Excluding the white cis hetero males isn’t oppression (but it still sucks)

The #metoo movement makes me happy. Gender equity gains make me happy. Inclusion and visibility of marginalized groups makes me happy. Reducing prejudice and discrimination makes me happy. However, as with pretty much everything else in the world, these very positive developments have unintended consequences, and those make me sad.

I just saw on Twitter a conversation in which a couple of women were talking about Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing, his probable sexual assaults, etc. A man jumped in, apparently to be supportive. He said rapey bastards need to be taught a lesson or something along those lines. He was smacked down pretty firmly; the originator of the thread (a woman with many thousands of followers) replied that he should understand that the “tone” of the conversation was for “women to speak and men to listen,” and that women didn’t need men taking over their narrative. I honestly didn’t think he had done that, though he did seem a bit too cheerful about the possibility of teaching sexually aggressive men a thing or two.

I’ve seen many Twitter, Facebook, etc. posts recently in which people from marginalized groups inform people not from those groups that they need to shut up. I’m not talking about situations in which the dominant-group people (often apparently-white men or women, or hetero/cis people) were patronizing, criticizing, or spreading stereotypes; I’m talking about situations where the more-dominant-culture folks were, apparently, honestly trying to help, or at least participate alongside the people representing marginalized groups. They were told to sit down and shut up, mostly because of the social group they belonged to.

I think I get this. I think I understand why a small and/or under-heard, underrepresented group doesn’t want help (or “help”) from anyone in the majority or dominant group. It makes sense. But it’s also exclusionary (and plays really well on the FOX News Parade of Butthurt). If you’re on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, publicly demonstrating pride in your group identity, and telling certain other people who want to join the party that they’re not invited (or only invited as second-class guests), feelings will be hurt. Because those other people are people; they’re not stereotypes of their social identities.

People want to be included in groups–groups where they can have some status. “Americans” is too big for most people to feel that. “My D&D group” satisfies part of this need; the smaller the group (maybe down to about family-size), the more a person can feel some local status, some sense that they matter to others, some intimacy with the group. Many of our most popular TV shows are fantasies about belongingness: FriendsFireflyThe Big Bang Theory, etc. are largely about imagining we are part of a group like the one we see on TV (that’s why we can watch “nothing” for hours; we’re really grooving on the idea of belonging).

The status of the group among other groups matters, too, however; “Americans” might have a lot of status, whereas “My D&D group” has very little, globally speaking. And we don’t just long to be part of a family-sized group; we long to be in a tribe, a village. So we seek out membership in a few groups that satisfy our status and belonging needs. That’s much of what I see going on with marginalized groups gaining recognition. It’s not only the politics and social justice of these issues; it’s group membership, status, validation among several people whose opinions we value, etc. When a bisexual person feels excluded from gay and lesbian groups, it’s a political/social thing, but it also really, really sucks for the bisexual person.

Life is lived (largely, at least for people from more individualistic cultures) as an individual. When you feel happiness or pain, you do so yourself. Knowing that your group is doing OK even though you have been left behind doesn’t make most people happy.

So there’s this unfortunate thing I see happening: dominant-culture people being serially excluded from the cool groups. “Cool” is partly pure cachet (in more liberal-leaning circles there definitely seem to be shifting hierarchies of “interesting” and “valid” and “important” attached to certain gender/race/ethnicity/orientation-type groups). More importantly for this piece, however, “cool” is about being a member of a group that’s the right size for individual recognition, connection, and status as a member as well as status of the group itself (especially the latter).  I have no structured data on this, so it’s possible I’m wrong about what I’m about to say next (but, by that same token, being shown I’m wrong in a convincing way would probably require structured data): I think people whose identities all (or mostly) fall in dominant social groups, with few or no generally recognized marginalized/minority/stigmatized identities, are having the experience of being excluded, repeatedly, from the groups their culture tells them are now important or interesting or “cool.” They feel they have no way in. No way to gain the status and belonging that people from marginalized groups might enjoy (might is an important word, of course).

