There was a recent incident where some middle class white guy wrote to me, in two successive emails, the following things:
“You are sick, stupid and a plague on the world.”
“The only thing you could write that would improve the world, is your suicide note.”
Here’s what made it worse: it wasn’t a random trolling, I have known this person for years and we have mutual friends.
Here’s what other middle class white guys thought made it better: he’s a regular guy with a regular job that we have known for years.
Sorry, that also makes it worse. This may be tricky if you are a middle class white guy who’s never had your personal safety depend on understanding this, but bear with me.
I am a woman. What this means is that from when I was a tiny, little kid, older women told me never to be alone with a man. This is over and above the warnings given to all little kids to avoid being alone with strangers or getting into their cars. Also, never to be alone anywhere that a scream for help wouldn’t reach anyone, because there might be an older man there. The people who told me these things didn’t exclude the presence of middle class white guys from these injunctions, because they were not ignorant enough to think that this mattered.
As I got older, such warnings changed. In part because I’d left the fundamentalist church I was raised in, and in part because I wasn’t a little kid anymore. But they didn’t change all that much. Don’t be alone in public at night, ever, or if you have to be, walk quickly and keep your keys in your hand. Don’t ever be in a house or car alone with a man you aren’t dating. Don’t go hiking or jogging by yourself in a secluded place. Never be alone anywhere where no one can hear you scream. Etc., etc., etc.
The subtext of all of these warnings was much the same: because you might be raped. But even if you aren’t raped, you are a woman, whom some random guy might take it into his head to attack, if only because he has good reason to think he can get away with it.
(To be clear, a lot of guys have gotten clean away with attacking women, so this isn’t an irrational assumption. And everybody knows it.)
While it must be admitted that racial overtones made their way into some of these semi-regular reminders about how careful I needed to be as a woman to protect myself from what I should consider a constant threat, no one, no matter how much unacknowledged racial animus they may have harbored or expressed, has ever followed up such a warning with an aside about how it didn’t apply around middle class white men. Because no woman can afford to be so blitheringly ignorant or self-deluded. Not even if, when something bad actually happens to another woman at the hands of a middle class white guy, she might make excuses for a white, middle class male assailant on the basis of his race and class and friendship with other upstanding middle class white guys.
I have been hit by a middle class white guy. As well as harassed, stalked, sexually assaulted and threatened with violence by middle class white guys that I knew personally and had previously counted as friends or intimate companions. My personal stories about these incidents are tame compared to what I’ve heard other women tell me about what’s happened to them, usually at the hands of a middle class white guy who they considered a friend, colleague or intimate companion.
And, let’s face it, this is the case because I’m a middle class white person and so are the majority of the people I’ve known well enough that they’d tell me about something horrible that happened to them. One might normally leave that unsaid, but this is not that time.
So if you are a guy, read this next bit very closely. Somewhere around a third of women will be assaulted by a man on the basis of her gender. The vast majority of these attacks will be committed by a person that she knows. So do the math: if you mostly know white women, a third of whom will be/have been assaulted, and this will mostly happen at the hands of people that she knows, and she mostly knows other middle class white people like you probably do, what kind of person is mostly going to be committing these attacks?
Or, let me put it another way: who is assaulting all these white women?
By a big majority, the middle class white women that you know who have been assaulted, (& if you are a middle class white guy, you know some, whether you know it or not,) have been assaulted by other middle class white men.
Men who are your friends. Men who have regular jobs and would never raise the suspicion of law enforcement in the course of their day to day activities. Men who can get the majority of the people they know to dismiss any charges against them without consideration for the evidence on account of their regular white guyness.
This is so ingrained that a middle class white guy can often get away with a pattern of making violent, threatening remarks for years, without his male friends necessarily thinking anything of it. ‘Oh, Joe just talks like that. He’s an *sshole sometimes, that’s all. It’s nothing.’ And if Joe gets called on those remarks or for actually doing something violent, those same male friends (and sometimes female friends as well,) will be shocked. Because, after all, *they* never felt threatened by Joe.
Which is exactly the point. Unless he’s a real outlier, Joe is a social animal who doesn’t want to live alone, with no friends and no one to spend time with.
Joe doesn’t threaten everyone he meets, indiscriminately. Some people he makes friends with; respectable, middle class white guys, for example. And when he feels a need to power trip, to attack someone, to take out his seething sense of permanent injury, he directs that towards a person with less social standing than himself or his friends. A woman will usually do. Though he mostly isn’t going to go after his friends or the partners of his friends because, see above, Joe doesn’t actually want to be a social outcast.
