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.

Attune and Differentiate:  One Week’s Synthesis

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Friends, don’t you just love when an idea you resonate with recurs in your consciousness from disparate sources in short order, further deepening its meaning?  I share three pieces with you this week, which all deepened my commitment to embracing the paradox of attunement and differentiation.

CO fall 2018

First, I listened again to Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.  I highly recommend this book to help us all, conservatives and progressives alike, engage (not avoid) one another this election year with a lot more compassion, civility, and mutual respect.  Throughout the book Sister Brené shares personal stories as well as evidence from her research that define true belonging, which I think of as another expression for self-actualization and self-transcendence.  In her words:

True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness in both being a part of something, and standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.

Attune and differentiate:  these two practices are not only not mutually exclusive, they are essential and integral for whole person and societal health and well-being.  Read the book to adopt her four practices to advance true belonging, for yourself and for all of us:

  1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
  2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front.  Wild Heart.

Sister columbines

Second, I met Massimo on Ozan’s last Inner Circle Zoom call.  He is a designer and facilitator from Italy—thank you again, Ozan, for connecting so many of us all around the world!  Massimo has launched a blog, which resonated with me because he also advocates finding your voice (differentiating) as well as finding a community of belonging (attunement) as a reason to write:

…Meet new people and to interact with them

Learning adventures can make you feel on a solitary path, too much unbalanced on the input, reading and digesting side without much interaction. Expand your network, look for more interactive exchanges with whom might provide an alternative, critical point of view compared to yours. Exposing your opinions leads self-selecting people to network and resonate with you. Find your tribe. We need many and none at the same time. You need different communities where to manifest and explore your interests. On the other hand, you need to better focus on creating those which are more fertile ground to nurture your continuously changing interests and aspirations.

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Third, I read David Brooks’s article in The New York Times on the ethos of Scandanavian education.  Eloquent as usual, he synthesizes a complex set of ideas into language we can all understand:

19th-century Nordic elites…realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

…(Their system) is devised to help (students) understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town. 

…Nordic educators also worked hard to develop the student’s internal awareness. That is to say, they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires. If you could see those forces and their interplay, as if from the outside, you could be their master and not their slave. 

…Their intuition was that as people grow, they have the ability to go through developmental phases, to see themselves and the world through ever more complex lenses. A young child may blindly obey authority — Mom, Dad, teacher. Then she internalizes and conforms to the norms of the group. Then she learns to create her own norms based on her own values. Then she learns to see herself as a node in a network of selves and thus learns mutuality and holistic thinking. [See Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger for more on this theory of adult development.]

Scandanavians…have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

(Meanwhile, in the United States…) If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.

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In 2020 more than ever, we need to cultivate much stronger relationship skills.  We must identify and honor our core values and stand up for them, even when attacked by those closest to us—perhaps even especially then.  How we honor our best selves determines how we honor others.  When we show up at our most honest and authentic, we can call forth the same in others to meet us.  We can relate as fellow humans, inextricably connected, mutually interdependent, and all in it together.  Once we realize this, we can know in our hearts that we truly belong to ourselves and to one another, and we can more easily get on with the world’s most important work—connecting humanity in health, safety, and love.