Sunday, January 10, 2021

Toward Democracy: can parents stem the tide of angry white men?

untitled render by Taliesin River

We have a problem with angry white men. Barely a day goes by without news of Incel attacks, MAGA protests (rioters), white supremacist gatherings and uprisings, or the “friendly” neighbourhood “quiet guy” who unexpectedly murdered his wife or kids or a bunch of his community members. We have a problem with angry white men, and we’re raising our boys to become them. At home, school, and in the media, we’re leading young white boys to reach for an idealized goal that’s unattainable for most, and when they fail to reach it, many fall back upon a stereotypical violent, angry identity that is devastating for them and for humanity.

Let’s think about that for a minute. How do our little white boys determine their future? Once upon a time I found my son ensconced in the back corner of his closet, with a cardboard box sitting on a little table he had dragged in there. He was wedged behind the table on his tiny pencil-chair, staring at the box. “What are you doing?” I asked him, curiously.

“I’m in my office,” he replied, without hesitation. “I’m doing my work.” At three years old, and with a programmer-father, he was simply playing out the future he saw for himself.

One of my fathers was a forester, but as children we mostly saw him working out on the property he was slowly developing, axe, chainsaw, or shovel in hand. My brother used to go out with his little plastic chainsaw or some kind of stick and “work”, too. But I was a girl. I built forts because I instinctively knew that chainsaw “work” was not for me. When required, I collected eggs, weeded the garden, helped with the cooking, and generally did the things I saw my mother do. When we were older, my father took me to his office to colour cut-block maps, but he took my brother out in the bush with him. Despite my teen-aged feminist conviction that this was all rooted in sexism and that I would rectify the unfair world by not participating, I grew up to embrace my middle-class privilege, married a man who is the main breadwinner for our family, became an educator like my mother, and also a stay-at-home-parent, by choice. Increasingly few of us have the option to stay at home with our children, and I made the most of it.

I was a powerful stay-at-home parent! I learned to cook and bake for our kids’ dietary restrictions, I sewed, mended and made costumes, threw the best parties, and even managed to keep two part-time careers going at the same time as unschooling my kids. I made all the financial and practical decisions, did all the bookkeeping, kept the calendar and even dictated the course of each person’s day. I chose what foods we ate, how we decorated the house, and even what we wore. When it mattered, I chose my partner’s clothing, too. I was so awesome. My kids saw that. For a while I ran a program for new mothers and my kids saw me feeling totally in control at home, and going out to the community to empower other mothers. I made motherhood look powerful to my kids. My daughter played “babies”, emulating the strong, loving mother she imagined she could be as she and her friends hauled their dolls all over the place, engaging them in every awesome activity imaginable.

And their father sat in his little office, typing away. He joined us for dinner every single night, and he dressed the kids and brushed their teeth and read them stories at night. They sometimes begged me to read, because I read with more inflection. As they grew older they mocked his attempts at cooking dinner, coining terms like “Pappa-cooked” (which means ‘burnt’). I told them what important work he was doing at his desk, and not to bother him when he was having an important meeting, but they saw how he lived on the margins of their home. My son dragged a little table into a closet and played “going to work”. This marginalized, disenfranchised, humbled existence was what he saw as his future.

How many little boys are growing up all over the world with a sense of disenfranchisement? They see their righteous mothers busting through glass ceilings; accomplishing things one after another, and they see their fathers either pushed to the sidelines or angry at their lack of agency in their own homes. Feminism is supposed to be a push for equality and yet as men take on some of the domestic duties that our culture has not prepared them for, they become hopeless. Women, who now frequently work outside the home, continue to do the majority of the house-work, make the majority of decisions, and hold the majority of power in their children’s eyes. There is no equality in the home.

It doesn’t end at home. Let’s talk about school. School is the core of education, and education is the pathway to success. This path is so well-trodden, in fact, that each and every step is predetermined for our children. Despite generations of education research and countless breakthroughs in our cultural understanding of human learning, child development and teaching methodologies, students are still corralled into a system that leaves them powerless. In order to maintain the quality standard of the education offered in schools, students are held to a standard. There is little room for individualization, and even less room for true personal goals or self-directed exploration. Students are humbled by their placement on the scale of achievement.

Although white men are still the overwhelming majority in science-related professions, the competition just to attend the schools that would lead to success in these careers is so stiff that it now begins in grade-school. Students are often pegged and steered towards sciences from a very young age, their work entered in competitions and held up against the work of other young kids for awards and acknowledgement. Success means such alienation from such a majority of their classmates that it’s no wonder there’s a large number of those classmates feeling disenfranchised. Sure, universities are accepting more and more women, LGBTQ and people of colour into their programs, but a look at the leaders of most corporations, universities and government agencies still reveals a spread of wealthy, straight white men. If that’s who white boys were born to be, why is it so out of reach?

