A white man edited this review that a white man wrote about a Black woman’s life’s work
From his warnings of Mexican rapists to his Twitter tantrums as courts across the nation rejected his efforts to overturn the legal results of the election, the 45th President has taught a master class in American white male mediocrity.
While Donald Trump elevated these defects to Wagnerian swells, they aren’t anything new. In Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, Ijeoma Oluo does the hard work—while making it look easy—of exploring how the behavior of shitty white men has made it impossible for people to have nice things throughout our history.
For all the white guys out there who may be put off by the provocative title, let me, a white man of a certain age, assure you: Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk about Race?, goes out of her way to say that while all of us have work to do, we’re not all terrible. And that everyone pays a price in a culture that long ago assented to letting rich white men call the shots while throwing scraps to curry the support of their less-well-off beige brothers and sisters.
“White male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative [and] everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent,” she writes. “The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”
Oluo takes a panoramic approach to telling her story, combining autobiography, analysis, history, and creative and sometimes surprising connections with a voice that’s alternately humorous, angry and at times deeply pained. The opening chapter, “Cowboys and Patriots: How the West Was Won,” is a case in point.
The chapter starts with anecdotes of a distant relation’s paranoid social media posts, including a highly dubious yarn concerning a confrontation with a “thug” wearing a “hoodie.” From there she jumps to the late 19th century where Buffalo Bill’s increasingly over-the-top stage shows celebrate whites winning the west from Native Americans. These manifest destiny extravaganzas, and the surrounding pop culture of the era, set an image of white male identity that informs just about every prestige drama on HBO: solitary, violent, fighting for a cause. From there she skips to 19th Century conflicts between the U.S. government and the Mormons before returning to the present, the Bundy standoff, and anti-government resentment for our first Black President. It’s a compelling way to make the point that the past isn’t past and has corrupted our culture and our politics.
“The idea of the cowboy as an honest everyman played a large part in the iconography that made George W. Bush so popular with white men in his presidential campaign,” she writes. “The idea of a a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is the one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered.”
From there Oluo shows how white men have centered themselves in social-justice movements, blocked women and people of color from the workplace, attacked colleges as they’ve expanded their franchise beyond white men, pressed for de facto segregation well after the death of Jim Crow, vilified female politicians in the most repulsive manner, and kept Black men from participating in college and professional sports until it was no longer tenable. The decidedly mediocre George Preston Marshall, founder of the club now known as the Washington Football Team, almost singlehandedly kept black players out of the NFL for years and only integrated his team in 1962 when the federal government threatened to block access to D.C. Stadium. Some of this history may be familiar, but by connecting the different threads—and including stories of harassment against her and her family—Oluo’s telling makes an impact.
Mediocre White musicians
Oluo doesn’t explore the entertainment world in her book. White male mediocrity is, however, a through line in Michelangelo Matos’s Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Breakout Year. One reason it was a breakout year is that the music industry, having been through a rough slump—“Physical” was 1982’s year-end top single on Billboard—finally started taking more risks with Black artists. This was a journey.
White radio listeners freaked out when their stations changed formats. MTV, which barely showed any videos from Black performers, initially balked at “Beat It.” Herbie Hancock deliberately kept a low profile in the video for “Rockit.” But no matter: “In the August 25 issue of Billboard, for the first time ever Black artists accounted for six of the top ten pop albums and singles.” Still, the man’s preferences ran square. Mediocre adult contemporary crooner Lionel Richie would win a Grammy for the album that gives the book its title, while “When Doves Cry” by Prince, the year’s biggest hit, didn’t get a nomination.
Bernie would have won
A reader is bound to have nits with a book that has the breadth of “Mediocre,” and if I had one it would be its treatment of Bernie Sanders and his campaign.
Oluo supports much of Bernie’s program, but she’s critical of the messenger and his followers. Understandably. It is undeniable that white male leftists have long privileged discussions of class over race (and gender, and sexual identify and…) in ways that have been clumsy when not offensive. Sanders has, to put it mildly, been less than perfect on this point. It’s also undeniable that while every campaign attracts trolls, the Sanders campaign spawned more than its share. The extent to which they define the Sanders campaign is a different question, though not one I would necessarily put to someone who’s been on the other side of a swarm attack.
But the Bernie campaign was more than a movement of young, angry white men. Indeed, Oluo acknowledges Bernie polled well with younger women and people of color. One wishes she would have asked some of these people why. Oluo makes the point that everyone is complicit in white mediocrity and moving past it will require the support of white men. Given that, it stands to reason that a conversation with young non-white male Bernie supporter, or a not-so-young supporter like, say, Killer Mike, could have led to an illuminating and important conversation about how they could improve a flawed movement.
But this is a small complaint for a book that does an admirable job of digging deep into the past to shine light on the present. Oluo wrote “Mediocre” when the outcome of the 2020 election was uncertain. We know that 45 won’t be with us for much longer. But we also know that much of the dysfunction he rubbed our faces in may actually get worse. It’s easy to despair. Oluo rejects that. Despite everything, Oluo insists that a system that people created can also change because of people, even if it won’t be easy. “We have to not only believe that we deserve better, we have to have faith that we can do better,” she concludes. “And we have to start now.”
(Basic Books, December 1, 2020)