it protected me from certain realities and I didn’t understand why people were getting angry at me. If you’re a white man in this country, unless you grew up in a feminist family like I did, and I still have those moments- there’s just an abysmal cosmic separation of consciousness.”
He gave examples such as “the guy who says ‘ALL lives matter!’ or the guy who voted for Trump who says ‘I’m not racist or sexist…but Trump will shake up the establishment!’”
I gave a tired, exasperated sigh, to which Lewis said: “And that’s why it’s got to be white men. We have more space.”
Undoubtedly, there is a fine line here. On one side there’s the risk of white men further taking up social and political space by establishing this conversation for and by white men only. On the other, there’s the risk of white men remaining silent and unconscious to privilege and its impact. The implicit expectation in this latter side of the line is that people of color, women, and gender minorities will both educate white men and find space for personal and group self-care.
Lewis locates hope for the future of white men looking for spaces like QWM in this way: “It’s harder to disentangle yourself from belonging to a world of multiple identities now due to internationalization, capitalism, and women coming into positions of power.”
I had to ask about the US election, though. Couldn’t one argue that Trump’s victory is a sign that progressive movements lost to bigoted hatred and fear?
According to Lewis, the election is a sign that progressive movements are winning because, as a friend of his declared recently, “in a video game they send the boss at you when you’ve made progress and you’re winning.” While a social equity win is not necessarily inevitable, feminist activism and the Black Lives Matter movement irrefutably exist and continue to double down on mobilizing.
Movements like these have been gaining traction and are increasingly taken seriously, hence the adamant neo-conservative backlash. So where does QWM fit? Spaces like this one are part of what is intensifying “the wind already at our backs,” as Lewis says, and are absolutely key to achieving social equity.