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 river, 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.

Not Just Words

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Friends, it’s been another week of observing, processing, learning, and integrating.  Holy cow, I really need this vacation.  I need nature, time with family away from work, away from the news.  I need to take a breath.

Things feel different this time.  I think this cautiously; I allow it—hope.  Change will be incremental and slow, but I feel a real acceleration today.  Equality is an infinite game, and we who play to advance it find ourselves in a moment of palpable solidarity and purpose.  But what comes next?  What will the field look and feel like at the end of the summer?  In a year?  In ten years?  When my kids are my age? What progress will we look back and see, initiated in this movement of 2020?  How can we make this a turning point?

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Stories

First, we must seek to understand the scope and nature of the challenge.  For many of us this means listening.  “Facts don’t change our minds.  Friendship does,” James Clear writes.  We humans are not rational, logical beings at our core.  We change our minds when we can relate to someone else’s experience, and the best way to do that is to listen to their stories.

Here are some stories that moved me this week:

Reflections of a Token Black Friend by Ramesh A. Nagarajah:  I think back to when my friends never understood why I wasn’t allowed to play with water guns — or any toy guns, for that matter — when I was a boy. I’d be so excited to visit a friend’s house and use their airsoft gun in the backyard. I used to get so frustrated when my mom told us it was “too dangerous” for black boys to do that and that someone would mistake it for a real gun. When I was 16, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed while playing with a replica toy airsoft gun. I realized my mom was right.  …I think of the way the black girls were treated as second rate in high school. Guys rarely tried to talk to them romantically, and if they did, others discussed it with an undertone of comedy. I never felt this way, personally, but didn’t realize until college that my silence was compliance. I was participating in denying dignity to the black women around me.

A passionate and powerful video by Kimberly Jones, author of I’m Not Dying With You Tonight, which is now in my queue.  Listen and watch to the end.  Embrace the discomfort.  Whatever you experience in these few minutes is nothing compared to what Black people have suffered for generations.  Then mull over her last sentence.

A heartfelt and important essay by Dr. Marie Ramas, on her role as a Black woman primary care physician during a pandemic:  Once again, as a healer working in a system seemingly based more on economics than wellness, I felt forced to make an impossible ethical decision. Then, I realized that the underlying question for me to answer was not whether I would treat individuals at the risk of my own self. Rather, I needed to pan out my scope of view and ask, “How can I help rebalance the scales of justice to reflect the inherent worth of the black and brown lives that I both serve and represent?”

Sensational six FB Humans of St Louis 1 of 7 June 2020

The Sensational Six:  Six Black women graduated from the pediatrics residency at Washington University St. Louis this month.   Follow the link to read the 7 consecutive posts about these remarkable women, and look for their mark on our future.  Their names are

Fehintola Olaiya, MD
Stephanie Diggs, MD
Frances Annan-Fohtung, MD
Mia Henderson, MD/PhD
Olivia Beaubrun, MD
Tobi Olayiwola, MD

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Connection, Action, Accountability, and Togetherness

The goal of all this seeking and listening, of course, is Connection.  The only way to get to shared humanity—true connection—is stories.  And the only way to stay in the infinite game fighting against structural racism is to play together, team members rotating on and off the field.  The metaphor of a choir holding the prolonged single note, strong and clear, by staggering each person’s breaths, applies here.

The team is huge—every one of us has a role to play and a contribution to make.  What Actions can we each take?  Here is a list of 75 to choose from.  Start now.  No action is too small.  Do it sincerely, consistently, and with integrity.

How will we hold each other Accountable?  Company after company declares their opposition and intolerance to racism.  “It’s all words,” as one Black woman told me bluntly.  We need metrics, goals, and transparency.  Medical schools must recruit more students of color.  Companies must promote more people of color to designated leadership roles.  Citizens must demand of our legislators to address systemic and institutionalized discrimination, to give it tangible consequences that motivate change.

Most importantly, we must do the deep work of ferreting out where bias hides in our institutions, understanding clearly how it impacts our practices for the worse, and then reworking our systems to eliminate, or at least moderate, those negative consequences.  The legend of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s blind auditions can instruct us here.  We can claim success when we see people of color represented proportionally in leadership, policymaking, and all of the most influential and impactful aspects of our culture.