We tell our children they can be anything they want to be, so they look for their options. And guess what? The media, we their parents, their friends’ parents, and their teachers all show them what they can be. A constant display of shiny happy people doing amazing things is there for their inspiration. Putting all the stereotyped options for female, LGBTQ and people of colour aside, the media shows white boys that they can grow up to be rich, powerful, dominant, or… superheroes. Or beer-drinking dads. And somewhere in early elementary school it becomes apparent that only white boys from rich and powerful families will grow up to be rich and powerful white men, and what’s left? Poor and not powerful. Beer-drinking Dads. Or superheroes. Is it any wonder that so many Dads come home from work, grab a beer and watch TV? And is it any wonder that when they and other men feel disempowered, disengaged and disenfranchised, they seek to take the power back from the people who got the lion’s share? They dress up, paint their faces, and parade with torches or guns into the places they feel have rejected them. Is it any wonder there are so many angry white men?

The opposite of towers full of powerful white men is not towers full of powerful black women. It’s the toppling of the towers — and not by violence. It’s the equitable distribution of power — not among the previously-disempowered, but among everyone. The opposite of the power-struggle that is our current society is democracy. That’s something we don’t actually have, despite the claims of the tiny minority of corporate CEOs and lawmakers who wield the power right now.

The lack of democracy leaves most of us disenfranchised. And what are you going to do when you’re an angry, disenfranchised white man who climbed the education ladder as hard as he could and works every day in a job where he feels powerless, who votes for people who don’t make any positive change in his life, who’s watching his children grow up towards the same fate, and even in his own home finds himself unneeded, unskilled, and unimportant? Well you crack. You put on your superhero cape; fly a rebel flag. You paint your face or maybe you put on a fur hat and horns and call yourself a shaman. Maybe you get a gun. You crack, and out of the wound comes all the ways your little-boy self was taught that men take back their power. And eventually you find yourself actually attacking the people who have the power. Sometimes that’s another guy at the bar; sometimes it’s the people in the Capitol building; sometimes it’s your wife.

Who am I to be talking about this? I’m a feminist. A privileged middle class woman. I live with a disenfranchised computer-programmer who never votes for someone who gets elected. I am the mother of a disenfranchised young man who long-ago stopped pretending to “go to work” in his closet and now sits slightly unshaven at his own desk, working towards a career as a digital artist. He voted for the first time this year and his chosen candidate nearly won. Nearly.

I’ve been thinking for nearly two decades about my role in my son’s empowerment. As his mother, I know my role is huge, and I don’t know that I’ve got it right at all, but I’ve never stopped trying. I unschooled him and his sister, with hopes of providing them both a broader range of visible options, and I enrolled them in a couple of schools that I thought could broaden those options even more. I told my kids they could be anything, but I also tried to demonstrate that we can find happiness with what we have. I inadvertently minimized their father’s role in the home for the first half of their young lives, and have now spent years trying to step back and allow my kids and their father to make household decisions, and to share the glory, stumbles and joys of running our home. Can we pull out of this trajectory toward disenfranchisement as a family? Can we do so as a species? As I watch the news and see white men carrying rebel flags, torches and guns, I feel desperate. We must change course, and as the empowered leaders of our families, we mothers are already holding the wheel.

I think the changes needed to the way we raise our children are enormous — terrifyingly so — but, as with climate change, there’s no time left to squander. At home, school, and in the media, we have to empower our white men.

We need to engage our male partners in running our homes, not just to do jobs at our bidding, but to make decisions that impact our lives. I have to let my partner wear his ripped jeans to family dinners. I struggle with this, but I developed my own style and he should have that chance, too. My son is watching him, and now gives him fashion advice. I have to let him cook whatever he wants for dinner, and he’s now becoming an excellent cook. My son is watching him. I have to let him make decisions I disagree with, and we’re learning to consult more, and to converse more. If we want democracy, it needs to start in the home, and democracy requires a lot of conversation. I have to let my partner be powerful. We need to restructure our lives — perhaps away from the too-many-activities and the too-much-screen-time to include more time for conversation. We need to talk with our children openly and without reserve about the balance of power in our homes, and we need to let each other be powerful, so that we can all be empowered.

At school, we need to remove the hierarchy of principals, staff, and students. We need to remove the hierarchy among students, as well, by taking away the inherently competitive grading systems, the age-based curricula and achievement-based reward-systems. We need to listen to the children as much or more than we speak to them, and we need to teach them to speak to each other. And obviously, we need to teach all history and from all perspectives, not just that of straight white men. Mostly, we need to talk with students openly and without reserve about the balance of power in education, to ensure that they share that power, and that their education leaves them empowered.

The media, well — that’s a hard one. I have little faith in the corporate media to change, since its very existence relies on our continued buy-in. But we can change. We mothers and fathers can make change, not by wielding the remote control or the internet codes, but by setting an example. We can stop buying in; we can even make our own media (the Internet is truly a Godsend for consumer rights and freedoms). We can think critically about how the media we consume changes our minds and lives, and we can talk with our kids, too. We can listen to their experiences. We can ask for their opinions. We can speak and listen openly and without reserve about the media’s role in our lives, to ensure that we all share the power, and that we are empowered.

And when we’ve opened up the lines of communication, and our children are accustomed to being heard, we can keep talking; keep listening, and keep empowering. And among this great population of empowered children will be the next generation of empowered people of every colour, gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic background and belief system, and some of those will be empowered white men. Out of an abundant diversity of empowered people, and an endless open conversation, I believe we can create a true democracy.