The inspiration for Ijeoma Oluo’s second book, Mediocre, The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America was Sarah Hagi’s remedy for imposter syndrome: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
This tweet reminds us of the entitlement of the white man, but doesn’t go into the injustices it has caused. Oluo does this for us instead. Her first book, So you want to talk about Race, was a necessary and timely (or more appropriately, about-timely) read for anyone who finds it easy to spot anecdotal injustices in society but doesn’t understand the complexity of the history (and their own partaking in that flawed system) that led to that point. With this book, she delves deeper into that which we all know on some level; the realisation that the systems we have in place are flawed and need to be replaced with fairer models.
Published by Seal Press, a feminist publishing house, the book is rightly placed with a publisher that expects no less than “radical and groundbreaking books that inspire and challenge readers, that humanize urgent issues, that build much-needed bridges in divisive times, and help us see the world in a new light.”
This book is a deep-dive into socio-political research, research that ends up being personally traumatic and triggering for her, into just how unjust the patriarchal world is and proposes a solution. The design is flawed. We need to throw it out and start again. The softly, softly approach of not demanding great change – that time has passed.
Opening in the sanctity of a female only writer’s retreat, she immediately gets to her point: “Our entire society is built to ensure white men hoard power.” Not god-given, man-made. As Oluo wryly puts it: “as in, caused by dudes.”
We all know that mediocre white man. He knows he is mediocre. He’s the guy that lives by the code: “Never apologise, never explain.” He may act like a friend to the feminists and virtue-signals support for Black Lives Matter, but is resentful of his girlfriend when her earnings surpass his. He despises women who outsmart him and will lash out at her appearance, weight, ethnicity, intelligence, anything that he feels will redress the imbalance.
Oluo exposes white supremacy as everywhere, not just in some alt-right corner of some place far away from us. “It is more insidious than that,” she writes:
When I say white supremacy I am not just talking about Klan members and neo-Nazis. I’m talking about the way our classrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalised and universalised, while cultures of color are demonised, exotified or erased.
Using statistics, anecdotal evidence and persuasive eloquence, Oluo depicts a world where white male supremacy harms us all. She argues how the system encourages their moral and ambitious laziness:
The man who never listens, never prepares, who insists on getting his way, this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes.
In the book we get an example of this in Brian, her overbearing relative and stereotypically mediocre white man. As a mediocre white man, he “wants to be a hero so feels the need to fabricate a villain to justify his imagined role”. Brian is a hindrance, to be tolerated at family gatherings. Oluo juxtaposes this with the negative impact “white men have been having on my life and the lives of others…and it is not new.” This segues nicely into her chapter on Cowboys and Patriots, and how Buffalo Bill’s scalping of Yellow Hair is mostly invented, half-truths, glorified steps taken to resolve the “Indian problem.” This mostly boiled down to killing thousands and thousands of bison, thus destroying the food source for the Cheyenne People, the Lakota people and the Arapahoe people. This isn’t a book that explains how to navigate microagressions. It tears open the macro aggressions and macro injustices and demands a better future.
In Chapter 2 she discusses “Busing”, the practise of busing people of colour into white schools to try to end segregation. These black kids were often assaulted by white parents. Biden ended up not knowing whether he was for it or against it. It seemed he was for it when it happened in other states, and was against it on his own doorstep. He spent 8 years fighting busing and but as recently as 2019 only focuses on that one time in 1974 when he supported it.
In the Ivy League chapter (chapter 3), Oluo takes aim at higher education. Again, this is shocking reading. Trump blatantly dog whistles his supporters by claiming he loves the uneducated yet made sure three of his kids went to the same university as him. He hounded AOC and Biden for their transcripts but told Wharton to never release his, under any circumstances. Former president Woodrow Wilson was also a total racist who used his positions to exert his beliefs. When he was president of Princeton, he refused to let a single black student in. As in, no black students were admitted in his entire tenure. Like Cecil Rhodes’ overt racism, when students complained, they were told: Pfff, everyone was racist back then. Higher education is an escape route but it is still part of that very flawed, very white, very supremacist system. In spite of Athena Swan, a charter that recognises good practices in higher education and research institutions towards the advancement of gender equality, professors of today bemoan how certain (read: white male) candidates are lost due to the need for a gender and geographical balance across the group. This actively undermines the very reparations set up to repair the damage of the system to minorities.
After she discusses schools, Oluo tackles the workplace, exploring women’s position within it (Chapter 5, Fire the Women). We see how female CEOs are brought in to save sinking ships, after their male counterparts have run them aground. She explained how women were forced into the workplace while the men were off fighting their Great Wars and then instantly fired upon the men’s return, to make room for the men, lest they felt obsolete. To this end, the government issued propagandist leaflets, “Do you want your wife to work after the war?” But the debate never included women, it was always between two returning soldiers on the pros and cons of women in the workplace. The measures were even more racist than sexist. When Black veterans returned home, “the only positions offered to them were the most dangerous, the lowest skilled, the lowest paid” and they were forced to accept them. If they didn’t, they were reported and their benefits were cut.
We hear the story of Jill Abramson, and how she was promoted to chief executive editor of the New York Times. Oluo explains the phenomenon in the workplace whereby white males stop collaborating and decrease their performance when a woman or a person of color becomes CEO. They feel “less connected to the company.” When women rise to the top, they are criticized for having feminine traits, even when “these are the symbol of change that companies wanted when they decided the change was necessary.” Women who adopt male traits fare no better. They are “punished for the same personality traits men are praised for.” Tellingly, it was Abramson that got blamed for her second in command (and future successor) Dean Baquet for punching a wall, because she must have “provoked him.”
Olou truly understands the injustices towards black people, and it is only when people of colour and women and other minorities unite to fight off patriarchal oppression will we have a system that is actually fair.
This book is anything but mediocre.
Denise Power has a degree in English from University College Dublin. She worked in the UK in publishing for over a decade, recently returning to Ireland to work on research projects in Dublin City University.
Her writing (reviews, commentary, travel writing, feminist leaning critiques) has appeared in Daily Info, (an Oxford based event guide) and the Irish Times. She was recently shortlisted for the 7th Annual I Must Be Off travel writing competition and received a special mention in the Bradt Travel Writing Travel Writer of the Year 2020 competition.