Culture teaches us to look at the world with a skewed perspective. As an American kid, I was taught that this is the easiest country in the world to live well in and everyone, bar none, wanted to immigrate here. I was also taught that white, heterosexual men like Ben Franklin were responsible for, oh, everything worthwhile humanity had achieved or ever would achieve.
Somewhere around second grade, I realized the US wasn’t perfect and people in a lot of other countries thought their country was the best. I also realized that white straight men stood on the shoulders of everyone else, and from that vantage point achievement wasn’t remarkable. It was almost unavoidable. White Straight Man had a wife to look after all his mundane animal needs and comforts, a mistress to supplement that (the wife understood, of course), kids to extend his ego, the right to knock his family around when he was frustrated so he wouldn’t show that frustration to someone important, and the law on his side in everything.
Remember this was the 80s. The idea that it could be rape if a woman went on a date with the guy was a new concept. A lot of significant strides were made in that decade to inch white women toward something like parity with white men, but that’s the atmosphere I grew up in.
It only got worse when my family moved to the south. The white men and boys there were… something else. Whiny and weak, they fell into infantile rage at the first sign of adversity because they’d never learned survival skills (they had women to do that for them). They took pride in their inability to look after themselves, which caused them to require a woman to do it. They spoke in high, oxygen-thin pitches when they got excited or angry, yet expected everyone to be amazed at how butch they were (not that I care about the obsession with butchness, but you’d think if it’s his central identity he’d at least learn to talk the talk?). And don’t forget the violence. Every once in a while, White Straight Man would beat up someone of color or a gay man or a disabled man or a Democrat or even one of them freak Catholics. We all knew he was often abusive to his family, physically or emotionally – he often bragged in the 80’s about hiding assets so his ex-wife hag and no-longer-cute kids couldn’t get any support, which freed him up to spend all his money on his new hot wife and their new hot kids. (I marvel that my generation hasn’t produced a big crop of serial killers.)
“Sigh,” my girlfriends started saying in our teenage years as they got interested in boys. “Isn’t he awesome? He was so nice to me on our date!”
Ugh! They had to be kidding – “nice” = “awesome”? only they weren’t. And if that’s what girls thought, then I figured women were loathsome, too. That was the beginning of my misanthropy. But not the end. More on this in a minute.
I just couldn’t bring myself to be impressed by the accomplishments of creatures who, from birth, had an entire staff to cater to them. And when they did something nice or thoughtful… well, geez, who wouldn’t be nice if they didn’t have to do anything for themselves? I’d be a freakin’ ball of sunshine, puppies and rainbows.
The only guys I counted as friends were either not white or white boys from “dysfunctional families” who didn’t have women catering to their every need. It wasn’t a conscious choice I made, but once I noticed the pattern the reasons were immediately apparent: I had overcome a fair amount of adversity in my life, coming from a long line of abusive freaks and relative poverty (and being female). How could I be impressed with someone who had overcome one or two other posh, spoiled little boys to achieve a position of authority? In an emergency situation, those were the very sort of boys and men who freaked out and deferred to me, instantly becoming my little army to order around. Because when push came to shove, they knew who was a fighter and who wasn’t.
Some women and girls who have that power over weak men are turned on by it. Not me. No, unfortunately, I wanted to date someone I could hope to respect someday. And what killed me was that I was supposed to respect these ones. The Emperor was naked, and everyone else was going on about his splendid new robes.
In my 20’s, I began to realize two important things. Remember the song “Airhead” by Thomas Dolby? No? Geez, you guys make me feel old. It’s about a woman who’s an airhead, and it’s all cute and funny and not as insulting as you might expect, and at the end it reminds us, “It was us made her that way.” Our culture advises people to conform to demographic stereotypes. We’re programmed from birth, and those of us (like me) who start to overcome that programming early only do so because something introduced us to the Wizard of Oz really early in life. White straight men were privileged, and because of that – sadly – very few of them would ever manage to impress me for reasons other than sex appeal. It wasn’t their fault they started out the race 30 yards from the finish line while everyone else had a 60 yard starting line and… not the best view in the pack. Just like it wasn’t women’s fault that life is so much simpler if you can convince yourself to be a walking female stereotype.
It was everyone’s fault and no one’s. And now it’s everyone’s responsibility to fix. And no, we’re not there yet. We are still enthralled when our white boys find their toesies and start to count, and meanwhile our daughters and our little boys of color could build a functioning airplane in the backyard and a lot of parents and teachers just wouldn’t even notice. Or they’d order them to clean up that mess so we can get back to watching little Whitey try to master three letters of the alphabet, oh, isn’t he clever!
That’s the cultural lens I’m talking about – the one that makes us maximize the slightest accomplishment of white men and minimize the accomplishments of everyone else.
Why am I telling you this personal history that led to my current conclusions? Because some of you are more impressed by Warren Buffet or Bill Gates than you are by Martha Stewart or Oprah, and whether you like either of those women or not (I must admit, Oprah raises my hackles), I think you have to admit they accomplished more than either of those guys, and they started from much further back in the race. I’m telling you because some of you think things are all equal now. And because some of you are white straight men who can’t understand why things are changing and why women are starting to expect “nice” rather than swoon in delirium when you dole a bit of it out.