We have so very far to go.  But at least it feels, for the time being, that more of us have opened our eyes to the path ahead.  And rather than turning (running) away, we turn toward—Together.  We find each other’s hands and grab on, holding tight.  We take one tentative step, then another, and another.

If we keep walking, together, we will make progress.

This Is the Work

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Every chance I get now, I ask people, “What stands out the most for you, from the last three months and the last three weeks?”  Every answer is unique, just like every person is.  And I cannot really predict what anyone will say.  It’s fascinating.

In this time some of us have been blessed with a chance to really look inward and reflect, consider, reassess, recalibrate.  But what will we have to show for it?  What is our Work?

This week I had eleven conversations centered around COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.  Only two were incidental; the others were all intentional, most initiated by me.  Only three were with people of color, all women.  I have learned so much, and it motivates me to continue my query widely.

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I started following Seerut K. Chawla on Instagram, who developed these graphics that really capture what we are all witnessing around race.  Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin manifest the insidious and overt versions of weaponizing white fragility.  They and others instigated the tidal wave of activism we see today.  I feel weirdly, gravely grateful.  They kicked open, with utter impunity, the door to the profound opportunity for both individual and collective growth and advancement that we confront, right here, right now.

We are all called to face our discomfort head on, to stand up and take responsibility.  We can no longer escape the harsh reality of choice that we all must continually face:  Do what’s Right or do what’s easy.  Let’s assume for a moment that it really is that simple—all qualifications moot.  It may be unrealistic to expect ourselves to choose Right every time…because qualifications.  But aaaaarrrgh we do not do it nearly, nearly enough.  Nothing will change without a critical mass of us choosing Right, much more of the time, for a very long time to come.

performative allyship

My chief concern is that the current moment passes, and nothing meaningful will result.  I learned two new phrases this past week:  “virtue signaling” and “performative allyship”.  Basically they mean that we respond superficially to a trendy peer pressure, to appear supportive of Black Lives.  I imagine part of such words and even actions are sincere to some degree.  But they serve mostly to make us feel better about ourselves.  And the risk is high that this sudden hyper-motivation will go the way of New Year’s resolutions, once we have soothed ourselves, in order to revert to our prior, comfortable obliviousness.

My friends, we cannot let that happen.

But how?  What do we need in order to really seize this chance of a lifetime, to sustain action into meaningful policy reform?  We need one another.

Our work is to listen, self-educate, engage, and persist.

We must tolerate, even embrace the discomfort, knowing that it is nothing compared to what Black people have suffered for 400 years.

Our approach must be founded in Curiosity, Humility, and Respect.

Our goals, first and foremost, are to learn, to understand, and to connect.

authentic allyship

We can and should each start small, with our own inner work.  Actually this is not really small, is it?  Looking at these panes, I bet most of us don’t live all the time in Authentic Allyship.  This is the Work.  The activation energy for collective change requires all of us together to overcome, before we could ever hope to sustain that change.

And there is good news!  Going together synergizes our energy, lowering each of our individual thresholds for openness and learning, allowing us to advance the collective that much faster!  We can speak and act in our own small circles of influence—our tribes.  Then we reach out and merge our tribes, bonding in solidarity, common purpose, and love.  Is it not inspiring??

Stop with the ‘yes, but…’  Do the right thing, more and more and more and more and more.  Support each other doing it, show up for one another—hold each other up!  Allow for mistakes and imperfection, for continuous learning.  Seek the very next opportunity.  We can do this, Yes We Can.

The pieces below inspire me.  Take the time to read and listen.  Share in the comments what keeps the flame of change alive for you.  I see things changing already.  Let’s keep going.  We’ got this if we go together.

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The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial” by Ibram X. Kendi

Denial is fueled by the stigma associated with being a racist. Feeding the stigma is how “racist” is considered almost like an identity, a brand.

But a racist is not who a person is. A racist is what a person is, what a person is saying, what a person is doing.

Racist is not a fixed category like “not racist,” which is steeped denial. Only racists say they are not racist. Only the racist lives by the heartbeat of denial.

The antiracist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America — the heartbeat of confession.

How to Build an Antiracist World, TED Conversation with Ibram X. Kendi

Antiracist Resources from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

Unarmed Professionals Will Now Respond to Non-Criminal Police Calls in San Francisco