White men get no respect, or so some say

December 18, 1992|By Boston Globe

The message often comes quiet as a whisper, but it's hard to miss.

One white man got it sitting in a parents group at his son's school: "Everyone wants to know what the African-American and the Haitian and the Native American think, but no one really cares what the white man thinks. I am a known quantity. I am

invisible."

Another white man got it from white women.

"They think white men are very uncool; they've heard it all before," a Boston lawyer said. "Sometimes I think I should make it up, like I tell them I was emotionally abused. Fortunately I have my ethnicity to fall back on since I'm Jewish."

They are white men in a changing world, the only ethnic group -- as they see it -- that is not in vogue. Men, of course, have been the subject of jokes for as long as there have been women. But held up against an earnest PC morality, some white men object that they are not only the victims of sexist and racist humor but are being held singularly responsible for the travails of Western civilization.

They are.

In a world to which diversity is the password, white men are white bread. Unfeeling, undeserving, imbued with privilege from their pasty pates to their tasseled toes -- or so the stereotype goes -- white men are out of fashion, out of touch and in a few cases out of a job. And while there are many who believe it's long overdue, some white men find it all a little unnerving.

"White guys can't jump, they can't dance, they can't think, they can't [expletive], they don't get it at all," said Asa Baber, author of the "Men" column in Playboy magazine and a self-described "embattled white man." "We are by definition healthy, wealthy and oppressive. Almost by definition we are jerks."

Many among Mr. Baber's brethren know PC only as a small computer, are light years removed from circles where to be a victim verges on the virtuous. Even so, quiz a couple of downtown suits on the subject, and the answers are fast and unflinching:

"If you're a white man these days, about the only correct thing you can do is shoot yourself," said a Boston lawyer, who served in the administration of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

George Santiccioli of Newton, Mass., a computer consultant who is writing a book called "The Endangered Species Cook Book and Guide To Good Living," using untested recipes, said: "The only acceptable super-villain these days is a middle-aged, Protestant white banker."

Said Terry West, a 44-year-old historian with the Agriculture Department in Washington: "We are dinosaurs. We are the flotsam and jetsam blocking the march of progress."

People who are not white men have little sympathy for the groaning of a group that they consider to have been uniquely privileged throughout the nation's history, generally at someone else's expense. Despite two decades of affirmative action, it is largely white men who occupy the seats of power in American life, seats they show little inclination of vacating voluntarily. Indeed, some say the whining of white men would be amusing, if it were not so infuriating.

"Their complaints are the most egregious example of whining self-pity to come down the pike in a long, long time," said Julian Bond, civil rights activist and a visiting professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "White men have had, and do have, greater opportunity and unparalleled privilege in this country," he added. "So to hear complaints from this population just doesn't wash."

White men -- particularly those who complain most bitterly about the stereotype with which they feel they've been pegged -- are quick to say that the discrimination they experience pales in comparison to that suffered by other groups. No one, they insist, could be more supportive of equality and fair treatment for all peoples than they are.

And yet, there is a feeling among some white men that somehow those laudable goals are being achieved largely at their expense, that they are being made to bear the burden of hundreds of years of history in which they played no part. And it is a feeling felt most forcefully by men in their 20s and 30s, men relatively early in their careers who find their aspirations tempered by a more competitive reality than they were reared to expect.

It is the subtlest of things: There are no protest marches against white men on Main Street, no effigies of middle-aged WASP bankers being torched in front of the local savings and loan. But white men see it out there.

They see it in the "white-men-are-slime" jokes made by women comedians. In the boiling furor over college curriculum changes that target the writings of Dead White European Males as not reflecting a multicultural world. In diversity programs in corporations across the country, they feel their views are ignored, their ideas dismissed. And they see it in the jobs and promotions they do not get.

"What they're complaining about," Mr. Bond said, "is that they used to have 100 percent of the slots and now they have to share, and it burns them up."

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