How do I do better as a white man? asked Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey of Emmanuel Acho on the latter’s show ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.’ That question was asked during a weekend when social media timelines are flooded with images of 18-year-old white supremacist Peyton Gendron who murdered 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket. Once again, the ordinariness of daily life, running errands, hanging with family – mundane beauty is transformed into a murderous blood bath as whiteness spewed its ugly masculinist hate.
Doing better for white men when it comes to race means do your own emotional work grappling with your emotional relationship to whiteness in ways that you simply never have, then go gather your white brethren, engage with and challenge them to do theirs. It is beyond time for white men to have an emotional reckoning. With all the language of racial reckoning and healing emerging from 2020, when it comes to white men, this is a crucial, un-had conversation.
White men’s emotional work entails exploring, identifying, and severing the connections in their relationship to power and race by unlearning the language of whiteness. The language of whiteness is a narrative that teaches them – that teaches all of us - how the world came to be and our role in it as white, Black, Brown, indigenous people. This narrative is a deadly lie that whiteness built the world, is the world and saves the world, and that white masculinity is the world’s builder, savior and conqueror. Whiteness lays the foundation and is the heartbeat of sustained brutal injustice, and at its soul, that language centers a notion of supremacy and issues of dominion, subjugation, exploitation. This relationship then shapes how white men lead, learn, work, see themselves as white men. That’s because the connections are about identity, essence, emotions, intimacy, trauma, heart, and soul - not intellect, ideology, or philosophy.
This narrative creates an emotional relationship to whiteness which in turn creates an emotional patriarchy – a world where we center, privilege and prioritize the feelings of white men, no matter the cost or consequence to all women, Black, Brown and Indigenous people. This white masculinity that is birthed from the language of whiteness, and creates an emotional patriarchy, is a graveyard. It is a cancerous coddling, it is a killer.
Doing the emotional work requires white men challenge themselves about power, and take the kind of action they have been unwilling to take – break up with whiteness. Break up with this notion of masculinity birthed by the language of whiteness that coddles your mediocrity and comforts your insecurity, creating entire narratives of manufactured threat to your existence by the mere presence of others who do not look like you. That narrative is then fed by elements of society, so bruised feelings of manufactured vulnerability in white men’s bodies find home in structures and systems. What makes white men’s feelings deadly is the structural power to weaponize them, and then transform them into policy which becomes power, sustained by systems, that then manifest to wreck Black lives.
Peyton Gendron, an 18-year-old, is now part of a fraternity of murderous white men who weaponized their feelings, wrapped them around the barrel of a gun, and poured them all over black bodies, turning them into deadly rounds of the whitest rage.
Gendron pulled the trigger with a gun that was loaded by the millions of white men who are failing to do their emotional work, confront an emotional relationship to whiteness, race and power. It was loaded by Tucker Carlson, and the now mainstream far right, and also by those who take refuge in progressive politics, point judgmental fingers at the Tucker Carlsons’ and the rabid racist hatred of Fox News, and breathe a sigh of relief that they are not them. Too many white men take refuge in their progressive politics, sound political arguments, and being on the right side, morally. Your politics will not, have not, and cannot protect you. Not by themselves. You cannot do better as white men simply by having better politics.
It is simply not enough to not be those white men. The graves of the 10 murdered Black people are soaked in the stench of white men’s inaction and their refusal to emotionally reckon with whiteness. And it is bolstered by those millions of white men who harbor ongoing delusions that you can reason with this language of whiteness that is, always has been, and continues to be murderous.
I don’t know if white men want to do better as white men, I think they want to be absolved. They want to be reassured, they want to be affirmed and applauded as good, white liberal men, to be told by Black folks that of course we know they are not Peyton, not Tucker Carlson and not Fox News. Maybe not. That is white men expecting Black people to do their emotional labor.
Doing your emotional work is not about your politics, you cannot take refuge in them. That’s because not doing your emotional work makes you part of a brotherhood of bystanders, millions strong. This brotherhood revels in their rejection of guns, their absence from the capitol building on January 7 2021, their intellect. and finds particular power in being able to point at those white men over there and say ‘we are not them.’ But again, that is not enough.
It will never be enough to not be Peyton Gendron or Kyle Rittenhouse, or Dylan Roof or any of the other white supremacist murderers. It isn’t enough to not be Tucker Carlson or those white men at Fox. Here’s how you do better as a white man. Stop asking Black people to do your emotional labor. Your emotional work is not with Black men, women or children – it is with yourselves and each other. White men’s failure to do their emotional work means this deadly cycle of white boy/men killers weaponizing their feelings, arming their insecurity, and aiming their cancerous notions of manufactured threats about white extermination at Black bodies, will continue.
Do your own emotional work. Gather your white brethren. It is beyond time for white men to have an emotional reckoning, and to become the change they claim.
Esther Armah is CEO, The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice. She is the author of the upcoming book ‘EMOTIONAL JUSTICE: a roadmap for racial healing’ that explores the language of whiteness and introduces a new racial healing framework. Published by Berrett Koehler, and distributed by Penguin Random House. www.theaiej.com.