I swear I’m not going alt-right/redpill here, but the most obvious such group might be American (or European or Canadian) white males. I’m not arguing that their lives are qualitatively worse than those of marginalized individuals just because they feel left out of the social justice revolution; I am, however, saying that that exclusion matters to them. To me, in fact, because I am a white, hetero, cisgender, educated American male. None of those identities is marginalized in any real way. My experience of Twitter is of being very careful what I say and who I say it to (despite not always being careful enough). I have been told to sit down and shut up many times, on social media. A prominent black fantasy author tore a strip off me because I suggested that, even though not all cops are necessarily racist, high-profile police racism situations strongly suggest that racism is embedded in police culture. Perhaps my comment didn’t include a pure enough condemnation of police racism. I’ve been criticized for what I honestly thought were attempts to show solidarity, sympathy, or allyship to women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others. Often, the message is “This is our forum/conversation/topic, not yours. If you want to participate, you are permitted to do so as long as you accept a lower status than those for whom this forum/conversation/topic is most personally relevant.”

Like I said, that message actually makes sense to me. But it also sucks to be excluded, or included only as a low-status or marginal group member. One argument against my whining would be, “You enjoy plenty of status already, as a member of dominant groups.” That is, of course, true: my opportunities for education, the various other factors that made a middle-class life possible for me, my ongoing lack of concern about being beaten down by cops at traffic stops or assaulted because of my gender identity, etc. are all directly attributable to my visible membership in dominant groups.

And exclusion still sucks. My dominant-social-group identities don’t help with that in any way I can identify. White cis/hetero men make up the majority of wealthy Americans and powerful government figures. However, I don’t know any of those people, they probably feel no kinship to me, and the vast majority of white cis/hetero men are neither wealthy nor powerful. Personally, it doesn’t really fill me with much of a warm glow to know that someone who looks kind of like me is super rich. It is a major reason for my lived privilege, of course (those white cis/hetero men are good at passing laws favoring white cis/hetero men), but comfort, safety, and freedom–though critical–are not the sum total of existence, and I’m certainly not fully comfortable, always safe, or always free (those white cis/hetero men tend to be wealthy, and to make laws and customs that screw over everyone but the wealthy). There are LGBTQ+ individuals who don’t experience as much danger or discrimination as others. There are migrants, POC, and disabled individuals who, for various reasons, enjoy most or all of the privileges of dominant social groups with few of the downsides of their marginalized identities. This is a good thing; we need to strive for a world in which everyone enjoys all freedom and safety possible, and we need to make more of it possible. And I am aware that such relatively-privileged individuals can catch a lot of shit from people with similar identities who don’t have as much privilege. That dialogue is important, too. My point is that you are not your social group (at least not mostly). Your life is your own, and may vary in important ways from the stereotypes. I am not a god just because I’m white, cis, hetero, and male. Those identities also don’t make me a Senator, CEO, or police officer.

Being a member of a social group, no matter how globally important, does not exempt a person from basic social needs, like the need to have status within one or more groups of just the right size. We want families, neighborhoods, communities, and we want to feel important and valued within those groups. We want those groups to feel important and valued among other groups. If the only groups available to a person are gigantic nation-level or culture-level identities, then that person will feel serious social/emotional pain on a regular basis. This doesn’t really compare to ongoing fear of death or not being able to get a job, but isn’t that just whataboutism? Insisting that one kind of pain doesn’t matter because somewhere there are worse kinds?

Feeling excluded still sucks. Feeling a lack of appropriately-sized groups with possibilities for in-group and between-group status really sucks, no matter the reason.

A lot of dominant-group people probably just suck it up and feel lonely a lot. We know it’s not appropriate to try to shove our way into groups made of and for minorities, marginalized individuals, etc. We also know it’s problematic (or at least very socially unpopular) to form groups based on identities parallel to those of marginalized groups. “A club for people with my EEOC-approved identities! I’ll call it the White, Cis, Straight, Middle-class Male Club!” Yeah, that’s not great. You rightly note that much of our culture is a white, cis, straight, middle-class male club. True. But being part of a club with 100 million members is not particularly satisfying. None of them know you. None of them care about you. You can’t really go to them for comfort or a loan. You can’t just move to a new city and go find the white, cis, straight dudes and assume that they will welcome you into their fold just because of your shared identities.

