By David Palmer, Science Department Head
One White Male’s Perspective
The mass murders in Atlanta need to be called what they are. They are hate crimes, but that is not enough. It angers me to hear attempts to explain the actions as a result of the killer’s struggles with addiction and feelings of failing his faith. Addiction doesn’t lead someone to go on a killing spree. It can make you desperate, but it makes the addict desperate to feed the addiction, not to kill. Hate makes you want to kill. And that young white man in Georgia killed women and killed Asians out of hate. Race and prejudice based hate crimes happen all too often in America because of our culture. This is a country dominated by white men, and as a white man, I want to say we are all far too complicit in perpetuating this patriarchy. The murderer is an extreme example, as all hate crimes are, but it is the “tip of the iceberg.” He was not a “lone wolf,” he is a product of the culture he was raised in- the same culture that I was raised in, the same culture that put a man in the White House who can be overtly degrading to women, overtly anti-Asian, and overtly blame immigrants and minorities and still have almost half of the voting population vote for him. I am not saying Donald Trump is to blame for this crime, I am saying American culture is responsible for both of them, and that culture is a white patriarchy that is racist, misogynist, and violent.
I don’t want to take away from the trauma the Asian community has experienced or the anxiety and fear that comes with being Asian in America. I just can’t help but see it in the context of a culture that allows, and promotes violence against African-Americans, violence and hatred toward immigrants, and violence and hatred toward women. And I see a common denominator in all that – white men. White men are not the target of these things, they are the perpetrators. I have heard reference to the phrase “not all men.” I refuse to use it myself, because, yes, of course, it is not all men and not all white men. But, when the culture we grow up in repeatedly delivers the messages that women are less than, minorities are less than, immigrants are less than, and to be feared, it makes them targets for the more desperate, the more angry, the more extreme members of the dominant group: white men.
I appreciate that white males who consider themselves good people can easily look at an event like Atlanta and say, “that’s not me.” But we do not speak up, and I don’t just mean as in playing the bystander. It is all too easy to listen to the debate in this country today that tries very hard to divide America into us vs them, and buy into it. The conservative powers in this country (my definition is: the right wing of the Republican party, specifically the movement that started with Reagan and later became referred to as the Neocons, and now is referred to as Trump-Republicans, and the white evangelicals/Christian Conservatives) use rhetoric intensely to push this divide, and creates a false dichotomy. I believe the leaders of these movements do it, not even for what some of them claim as “White America,” but to perpetuate and grow their own power and wealth. They want us to believe that it is us or them; that if minorities gain power, white men will lose it. But we know better. Opportunities for Asian Americans, for Black Americans, for women, do not mean less opportunity for white men. In fact it means the opposite. An economy, a community, is not a fixed size pie. It grows. And the better everyone does, the more it grows. Defending Asian-Americans, and speaking up for women, or for members of any marginalized community, doesn’t threaten anyone’s opportunities. In fact it can help to create more. And in the process, the more open we are to others, the more we learn how to succeed in different situations ourselves. If there is one thing modern culture has demonstrated, it is that we need to be adaptive. Things change, and they are changing more rapidly. The more people we have on our side, the better we can handle whatever is coming next.
I know I have benefited because I am white and I am male. I went to public school in a white, middle class town with one of the best school districts in the state. I got into a really good college, and I was proud of myself. Today I know that I did earn it, but so much of the reason I even had a chance was because of my circumstances. I have worked in a similar public school and watched great kids get into great schools. And I have worked in an urban, mostly minority, mostly immigrant public school and taught equally great kids. They would just give me that look and kind smile when I would say “you can go to a great college.” The schools they attended from day one, were not as good as the ones I went to. Their chances of getting into college, simply as a result of the school district they come from, were an order of magnitude smaller than mine. Many lack even the financial resources, and adult help to just apply to college, let alone figure out how to afford it.
The white patriarchy pervades everything about our culture, so much so that we mostly don’t notice it and just accept it. Raising daughters has shown me this. During the 2016 Summer Olympics, I remember watching a woman nicknamed “The Iron Lady” winning gold medals and setting records: the TV coverage spent more time on her husband in the stands than on her race. The announcers went on and on about how he was such a big part of her success, and I commented on it. Both my girls stopped and looked at me, surprised that I even noticed. This was commonplace to them. I was just waking up to it. My daughter today is in a grad program in a department dominated by older white men, sexist men, and as much as everyone knows it, they are still there.
I was raised to believe in the ideals of freedom and equality. My family had always seemed perfectly tolerant to me. But, when my brother dated a girl from the Dominican Republic, my grandmother, herself with at least 25% Native American ancestry, said things I cannot put in print. And my mother, better educated and more eloquent, echoed the same vitriol in more politically correct terms. There is a duplicity to American culture that we all learn to internalize. We should be tolerant of others, as long as they don’t upset the status-quo of a white patriarchal nation.
We have made real progress in this country. One hundred and sixty years ago we ended slavery, in spite of the fact that almost half of the nation was willing to tear this country apart in war to defend it. One hundred years ago, women wrested the right to vote. In the sixties we became a world leader in public education, and civil rights. Today we can openly talk about the rights of LGBTQ people. In my lifetime I have seen women sit on the Supreme Court, the first African-American president, and the first female woman of color as the vice president. But we are not done. We do not have a truly free and fair society. We continue to have a white male dominated culture: a culture that promotes and tolerates white men who are abusive to women and supportive of white supremacy, and leaders who benefit from the division they create, because it allows them to hold on to power. Women have worked to earn and defend their rights for a long time. African-Americans have worked to earn and defend their rights for a long time. Asian-Americans have worked to earn and defend their rights for a long time. And yet, still, 86% of CEOs on Fortune 500 are white men1. Women earn only 82 cents compared to white men2. White men need to step up, speak up, and be a part of the change – neither perpetuate the existing power structure nor continue to passively watch. Tolerance is not just about belief, it requires action. We become what we practice, and we all need to speak and act in order to make this community the best it can be, and make ourselves the best we can be, not just accept.
And if you still doubt the inequities and prejudices in America, I have one last thought about what an equal and open society could look like: When asked ‘when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied: “When there are nine.” That to many people seems extreme. But for so much of our history, there were 9 white men on the Supreme Court and it didn’t even make the news. Can you imagine an America where 9 women of color could sit on the Supreme Court and it doesn’t even make the news? That would be proof that we truly are not a racist and sexist culture any more.
Mr. David Palmer is a faculty member at St. Mark’s School. He is the head of the Science Department.
- Fortune 500 CEOs, 2000-2020: Still Male, Still White; Richie Zweigenhaft; https://thesocietypages.org/specials/fortune-500-ceos-2000-2020-still-male-still-white/; accessed March 25, 2021
- The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap; AAUW; https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/simple-truth/ ; accessed March 25, 2021.