Challenging the Cisgender White Christian Male Default

Old new Dillon Reservoir

What do you take for granted?

How must you adjust your words, your actions, your facial expressions—your very presence, to fit into the world around you?

These questions arose for me again recently reading Seth Godin’s blog post from June 17, “The Dominant Culture.”

One of the great cartoons involves two goldfish in a tank talking to one another. One responds in surprise, “wait, there’s water?”

When we don’t see the water, it’s a sign we’re benefitting from being part of the dominant culture.

Visit a country where they don’t speak English and you’ll probably remind yourself all day that you speak English, something you didn’t have to think about last week. You’ll have to work overtime to understand and communicate. Back home, that stress disappears.

Living within a dominant culture means being reminded of this all day, every day.

It reminded me of the famous 2005 commencement address given by David Foster Wallace, the transcript of which was later published, entitled This Is Water.  He admonishes graduates of Kenyon College to open their eyes and minds to the automatic, mindless ways they make meaning from mundane life experiences, to acknowledge and exercise keen awareness of the inescapable interconnectedness of humanity (my interpretation):

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

I started to think and wonder…  For cisgender, white, Christian men (CWCM), the dominant culture in the United States, the ‘rise’ of ‘other groups’ to ‘power’ can be understandably threatening–Black Brown Asian Gay Trans Muslim Female Other…

But there are CWCM who seem not to feel threatened, and who actively ally/accomplice to help other groups rise, to help them claim agency and work toward inclusion and equity.  They are what I imagine Chip and Dan Heath might call the ‘bright spots’ (see Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard) of the Patriarchy.

While engaging (fighting, overcoming) those who resist, why not also study and amplify those who assist?

What is it about these men, their networks, their environment, or whatever else, that facilitates their allyship with marginalized, non-dominant-culture people and groups?

Or even better, how does their conversion occur?  How do they overcome the perceived threat, conscious or not, to see the benefits of equality, and then join the fight to advance it?  What happens there, and how can we replicate and scale that conversion?

Last week on vacation I started reading Four Days to Change by Michael Welp, recommended to me by a wise old white man.  Welp and his partners run the White Men’s Caucus, the flagship retreat program of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  As I understand it, the organization strives for exactly this conversion of awareness, enlightenment, and action.  On retreat, white men are provided the space and safety, as well as the excruciating challenge, to explore, without shame or suppression, their personal and shared experience of cultural privilege, entitlement, and responsibility.  I have a feeling this will be a transformational book for me, a cisgender, East Asian, Cathuddhist woman.  How’s that for intersectionality?

The author, speaking to White Men’s Caucus attendees:  “’If we created most of the institutions we dwell in today, they are going to reflect our culture.  But we don’t see this cultural water we swim in because we never have to leave it.  So we equate it with just being a good human.  Others assimilate into it, so it looks to us like it’s everyone’s culture.’”

He goes on to list the ‘core threads of the fabric of white male culture in the United States’ (how do they land on you?):

  • Rugged Individualism
  • Low Tolerance of Uncertainty
  • Action over Reflection
  • Rationality over Emotion
  • Time Is Linear & Future Focused
  • Status & Rank over Connection

After discussion with participants he notes, “’Notice that the guys who bring the skills less emphasized in the culture can more quickly identify how the culture works against them.  You might imagine the same experience for women and people of color.’  …It’s even more critical in today’s global world that we as members of the dominant group understand our water.”  I can’t wait to keep reading and see hearts broken open, as Parker Palmer says, to the power and potential of inescapable interconnectedness.

Lastly, I watched again Michael Kimmel’s 2015 TED talk on gender equality. I mentioned it on this blog in 2016, writing about Brock Turner and white male privilege.  At 1:08, listen to his story about the moment he realized he was a middle class white man.  In 16 minutes, he eloquently addresses gender and racial inequity, with evidence for the myriad societal benefits of dismantling them both.  “Privilege is invisible to those who have it…  It is a luxury, I will say to the white people sitting in this room, to not have to think about race every split second of our lives.”  It’s the water we swim in.  To white men the water is body temperature, almost like a sensory deprivation tank, holding them up, always flowing in the direction of their dreams and aspirations, never a hindrance.  For too many others, it’s exactly the opposite.

It’s not that we should make water harder for CWCMs to swim.  It’s that white men can and must learn to see how the water hinders so many others, and then use their advantages to help those who struggle.  The collective benefits far outweigh the costs, as Kimmel describes.  The perceived personal risks loom large, and it’s ever clearer to me that only white men can truly lead other white men to overcome their visceral, existential risk aversion.

I’m still figuring out my own role in all of this Work.  I trust that I will know soon enough.

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