By David Michael Newstead.
Michael Kimmel is a Professor of Sociology and the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. He’s written extensively on the subject of masculinity in books such as The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, Guyland, and Manhood in America: A Cultural History. In 2015, he organized the first International Conference on Masculinities in New York, which included well-known feminist Gloria Steinem and participants from as far away as Mozambique. Kimmel’s latest work is Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.
Here’s an excerpt:
White men’s anger is “real” – that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true” – that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation. The “enemies” of white American men are not really women and men of color. Our enemy is an ideology of masculinity that we inherited from our fathers, and their fathers before them, an ideology that promises unparalleled acquisition coupled with a tragically impoverished emotional intelligence. We have accepted an ideology of masculinity that leaves us feeling empty and alone when we do it right, and even worse when we feel we’re doing it wrong. Worst of all, though, is when we feel we’ve done it right and still do not get the rewards to which we believe we are entitled. Then we have to blame somebody. Somebody else.
The book starts with Michael Kimmel getting lunch with a white supremacist gun nut and continues from there, delving into different examples of pissed off white men in the United States like divorced dads, political pundits, and fans of talk radio (to name a few). After reading Angry White Men, I reached out to Professor Kimmel and was fortunate enough to speak with him a few days after the Conference on Masculinities wrapped up. Our conversation was just before his recent appearance at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa as he travels across the country to discuss his research.
David Newstead: First off, how was the conference?
Michael Kimmel: Amazing, I think. We worked hard to plan it and prepare for it. Most of us hadn’t organized a conference before, but it was quite an amazing event. Half the participants were from the Global North and half were from the Global South. 20 percent of the participants were under the age of 25. Half were men, half were women, and we had some very engaging discussions throughout the course of the conference.
David Newstead: What motivated you to write Angry White Men?
Michael Kimmel: I’m a sociologist by training and I wanted to understand the anger exhibited by white men in America who are probably the most privileged group on the face of the Earth outside of hereditary aristocracy. There are a lot of causes to that resentment, but you cannot understand the anger in America today without first understanding gender. Understanding gender isn’t enough by itself, but it’s a vital component.
David Newstead: So, how does that anger manifest itself?
Michael Kimmel: When white men in the Tea Party say “We have to take our country back,” my question is about the word “our”. Where’d they get the idea the whole country was theirs? Isn’t it every Americans’ country? I think things have changed so much and so quickly in society and it’s only as they’ve changed that this attitude has been exposed. For example, my father grew up in a world that looked like Don Draper’s and I grew up expecting that too. But my son looks at Don Draper’s world and thinks that it’s a joke. Men of a certain generation grew up thinking that they could expect that life, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know if you’re a runner, but it’s as if white men have been running with the wind at their backs for years and now that’s disappearing. Suddenly in a meritocracy, people are having the realization that they might not win! But I think men are right to be angry. They should just be angry at the right things.
David Newstead: Do you think this same kind of sentiment is being replicated elsewhere in the world right now? Like across Europe? Or in Russia, for example?
Michael Kimmel: It’s definitely being replicated in Europe by right-wing parties and anti-immigrant parties that demonize Muslim youth.
David Newstead: Are you concerned this anger will become more pronounced in the future as white male privilege is increasingly threatened in a diverse society?
Michael Kimmel: No, it’s not going to get worse, because my son and young men of his generation don’t have those same, outdated expectations. They want to be good partners. It’s important to men today to be good fathers, which is a significant change we’re seeing. When my father went to college, the question he and his friends asked was “Are you going to let your wife work?” That question doesn’t get asked anymore. Men now expect their partners to have careers. This anger is getting louder, but it’s dying day-by-day. We’re seeing the last gasp.
David Newstead: So, it’s really a generational discrepancy about expectations?
Michael Kimmel: Yes, because reality no longer meshes with those ideas. Some people may want to restore things to the way they used to be, but that world is gone. And the future is already decided. There’s going to be more diversity. There’s going to be more women in prominent positions. Men can either embrace that new reality or be dragged into it kicking and screaming.
David Newstead: I was thinking about this recently and it’s funny to me, because everyone seems to have formed an emotional attachment to a particular decade as the baseline for what manhood in America should be forever. I’ll just call it 1950, but no one feels that same attachment to the year 1820 or 1901 or 1795…
Michael Kimmel: I think that moment in time represents a period of certainty and stability for people. If you think about it, what would it have been like to live in America when it was not guaranteed that we’d win the Second World War? Or if you didn’t know whether the Great Depression was ever going to end? By the 1950s, those issues had been decided, there was stable leadership under Eisenhower, and government programs to benefit the public.
David Newstead: Last question and this is mainly because I like lists. Going forward, what would a to-do list look like for white men in America?
Michael Kimmel: Ask yourself if you’re feeling angry, why is that the case? If you feel unhappy with your life or if you feel like a victim, look at other people who are unhappy as well. Like African American males. Instead of blaming other people, form alliances and get to the root causes of the problems you’re facing.