So I think a lot of dominant-culture people are looking for groups of the right size. D&D clubs. LARPing. Bowling leagues. Churches. Middle manager clubs or whatever (I assume these exist). Sewing circles. Outdoors clubs. Those can help a lot, I think, to satisfy those needs. Some of us have other identities with hope of helping ease the social needs: I’m a professor, and that’s a pretty cool group. I have a few interests and background factors that might potentially help me connect with other subgroups of professors at some point. You know, if I get out there and do something about it. I don’t have any identities that provide me with that heady “we’re all in this struggle together” feeling, which is a little sad but mostly OK, because that would mean I was in a struggle, which sounds unpleasant.

I think a lot of straight/cis white men are in a worse predicament than I am. Cruise Twitter or Facebook or even just the news: everywhere you look you’ll see forceful messages reminding you that your gender, your race and ethnicity, your sexual orientation, etc. are very important. You’ll see hashtags or groups or networks for women in STEM, queer scientists, black journalists, Latino students, trans servicepersons, and on and on. If you’ve been paying attention, and if you have a bit of decency, you will cheer for these groups. You will celebrate a world in which at least this visibility is finally OK. You’ll celebrate and cheer quietly and carefully, however, if you don’t want to be told to sit down and shut up from time to time.

And you’ll feel very lonely because, even if you never have the “sit down, shut up” moments, even if every group allows you to participate, you are not, and cannot be, a member of these groups. Seeing these groups is the process of seeing that gender and race and ethnicity and sexual orientation are critical parts of what makes a person human, but you will understand that you will be criticized heavily if you try to celebrate your  gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. You will understand why, too, because you know a bit about history and culture and politics, and you are a decent person; but exclusion still sucks. There’s no way it can feel anything but hurtful.

An obvious fact that I haven’t touched on, yet is that there are groups that will help you celebrate your maleness, your whiteness, your cis/straightness, or all at once. They respond to “no men allowed” or “no straight people allowed” or “POC only” with their own rules excluding POC, sexual minorities, or women, or just telling those people to sit down and shut up if they dare try to join the party. Those are horrible groups. Those are white supremacists, toxic bro-clubs, Brexiters, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Do not join those groups. They represent marginalization, denigration, or even hate of others as they celebrate themselves.

So stay out of the toxic groups celebrating your identities, don’t spend too much time trying to participate with marginalized individuals’ groups trying to carve a place for themselves (unless you have secrets to doing so without regularly feeling like a redheaded stepchild), and… what? Just feel lonely a lot. Just feel uninvolved, uninvited, unconnected. Just let that human need go unfilled. Your life is mostly OK, and most of your needs are taken care of; maybe it’s all right that this one isn’t.

Or join a club. Go to church. Canvass for a local politician. Get a job you enjoy, if you can. And spend less time on Twitter, both to avoid all the nasty white supremacist, misogynist, status quo-promoting bullshit and (importantly) to see fewer messages from people with marginalized identities building communities you can never fully participate in. Try to see fewer messages telling you that the most important human identities are your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, and your disability status. For a Latina grad student, it’s probably hugely helpful to be part of a group of other people with a similar ethnic heritage. For a gay government worker it’s probably very important to be part of a group of other gay bureaucrats. For marginalized identities, the dimensions of marginalization can be crucial common elements for affiliation, for group membership, for satisfying that deep longing to be part of a family and a tribe. For dominant identities, it’s different. If you are from a dominant cultural/social group, your race, gender, orientation, etc. cannot be the factors on which you base your identity, or around which you build your group memberships. It sucks, and it feels unfair (though I don’t think it actually is, in any meaningful way), but that’s the reality. Building your identity on dominant social characteristics is a direct, no-exits highway to oppressing others. At least that’s how it seems to me, at this point in my life.

I have a tiny tribe of three people; my family. We are not universally members of dominant identities, but we mostly are. I’m a member of some larger tribes that help with the social longing. And I think I need to form a good D&D group. And I need to unfollow a lot of my current Twitter feed.