More On MacGyver

Hoopoe“You’re a white man, Porgie. Whaddya think we oughta do?”

I owe some feedback (and amplification) on my argument concerning White Guy theology. There were a couple of points I omitted that I’d like to add on, and a couple of responses I need to offer.

First, then, I omitted the MacGyver feature of the Good Cause, the undisputable worthy end that warrants a White Guy marching forward and taking charge. Someone has to do it, after all, and a White Man is willing to, and if he brings privilege and social capital to the task, well, so much the better. Am I saying that White Men should sit on the sidelines with their white hands in their pockets?

No, not a bit, though one might do well to watch carefully when we see White Men exercising leadership in an undisputable Good Cause. Were there really no people of color, no women, who might have stepped forward in their own interest? Is the White Man there because the moment really needs his visible presence, or is he the token of establishment approval, proving that White Power (to some extent) supports this movement, and back-handedly reinforcing the premise that if White Men don’t want something to happen, it won’t? The ambiguous legacy of St MacGyver involves the very good dimension of conscientized White Men putting their resources at the disposal of women and people of color — excellent! It also involves White Men’s power and privilege sapping, diluting the power that people of color and women might exercise over against White Men.

Second, privileged White Men practice a pernicious form of ventriloquism whereby — since they have unique access to public attention — they lay claim to the prerogative to speak for the oppressed (even as they exercise the benefits of their oppressive privilege). I have no reason to doubt that John Kerry feels a sincere commitment to the well-being of manual laborers, of women on the margins, of people who endure racial oppression. At the same time, can one watch him stand on a podium orating about justice and opportunity without the creeping sense that something’s out of kilter? When a White Man speaks on behalf of anyone else, he simultaneously lends voice to a less-audible cause and suppresses the sound of the people of color and women for whom he speaks.

White Men exacerbate the ventriloquism problem when they use their podium to tell us what the real problem is. People who don’t have access to social power evidently don’t understand the true nature of their oppression, but it takes a White Man to explain it to them. White Men likewise need to justify their intervention, to exculpate themselves from their Whiteness, to get the last word in the argument that settles them on the side of all that is good and holy.

MacGyver, I’m given to understand, exemplified both these phenomena. He rolls into town, discovers a deplorable situation (a sweatshop, or a neighborhood terrorized by drug kingpins, or an environmental catastrophe), and steps up to remedy the situation. Risking his life on behalf of the endangered helpless victims (are they not poorer, darker-skinned, and often female?) he confronts the evil powers and undoes their pernicious machinations. The well-intentioned White Man steps out front in a Good Cause, and gives a little speech about goodness and right. Thank you, White Man!

Overall, White Men want to fix things in a way that doesn’t resolve the problem of their dominant social privilege; indeed, the very gesture of fixing tends to reinscribe White Male privilege (presumably, a woman or person of color couldn’t fix matters?) In this sense, “fixing” itself becomes a symptom of a persistent problem with White Men’s social standing. When White Men step forward to fix, to speak for, to diagnose the real problem, to arrogate the last privilege of the last word, they exemplify precisely the problem to which I pointed in the first portion of this argument.

A theology of grace obliges people to recognize that goodness doesn’t depend on us, especially not on White Men — and when White Men cling to the nonpareil importance of their contribution to realizing the Kingdom of Heaven, to identifying truth and goodness, they obfuscate or even falsify the claims they so desperately want to make. Instead of requiring that they maintain the prominence to which they have become accustomed, White Men need to let go their deathgrip on the reins of power, relinquish their control over theological deliberation, and concede that the world’s redemption doesn’t hinge on White Men’s action in behalf of the Good Causes.

None of this should amount to beating up on White Men, so long as they’re willing not to be in the driver’s seat the whole time. Yes, lend your energies to the causes about which you care. Yes, testify to the truth that God has given you to know. Yes, demonstrate your commitment to sharing authority and responsibility with women and people of color by actually participating in shared deliberation without dominating them.

