I'm a White Man, too, Frank Bruni. And No, You Shouldn't Continue.
In an impressively ill-timed opinion column in the Sunday New York Times today, Frank Bruni posted a perfect example of how not to respond to our current cultural divide over race and its related identities, privileges, and power dynamics. I say ill-timed given yesterday's horrific clashes and murder in Charlottesville at a rally for racist white supremacists.
Interestingly, the print title of Bruni's piece is "I'm a White Man. Can I Continue?" The title online as of Sunday afternoon reads instead, "I'm a White Man. Hear Me Out." Was the phrasing of the title as an interrogative seen as too snarkily rhetorical? (I would say yes.) Is "hear me out" a softer way of approaching the same topic. (I would say probably.)
Bruni certainly begins with a heavy marinade of sarcasm:
I'm a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs.As a diversity and inclusion educator, I can attest that this is a textbook conversational non-starter used with great success by white men, usually those who are in attendance at a training because their boss has forced them to be there. In these kinds of situations, I try hard to point out how a white participant may be closing the conversation, rather than opening it. Starting a conversation about such a sensitive topic as race with a sarcastic comment like, "I'm so sorry I have so much privilege, you guys. Why do you keep pointing it out?" clearly demonstrates that Mr. Bruni has likely not had much practice with subtle, uncomfortable, honest conversations about race. A revealing point in Bruni's logic comes in the third paragraph, in which he lists options for how he should be labeled: "Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim?" He ends this train of thought by tossing a barb at the "guardians of purity on the left."
So-called "identity politics," I imagine he would likely claim, are to blame for Bruni's being cornered onto his stool-cum-dunce-cap about his racial identity. The aim of liberalism, in his mind, seems to be to force him to feel guilty about his whiteness. In order to avoid this, Bruni plays up his gay identity as an oppression trump (pun intended) card that cancels out his whiteness. It is not the intent of this piece to question the indescribably difficult experiences of Bruni as a gay man in the 70's and 80's. However, to imply that one marginalized identity allows one entree into the experiences of another marginalized group is emotionally lazy at best and intellectual dishonesty at worst.
At the heart of Bruni's misdirected white frustration seems to be a basic misunderstanding of intersectionality. Coined in the late 80's by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality provides us with a lens through which we may examine the complex junctures of all of our identities. For example, though I share many identities with Bruni (white, middle-class, well-educated), there are many that I do not share (straight, Southerner, not famous). Therefore, our experiences with our whiteness are different. Still, we are both white. Both/and, not either/or.
I'd bet a lot of money that Bruni would consider me a "guardian of purity on the left." Considering the other things I've been called for other ideas elsewhere on this blog, I would accept that critique as a badge of honor. Where Bruni misunderstands a more progressive approach is that we are not interested in binaries and dichotomies as much as he would have us believe. It is possible to judge people by the content of their character and see racial and other differences simultaneously. It is possible to use a lens of both/and, not simply either/or. It is not possible to make progress on racial equity using a colorblind approach, as Bruni seems be advocating.
Probably the most egregious aspect of Bruni's writing and thinking is his connection with the more harmful thinking of some of his colleagues. For example, a quick scan of Bruni's Twitter feed shows sympathies towards Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer whose most recent article on the Daily Wire pits the white nationalist protestors against "repulsive Antifa thugs," perpetuating a grossly imbalanced binary of blame that Trump would wholeheartedly agree with.
A more thorough scan of Bruni's sympathies reveal interactions with Christina Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank. In the last couple of weeks, I came across Sommers' name elsewhere in a recent article about Deloitte, a longtime source for best practices in diversity and inclusion, dropping its employee resource groups in favor of as-yet-undefined diversity councils. Sommers appears in the article as a voice which seeks to save white men from having to sit through trainings and workshops where they will be exposed to ideas that they disagree with. Diversity of identity, her implication seems to be, needs to take a backseat to intellectual diversity. One, not the other. Don't see my skin color. Binary. Stop talking about race. Especially my whiteness.
At the conclusion of Bruni's piece, he returns to his life experiences, which he says "construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me."
Mr. Bruni, I cannot imagine a better rationale for you "not continuing" than those three sentences.
Your ability to claim that your experiences have shaped you, and that your whiteness does not have an impact on the validity of your voice in light of those experiences, is precisely how white supremacy works. It seeks to downplay racial differences so that the norm is allowed to remain as such. Your experiences, your voice, your life are all products, in part, of your racial identity. To pretend that our voices have equal weight in the free market simply because they are good or not-so-good ideas is to ignore hundreds of years of purposeful racialization of every corner of our society. This is dangerous and irresponsible.
I am a white man, too, Mr. Bruni. And there is nothing we can ever do about that.
However, I can use my privilege to make room for other voices who have been historically ignored. I can defer to voices of color when the spotlight shines on me or when the mic is placed in front of me. I can choose not to speak for other nonwhite racialized experiences, which you so eagerly seem to want to be able to do. I can speak hard truths in white spaces to other white people, rather than critique voices of less privilege in an attempt to make sure my voice is always heard, too. And when I feel most strongly that my voice needs to be heard and is being crowded out in a discussion of race, I can try to point to that tendency as pride, as selfishness, as ego.
That is how white supremacy is deflated and defeated.
I'm a white man, too, Mr. Bruni, and the desire of white folks to always continue, and to always be heard is how white supremacy is upheld and strengthened.
So please, do more listening.
Image by Piotr Siedlecki used under Creative Commons license.