One of Ijeoma Oluo’s many gifts is her ability to call a thing a thing.
This is evident from the title of her new book, “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America,” which gets to the heart of the matter in record time.
Oluo’s ability to clearly and directly address the country’s most intractable and thorny issues of racism and misogyny have garnered her a legion of fans across the country and around the world.
The Seattle-based author’s first book, New York Times bestseller “So You Want to Talk About Race,” was published in 2018, but jumped onto numerous must-read lists again this summer as the racial justice uprising after the killing of George Floyd captured the national consciousness.
Whereas Oluo describes her first book as a workbook, she said “Mediocre” is more of a diagnostic.
Addressing head-on the elephant in America’s living room, Oluo uses a wealth of historical research to support her argument that our country’s default mode of propping up and centering white men not only doesn’t serve us, but is actively destructive.
As Oluo puts it in the book, “I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.”
The “identity politics” that white men cling to has brought them to a dark place, Oluo said. When she looks at white male identity in America, she writes, she sees “the desperation, the disappointment, the despair, the rage,” and women and people of color become scapegoats for all the ways in which white men feel cheated out of what they believe they are due.
For the majority of us who are not white men, this might seem strange to hear, given that along with an encyclopedia’s worth of other inequities, white women still make significantly less than white men and most women of color earn half of what white men earn; men still dominate all parts of government and women still make up only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, as Oluo reports in the book. Our world is still designed to benefit white men over everyone else, Oluo said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times.
To support her point, Oluo delves deep into some of the roots and fruit of these constructions. She writes of the violent westward expansion of the country in the 19th century and genocide of Native people. She describes the myriad ways people of color were systematically excluded from quality education and housing, relegated to the last and least of every possible thing. She writes of women who finally were allowed into higher paid factory positions during World War II only to be shunted aside when men wanted those positions back.
But if, as a white man, you are led to believe that just around the bend is your shot at being a billionaire, but women and people of color are standing in your way, you are bound for a lifetime of disappointment and resentment. This sense of entitlement keeps the rest of us scrambling to try to repair the damage from policies that benefit a few at the expense of the many.
“There’s this myth that white men are just endless potential,” Oluo said, “that so outshines the potential of women and people of color. That we can’t ever let [white men] fail,” and this belief takes us all down with it. “The amount of energy, the amount of effort, the amount of huge failures we have because we keep investing in white men never having to do better. Just hoping that if we keep propping them up, they’ll do better. It hurts us all.”
In case anyone believes that somehow liberal areas like Seattle are exempt from the religion of white male supremacy, Oluo has some bad news. “Progressive white America has to figure out and start owning whiteness,” she said.
In places like Seattle, Oluo said, white people often want to “abstain from whiteness” and say they are not part of the system of white supremacy, and they are especially not like those other white people, the kind who voted for Trump. She said it’s time for all white people — including those in liberal enclaves — to do the work needed within whiteness, and to push for the types of transformations that reject white supremacy in its many incarnations.
White people need to say, “I am not actually divorced from my uncle who voted for Trump. I am actually connected and I am a part of this, and I need to own that and figure out how to change it,” Oluo said. “The amount of white people who get to skate by just being mildly complicit in violent white supremacy just baffles me.”
Why do we accept that the natural order of the universe is that white men will be centered and the rest of us will orbit in service of them and their leadership? Oluo challenges us to imagine a different way — a new path that maximizes the potential of every person, that doesn’t waste the incredible talents and contributions of women and people of color. A path that looks at leadership and leadership traits differently.
Oluo said we do ourselves a disservice when we continue to revere traditionally “masculine” notions of leadership and dismiss leadership that we are socialized to see as “feminine.”
“Workplaces that devalue traits and skills like empathy, communication, and cooperation, which women are more likely to be socialized to have, almost always overvalue traits like hypercompetitiveness, aggression, and impulsiveness,” she writes in “Mediocre.”
In order to move beyond the world we have known and into a better, more inclusive world, we need to be able to imagine something different.
“When we don’t paint that picture, when we don’t invest in new stories, when we don’t say it could be better and this is what better could look like, people are afraid because they’re like, ‘This little piece of nothing is all I have,’ and they don’t want to let go,” Oluo said.
Through her new book, Oluo hopes that white people will push through their privilege, their defensiveness and their attachment to America’s myth of white male supremacy, and stop being afraid to call a thing a thing.
Oluo said she wants “people to open their eyes and say, ‘This is where I’ve been perpetuating the myth. This is where I start to break free from that part.’ So the myth has less strength, because it is powerful.”