Now, with regard to queries from Ryan and from my Tutor, I should say: I do not by any means suggest that White Men should stand idly by while they observe wrong-doing, nor that they have to seek out an authentic Oppressed Person to serve as a front for their laudable efforts. They do need to get used to operating on other people’s terms, on other people’s terrain, without assimilating it to the native White Men’s culture (that they mistakenly think of as definitive, normative, regulative). In this sense, White Men need to learn to practice patience, yieldedness, humility — not that they disregard wrongs, but that they recognize their complicity in those wrongs and the problems likely to ensue from their residual determination to fix things. Above all, they need to get used to the idea that they don’t automatically get their way, get a hearing, get commendations and gratitude, just on the basis of their historical dominance.

And sometimes, despite all our good intentions, all our insightful analysis of the real problem, all our diligent commitment and our willingness to speak on behalf of the voiceless, still White Men will have to sit quiet when people of color and women don’t respond with fawning deference. Sometimes even when we’re sure that we’re right, that we’re being criticized unfairly or that others are making a mistake, we need to back down (perhaps after gently articulating our dissent) and let other folks dominate in their ways, make their mistakes. It’s not as though White Men haven’t done that, nor as though White Men may not be mistaken in their diagnosis of “unfairness” or “mistakes.”

Grace, not political correctness or white self-hatred, obliges White Men to back down. So long as White Men insist on holding onto the reins, they can’t very well suggest that they’re trusting God to direct the horses.

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Gosh I like this stuff.

    I imagine what it would be like to actually see a working white man, a blue collar union member, actually standing on a podium as the democratic nominee for President, defining his own problem space out of his experience and in soidarity with others who share a need to define their own problem spaces too, and inviting anyone who wants to play to pick up the tools and bring their talents to work for a better America. Boy, that would be something.

    But it seems the White Men that get press time end up getting elected if they can assure the poulace that under their administration YOU will have to do as little as possible to keep this country great. The White Men in Office are upholders of a welfare state of extreme proportion, that nationalizes agency and responsibility and even the problems themselves. Then they make the problems nice and clean and come up with simple solutions like hiring private contractors to build jails to squirrel the problem away. Those of us who occupy various interesting bits of the margins can’t even define our own problems so we wave our hands a little. And then sometimes we turn things over, even things in sacred places, like oil refineries, after the example of some other well known table-turners. And then you get Venuzuela.

    So that’s a nice bit to this post, and resonates strongly.

    Also in terms of practice, I have always thought that, in as much as Christian White Men privilage some parts of scripture over others, I trust those who quote the Beatitudes over those who quote the Ten Commandments. The latter presumes you have the answers and authority to fix shit by decree, the former assumes you are ready to join the world for good. With your boots on. And a shovel.

    Is anyone posting the Beatitudes in courthouses across your fair nation?

  2. I’m just wondering what, if anything, to say about the white man stepping in to tell the White Man to back off, on behalf all those “others” who, apparently, are too disenfranchised or powerless to get that message across themselves.

    Are you sure you’re not carrying a pocket knife and a roll of duct tape in there, AKMA?

    ;^)

  3. Thanks for your kind words, all. Dave, yes, and by writing this out I try to exemplify what I think White Men can do: do their best to tell the truth or in the field of enacted expression, to do the truth) and take what comes. Many problems follow fro White Men thinking that there’s a right answer, a right thing to do, that immunizes them from criticism.

    That ain’t how it goes. — but White Men get all up in arms when someone challenges their unimpeachably-well-intentioned activity, especially when they’ve been assailling others for not being as on-the-right-side as they are. Beware the throesof the wounded righteous White Guy!

    To this extent, then, yes, I’m just another White Man telling the world what somebody else could say as much with more existential credibility. At teh same time, I suspect it’s worth saying, and if someone wants to point to where it’s said better, more truthfully, more feministically or Asianly or Blackly or Latinly and to ignore or heckle me, then fine, so be it.

  4. AKMA, Rethabile Masilo put up a post a couple of days ago that I feel yearns to meet yours.

    His entry is at http://sotho.blogsome.com/2006/05/10/dear-mr-racist/

    I tried to link Rethabile to your and Jeneane’s entries, but WordPress kicked out my comment on his site.

    With Rethabile hailing from the Mountain Kingdom, I certainly have friends in High Places…

    …where MacGyver ain’t got much to do.

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