A History of Mediocre White Men (and How They Get Ahead)

Author Ijeoma Oluo dissects the issue in new book ‘Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America’

Photo courtesy of Ijeoma Oluo

We all joke about having the confidence of a mediocre White man, but New York Times bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo breaks down what this really means in her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Your ultra average, angry White man didn’t happen by accident. Oluo methodically identifies and explains the structures that create, multiply, and embolden him.

Unlike Oluo’s 2018 bestseller, So You Wanna Talk About Race, Mediocre is no “primer,” as the author describes it. The first chapter, for example, deals with the mythology surrounding Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and the so-called Wild West. As Oluo weaves U.S. mythologized history with the stories of modern-day militants, it’s easy to see the through line between today’s White male embrace of standing their ground and its origins in a false Western narrative of “White male righteous victory” over the land and the people.

Oluo writes of President-elect Joe Biden’s conflicted history of being both for and against bussing. She interrogates the Ivy League and examines our nation’s love and creation of White-intended but Black-in-reality football and how the “rough sport” was introduced to help ease White middle-class anxieties. The book offers easily accessible yet little-discussed examples of the institutions created to help White men overcome feelings of inadequacy while maintaining power. We all know the system is rigged, but Oluo offers a few more fascinating and underreported footnotes for your stash.

ZORA: I felt validated while reading this book. Our national mythology — as you described with Buffalo Bill — is so insecure, it won’t even broadcast when a White man owns up to his mistakes.
Ijeoma Oluo:
First and foremost, I want this to be a book that helps battle the collective gaslighting regarding White supremacy. It is vital that when things are happening to us that we can put it in context and we can see what’s happened in the past and whether or not what’s happening is a part of a pattern or a bigger problem. It helps us know how to address things. It helps us know whether this is a battle we fight on this level or a different level or whether we let it go. I want this book to be part of where we start to see those patterns. Also, so we can say, “Oh, this is where we’re fitting into this pattern.”

People might assume this book is about President Donald Trump. The timing is impeccable. How do you plan to deal with social media haters and fallout?
My block game is so strong, but one thing I’ve realized is these fools aren’t reading. Over the years of existing in this space and working in this space, one thing I’ve recognized is what White men get mad at has very little to do with what you actually do. It has to do with the space.

Really?
You take up the attention. You’re getting the things. I’ve been shocked over the years of what has brought [them] to my door ’cause it has never been the things that I thought. I tweet about Cracker Barrel, and suddenly I’ve got thousands of hate letters. I can write an article titled “White People Always Let You Down”… crickets, no one cares. I realized you can literally be in any space and be defined as a threat. And you’ll be defined not by the substance of your work but just because you’re taking up space. I have yet to see a rhyme or reason other than “we don’t want you to exist here.”

Over the years of existing in this space and working in this space, one thing I’ve recognized is what White men get mad at has very little to do with what you actually do. It has to do with the space.

You were preparing to publish when George Floyd was murdered and then the election season stirred up even more anti-Black racism. Did America react the way you expected?
That was one of the most depressing things for me, come June, to see So You Want To Talk About Race go to the top of the bestseller list and sell more copies in a month then it had sold in two years… and be like “oh cool.” So we need brutal murder for people to be like, “maybe we’ll talk about this.” That was really frustrating for me and heartbreaking and traumatizing. So no, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

What are your hopes for Black people as we wait for White people to deal with their racism?
I think if we’re going to task White people with doing this work, the question we need to ask — I would love to ask — is who would we be if Whiteness never dictated who we are? If Whiteness never set a goal that we had to live up to? If Whiteness hadn’t defined our pop culture, who would we be? Because I think that it is very easy for us, even in our efforts toward liberation, to define our goals based on what White men said is desirable. You know, I think we would manage without White men. I think we would be okay.

Some Black people and other POCs might implode if their proximity to Whiteness disappeared though.
And that’s the thing! When I was writing the book, I hoped people would recognize that we all uphold this. White men alone can’t uphold the system as much as they like to think they do. It’s vital that we see all of the ways in which we’ve been upholding this and have tied ourselves to it because that will get in the way of our liberation.

You’ve given us a lens through which to more critically examine the pattern of White male mediocrity. How do we use this to imagine a better Afrofuture?
I talk to Black writers who write about the future, like Nora [N.K.] Jemisin. We don’t know how we’ve been conditioned by the past; we can’t imagine a free future. And so it’s really vital when we are imagining our future because we are still building ourselves out of the ashes of slavery and violent White supremacy. We are continuously building and defining ourselves. If we don’t know what pressures are trying to define us in the world, if we don’t know how the system works, we actually can’t build something separate from it. I want this [book] to be a part of our reimagining. Looking at what’s been done and what’s harmful and say, “I’m imagining something different.”

Director, Multicultural @Medium. Focusing on ZORA, Momentum, Level and bolstering creators of color. All ideas welcome. And yes, I’ll still be writing.

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