The line began in 2015 as an invocation from writer Sarah Hagi: “God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.” The words shift a bit—God to Lord, dude to man—but it’s since graced T-shirts (the words screen printed above men in suits, their faces erased), key chains, tote bags, cross-stitch patterns, memes, even self-help columns on how to behave like said white man. Now Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo has given it a twist and taken it as the theme of her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, out December 1.
As the subtitle suggests, Oluo sets out to unpack more than dumb bro bluster. She’s working through troubled and corrosive foundations of white masculinity. This mediocrity is, she writes, “a baseline, the dominant narrative… That everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.” She’s digging into “horrifically oppressive” systems, not just your neighbor Steve.
The sovereign right of white men is as pervasive as some of our other national myths—the American Dream, Manifest Destiny—and inextricably linked with them. So to start Oluo goes back to Buffalo Bill and his stage show, in which his “scalping of Yellow Hand was an act of justice.” Across the chapter, in a few deft leaps, Oluo ties this fraught narrative of the independent cowboy and the American West to the present. Eventually in Bill’s show, Mormons replaced Natives as the villains, and those Mormons may’ve been based on a group in Utah, who fought a Christian wagon train. “It was supposed to be a quick ordeal,” Oluo writes. “They would shoot a few interlopers who would then run away and leave the Mormons to the land they had rightfully stolen.” One of those Mormons was the ancestor of the Bundy family, who mounted the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. Oluo considers “the idea of a white man going it alone” as “one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered.”
This is how the book ticks along. Oluo introduces a topic in a first-person passage, then spends the chapter offering examples to show how we uphold white male supremacy in various spaces. Chapter four is largely about racism (the Great Migration, redlining), the next about workplace misogyny. The book is at its sharpest when Oluo explicates these examples at length and connects history to the present. The second chapter, subtitled “The Centering of White Men in Social Justice Movements,” digs up a couple of prominent (white, male) socialist feminists in the 1910s, then peels back the layers of their patriarchal entitlement. Turned out being a socialist feminist was useful for getting laid, less useful when seeking a subservient wife. Then it’s on to how Joe Biden supported busing to desegregate schools, until it wasn’t useful for him politically. Next: Bernie bros. A later chapter similarly dissects the white supremacy in football—from segregated games, to 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, to the ostracizing of Colin Kaepernick after he kneeled.
Throughout, as in her 2018 primer So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo is clear and approachable—a lucid teacher, leavening lessons with snark. As I (white guy) read the book, I was again disoriented by how much Oluo’s been harassed for her supposedly “antiwhite” writing. The slurs, the doxing, the person pretending to be her son saying he’d just shot his parents, which prompted a SWAT team to swarm her house. She’s direct in her appraisals, yes, but constantly nuanced, noting that we must “be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men.” She likens this supremacy to a pyramid scheme. Even as white men uphold the structure, those at the bottom suffer because of it and lash out with terrifying frequency. In 2017, 70 percent of deaths by suicides were white males. So are 70 percent of mass school shooters.
Oluo’s case is compelling. America has long been telling a bad story, one that manifests in movies, in presidencies—that white men are heirs to the kingdom, regardless of their abilities. It’d do us well to realize when we’ve been sold a lie.