Originally published April 5, 2021
"Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre White man." - Sarah Hagi
Actor/comedian Chris Rock was once asked about America’s achievement of electing a Black president and he famously dismissed it as a breakthrough. “To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first Black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not Black progress. That’s White progress,” Rock said. “There’s been Black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years… The advantage that my children have is that [they] are encountering the nicest White people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer White people.”
Author Ijeoma Oluo isn’t disagreeing that White men are nice but in her new book MEDIOCRE: THE DANGEROUS LEGACY OF WHITE MALE AMERICA, she pushes back against the idea that their status and feelings must keep trumping those of everyone else. Hegi’s comment above became wildly popular, she says, because everyone has encountered a White man with great power and, well, great mediocrity. It’s common, Oluo said in a PBS interview, “but it also becomes incredibly dangerous when we try to protect it.” That need to preserve the status and power they’ve been told is their birthright is what drives so many of them to marginalize others.
How many times have people of colour censored ourselves or doubted our own abilities or become defensive when faced with this ever-present idea that White men are just “naturally” more suited to leadership, even when it’s so utterly untrue. Even resistance falls into this trap of permanence. If we talk about White male mediocrity (obviously all around us) or of Black Girl Magic (obviously all around us), there’s still an insistence that it’s one or the other, all the time. White men can be excellent sometimes, Black girls can be mediocre sometimes, and most of us will always bounce around in that continuum. At one point or another, we’ve all been mediocre. The problem, says Oluo, is that “White male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centred around preserving White male power regardless of White male skill or talent.”
This baseline is bad for everyone. By insisting that White men simply can’t be mediocre, it locks them into this dominant unrealistic culture of winners and losers. They can either celebrate the successes they feel entitled to or mourn their unexpected failures, no feeling in between is allowed, no reasonable expectation that some people are skilled at some things, less so at others. It’s a mindset that pushes them to grasp at power while forcing everyone else, as the old adage goes, to work twice as hard to be expected to be half as good. It’s exhausting for all involved. As we strive for a world that shares power more equitably, we all need the freedom to excel and the freedom to be mediocre.