There was a time, as it has been said on many occasions, when white women used to pretend that they didn’t know who the fathers of the half-white children in their households were. But let me tell you, they did know. Even if they didn’t dare show it in front of a single other person except to take out all of their pent up rage on them. Because whatever they tell the world, no woman can afford to lie to herself about the implicit threat of violence from men around her who are demonstrably contemptuous of women.
A woman who isn’t more afraid of threats from a man she knows than a man she doesn’t know isn’t paying attention.
And it is frankly time for white men, even those who would never hurt anyone, to really come to grips with the fact that the likeliest threat to white women doesn’t take the form of a dark-complected stranger creeping into our bedroom windows or abducting us in a park.
Who is assaulting all these white women?
If you are a white dude, it might be your friend, Joe. That other middle class white guy you love having a beer with.
He might be the guy who raped your sister at a party with dozens of witnesses and never got in trouble for it. He might be the boss who harassed your girlfriend at work and got her fired when she told him where to stick it. He might be the ex that makes your friend cry into her pillow at night when she’s having a hard time sleeping and remembers that one time when he wouldn’t take no for an answer and she just couldn’t f*ing do anything. He might be the one who’s sabotaging his wife’s birth control, destroying her self-esteem and keeping her short on cash, because he thinks she doesn’t deserve to decide whether or not to have a child.
He is some middle class white guy who meets the gold standard of social normativity and has a lot of middle class white guys as friends.
This does not make him less dangerous; it can enable him to act with near impunity.
No one in our society except another middle class white guy, and not even all of them, can afford the luxury of not understanding that. No woman, of any race, can afford not to understand it. No man who isn’t white can afford not to understand it, because he can’t get away with imitating that kind of impunity when he’s around white people.
Someday, if we’re really going to have a decent and equitable society, all the middle class white guys need to understand it. They need to understand that their support, their friendship, their willingness to look the other way when Joe acts outside the bounds of even heated debate, creates an environment that is frightening to many of the women around them and more likely to intimidate men who aren’t white.
So even if a particular white guy would never act the same way or don’t condone it, they benefit from the fact that other white men have preemptively intimidated all other social competitors. They benefit from the fear, the doubt, the niggling ‘what if he was right?’ in the back of the mind, all of which has been laid down by their friend Joe.
White men need to understand that when they refuse to enforce norms of decent behavior on their peers, it puts that entire burden on the shoulders of people with less status, those who are more likely to be penalized for ‘making a scene.’ If you aren’t a white guy, you’re going to be faced many, many more times with choosing between a loss of status or suffering for your silent consent.
Losing status often has direct economic repercussions, which every one of us has decided at some point or another that we couldn’t afford just then. Consenting to what you know is wrong has harmful psychological repercussions, every time.
So if a white guy allows it to pass unnoticed that another white guy does something inappropriate, they’ve created a dilemma for everyone else who sees what happens. And if everyone else isn’t a white guy, they almost certainly noticed. Do they injure themselves one way by speaking up on behalf of the greater social good, or do they injure themselves another way by shutting up and feeling like they just lost a little more of their soul?
Yes, if you are a white guy who hasn’t really done so before, I am asking you to think about the repercussions of your behavior in relation to other white men to a greater extent than you have previously had to. Though really, it’s what everyone else has had to do, basically always and all the time. A person just has to apply themselves & I have great faith in you.
But, you might say, Joe is my friend and I want to be loyal to him.
I understand. I do. My family hasn’t much been there for me for a long time, so my friends are my world. You had better have a videotape and a signed confession if you want me to believe they did something wrong that I didn’t see myself.
Though think about this: every time Joe says something violent or hateful and you pretend it didn’t happen or that it was just a joke, you are helping him set up an appointment with a judge on the occasion of his forgetting himself at the wrong time. You want to know what will ruin his life even more than the sting of some social ostracism? Getting fired. A lawsuit. A restraining order. A divorce. His son getting the idea that there’s nothing wrong with acting that way. His name living in infamy on Google forever. Jail. A criminal record that will follow him to every job interview he has from now to retirement.
It might not ever get that bad. But then again, you probably aren’t Nostradamus. Or a doctor. Do you want to bet Joe’s life, or the life of a potential victim, on your ability to know for certain that he really didn’t mean anything by telling that one mouthy chick that dying is the only thing she could possibly do to improve the world?
So you can help Joe set up an appointment with a judge or you can help him set up an appointment with a counselor. What would a real friend do?