Awareness and Remembrance

Beyond Good and Evil is White Male Privilege

September 07, 2017

margaret macpherson photo

Margaret MacPherson

Margaret is a Research Associate with CREVAWC at Western University. She has been a champion for the Neighbours, Friends and Families program since 2005.

The public killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville recently brought the shadow side of white North American society into full view. Her parents spoke clearly and passionately to the people at her memorial, eloquently charging them to keep her legacy alive. Her call for peace and equality prompts me to make a link between the tragedy of her murder and lessons learned about domestic and sexual violence. It is a long and winding road.

heather heyer photoThe frank and unambiguous comments of Donald Trump this week have illuminated the deeply internalized racism lurking in white culture for all to see. We see have seen other equally stark examples of misogyny and homophobia since he rode the down escalator into politics in 2015. Trump has been ‘just being Trump’ his whole life, without apology or regret. He is the capitalist emblem of the American Dream – rich, white, able-bodied, hetero, male – entitled by privilege he didn’t have to earn. His promises to return to an earlier time resonate for enough people that he now holds the most powerful office in the world.

Are we brave enough to try to understand what is happening from the perspective of Trump and white supremacists – to consider the ways society has sustained a belief in white superiority? Not to justify or explain racist actions, but to try to help ourselves out of the polarized morass that keeps hate alive. Rather than denouncing evil, let’s talk about the dangers of unexamined privilege and entitlement. Chris Cantwell, the vocal white supremacist could be the poster child for unexamined privilege and entitlement.

The VICE documentary on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville profiled Chris Cantwell prior to and during the rally. He spoke clearly about the white supremacist movement to reclaim white power in America, making overt and ugly hate comments throughout. He showed the array of guns he carries and spoke about going to the gym to become even more prepared for violence.

In response to the airing of the VICE documentary on CNN, Cantwell made a subsequent video that CNN aired on shortly afterwards. Looking quite desperate and fearing for his safety, he tried to back away from the VICE representation. Instead, he described himself as “peaceful”. He insists that he is just trying to hold his ground in the face of “radicalized” minorities and alt-leftists.  Cantwell sees himself and his brothers in arms as victims, prepared to defend themselves. How can a man who is so aggressive also see himself as a victim? Think about the behaviour of cornered animals and then add to that a sense of outrage that the corner should ever exist in the first place.

Cantwell and Trump feel completely entitled to protect the dominance of white culture as the natural order. It’s in their bones. You can’t shame them into seeing their actions this week as evil or even racist. No way. “I am the least racist person” Trump told CNN in an early interview. His comment is better understood in a discussion of how entitlement functions.

Even men who have been extremely violent in their relationships rarely see themselves as the aggressor. Lundy Bancroft, an American therapist suggests that the violent men he works with often describe themselves as powerless and out of control when they are violent with their partners, not powerful and in control. They use violence and the threat of violence to try to maintain order in their lives. They feel entitled to have it that way – as the natural order of the world. Ellen Pence, a pioneer in the field of domestic violence who worked with violent men and their partners, suggested that it’s not that they have a desire to dominate their partners; it’s that they feel entitled  to have control over who she is, what she does and how she does it. It is their birthright, as men.

This is the logic of patriarchy. Men are still automatically the King of their castles. The email from the young Google employee who was fired illustrated very clearly the thinking about why men are superior in the IT world. Similarly with race, the sense of entitlement as a white person is as not as much about wanting to dominate people of colour, it’s the belief that white people deserve to have the privileges they have – because it is the order of things and a birthright. White men in particular have been trained over centuries to feel entitled to sit at the top of humanity. They preside over the world in a King of the Hill position and men like Trump and his white supremacist supporters are not about to give it up. Trump is the logical conclusion to patriarchy.

Over the past forty years, many gains have been made in the name of social justice. These gains are perceived as a threat to white male dominance, because they are. It is true that they are losing ground.

Beyond the shock of Charlottesville and Trump’s remarks that followed, how can we avoid the trap of ‘not-me’ self-righteousness and hate? I believe that this is what the Heyer family is asking us to do. Can Heather’s legacy actually help us advance the bar on social injustice? Do we have the ability and will to shift out of a strictly ‘good and evil’ framing of events? The polarization of the good-us and evil-them’ locks everyone down into positions of hate and intolerance that can only spiral down into the abyss. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of having to slug it out to some kind of conclusion with the alt right feels like the end of the world. I think we have to be a whole lot smarter if we are going to survive ourselves.

Heather Heyer image source: