Author Ijeoma Oluo on the Dangers of White Male Mediocrity

2020 brought a new focus to the structural racism that persists in America, with books such as “So You Want to Talk About Race” hitting the bestseller list in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Now, author Ijeoma Oluo has a new book for this time. In “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America” she explores how society reinforces racial hierarchy regardless of merit.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And turning to another pandemic, which is still raging, of course racism. The Black Lives Matter protests and the social media buzz may have died down somewhat. Some changes have been made, and many have been promised. But the job is not done. Author, Ijeoma Oluo, 2018 book “So You Want to Talk About Race” shut up the best-seller list after George Floyd was killed. And her other book “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America” explains how society preserves this power regardless of merit. Here she is talking to our Hari Sreenivasan about it.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Ijeoma Oluo, Thanks for joining us. What are examples of the mediocrity that you’re describing on maybe a perhaps a day-to-day basis? Because you also talk about the sort of intersection and interconnectedness of race and gender. And you go back in several chapters in history talking about not just the women’s movement but also the civil rights movement. And yet, here we are at this place where white male is still the dominant lens through how our policies are created and how we interact on a daily basis.

IJEOMA OLUO, AUTHOR, “MEDIOCRE: THE DANGEROUS LEGACY OF WHITE MALE AMERICA”: Yes. You know, every day if you are, you know, let’s say, a black woman or a woman of color in any kind of workspace, you absolutely are familiar with this phenomenon of the mediocre white male. And, you know, when Sarah Hagi tweeted about having the confidence of a mediocre white man, the reason why it took off because was because anyone who’s been in any kind of public environment are voted someone into office and been through elections, recognizes what it looks like. To have someone who seems to have that management material that has nothing to do with their actual qualifications, their leadership skills, their knowledge, it has to do with the way they look in a suit and tie or how demanding they can seem in a meeting or how they can talk over women and people of color, right. And we see this time and time again, white men who fell upward while people of color and women are trying so desperately to just prove their worth and working twice as hard and still are passed over time and time again. So, I’m like at an everyday level, we see this all of the time and we see this impacting our lives. But it also becomes incredibly dangerous when we try to protect it. Because the only way you can protect the image that you deserve to be in power because you’re white and male and nothing else, it means you really can’t allow an image of someone who isn’t white and male being more talented than you, being more successful than you. And so, it’s not only we elevate certain people regardless of their skill or talent, but we suppress others in order to keep that elevation.

SREENIVASAN: So, it’s not explicit, it’s just that you have to stay better than someone else?

OLUO: Exactly. And it’s this measurement, right. It’s the idea. And there have been studies that have shown this that — there’s a really great book called “White Identity Politics” by Ashley Jardina that also shows that many white Americans and especially white men don’t even think of themselves as white most of the time until there’s a change in the status quo for women and people of color. And then suddenly they’re like, what does it mean, what does this mean to me, what does this mean? Because when you have a comparative identity that’s defined not by what you bring into the world but instead how much better you are than others, then a change in how others are doing is a primary threat to your identity.

SREENIVASAN: There’s a passage in your book about the corporate world that say, a funny thing happens when a woman or a person of color is promoted to the head of the company. White male managers stop collaborating with their co-workers especially their women co-workers and co-workers of color. Why do white men decrease their level of performance when a woman becomes CEO? Because suddenly they feel less connected to the company. That’s a — and you can abstract from that not just in the corporate level but really in the civic and government level as well.

OLUO: Yes, absolutely. You know, when I was reading this study, it felt very familiar. On a personal level, we’ve definitely seen this. But when you look politically and you see surveys that show, you know, when Barack Obama was president, white people saying, I don’t think he represents me. But he was absolutely representing more than anything, the interests of white America. And he was, you know, by all measurements, a pretty centrist president. But because he looked different, suddenly you’re disengaging. And I think we saw this on — we see this in companies all of the time. We see in film when suddenly there’s more people of color in films and it suddenly becomes a black film or an Asian film and not a film that white people feel like they can relate to. And we absolutely see this in our government when people of color rise to any sort of prominence or power in our government, suddenly there are people in the white populous who feel like it doesn’t represent me anymore, and especially white men, and this also happens for women. And so, we saw this — you know, there’s quotes in the book, too, talking about, you know, Bernie supporters who felt like we were talking too much about women and they were saying, it means there’s no dudes allowed anywhere. Simply because we were trying to address issues that didn’t always center them. So, just the slightest shift can cause some white men to completely disengage, not only disengage but really hinder and try to harm the systems that before they felt like they were a part of.

SREENIVASAN: How do we change that in the corporate environment where we can say, you know what, the pattern of practice here has been looking at running this company through one particular lens?

OLUO: Yes. I think part of it first starts with being really honest and figuring out where you stand. I speak to corporations and schools and government entities all over the country. And when I ask them, how are you doing as far as race and gender, what I get are some very vague feelings, right. I think we’re doing OK, maybe some people are upset. But what we don’t get is, you know, have you surveyed your employees to see — your employees of color, your female employees to ask what they would need to feel successful and supported? Have you taken analysis of the issues you’ve already documented and had as far as race and gender in your workplace? You know, do you know where people are likely to slip up? Because we have to stop assuming everything’s fine unless the problems rise to the level that you are being made aware of it. You have to instead assume because the study, the data shows that these things are happening. And so, then you build systemic solutions to prevent it from happening and so that people can get used to a different way of doing things. It’s not just, let’s sit down and convince people, we have to do it differently, it’s, let’s make policies that account for the fact that people are less likely to be supported when we have a woman at the head of a company. So, what does it look like then to tie someone’s level of performance, you know, to how much they continue to engage, to how they support, you know, to how they reach out and mentor and work with other people of different races and genders? You have to, you know, account for what’s already happening that the data shows is already happening instead of just assuming everything’s fine until it gets to the point that it rises to HR or somebody’s fired.

SREENIVASAN: Are there inherent threats to whiteness, to masculinity, that drive this mediocre behavior?

OLUO: There are. Well, I think part of it too is just this is in part a function of capitalism. The idea is this is what — this is the deal, this is what you get for participating in this system. You will get this, you know, comfortable life, you will get your house with a two-car garage and your wife and your kids, and this is the promise, and you deserve it, you were born for it, you know, this is your rights. And the truth is, is that that never fully works out for everyone. We don’t have enough to go around in this system that extracts most of the profits to those at the very top. And so, what happens then? Well, you say, well, look around, you weren’t going to have it, but this person took it and that person took it. And who? The people who we’ve always said were supposed to be lower on the ladder. So, you could say, oh, well, look, you know, we did all this affirmative action and that’s why you don’t have a job. Instead of saying, oh, 80 percent of the profits for this corporation went to, you know, stock holders and that’s why you don’t have a job, right. And so, we have to look at this and see, you know, that people are being played. It really is a manipulation that ties into, you k now, people’s biases and really forces — you know, makes them think that their biggest competition are the people that they’ve been told they’re supposed to be above and that their biggest problem are the rises and the gains for people that they were told they would never have to compete with.

SREENIVASAN: Now, there was — I want to say, I think Ralph Shetty (ph) that does this work done on social mobility that people who are most likely to oppose an increase in the minimum wage are the people who make just a little bit above where that level would be now because they fear all these new people getting to their state, right. So, it’s almost like that they, I’m cool with a rise in minimum wage. But wait a minute, now, you’re making me part of the bottom and I don’t like that very much.

OLUO: Yes, absolutely. And you hear these questions, well, am I going to get a raise too, then? Because even though I wasn’t starving, I still have to feel like I got this much more than the people below me. It’s the idea that the hierarchy shouldn’t move. So, people kind of hold these two competing thoughts. Like, yes, we don’t want anyone to starve but also, I always want to see myself as doing this much better than the people who have always been below me. And that’s really harmful, especially in, you know, this kind of closed system where we say there is this much money to go around, this much resources to go around. Then you suddenly — you’re always viewing the rise of others if it doesn’t immediately keep you above them at the same level as a threat.

SREENIVASAN: You also talk about how this is unhealthy for white males.

OLUO: Yes, absolutely. It is incredibly unhealthy. I mean, to wake up in the morning and not know if you’re successful until you can measure how the people supposedly below you are doing, it means that you don’t actually have an inherent sense of self-worth. And it also cuts you off from connection. You can’t connect with people if you’re constantly measuring how much power you have over them or how much better you’re doing than them. If success is only comparative, if self-worth is only comparative, then you’re lacking that real, you know, inherent sense of self-worth. But also, because the story of this country, which is a lie, is that if you work hard you will get ahead, and you were meant to get ahead. And this is the story that white men are able to, you know, believe in more than anyone else, right. As a black woman, the story told to me was that, if you work hard you will get ahead. It’s you have to work hard because otherwise you’ll die in the street. But maybe, you know, you might make it if you work extra, extra hard you might be OK. But for many white men the thought is, of course, you do good, you’ll get good, it’ll be great. So, then what happens when it’s not? Either something is wrong with you or somebody stole from you. And so, we see this split, right. We see the violence. We see Charlottesville. We see this outward violence of people that white men are thinking stole from them. And then you see the internal violence, the rage, the suicide of people who believe I must be broken instead of looking at the system and saying the system’s broken, it’s something’s wrong with me.

SREENIVASAN: I can see a viewer watching this segment and saying, OK, what’s a white guy to do? I’m stuck here, I have no intentional racism in my body, I don’t want to be better then, I’m not trying to be this person, but I’m clearly profiting and benefitting from this system. What step can I take to help?

OLUO: You know, one of the things I think is really important to recognize is systems of oppression don’t only oppress people of color. They also give power to people who weren’t oppressed by those particular systems. So, recognize where your power is. Don’t let the guilt stop you from actually engaging that power. Because I — we don’t have that power, right. So, saying, you know, yes, it sucks that politicians are going to listen to me and not you, so I’m just going to disengage from politics. No, it means talk to those politicians, right. It means if you’re in the work meeting and people listen to you and don’t talk over you but they’ll talk over women and people of color, well, then use that voice to up and, you know, tying to people and women of color and support what they were trying to say before they got talked over. You know, it’s about utilizing that power. So, whether that’s power you have in your school system with the money you spend, whether it’s the influence you have with your white peers to look at local issues, use it, engage it, get past feeling like, oh, it’s bad, so I’m going to engage. And I hear this from a lot of white men going, yes, you know, white men suck, I don’t want to be a part of it. No, be a part of it and make it better. Engage with it and say it. Like, no one’s going to hear you, you know, if you’re someone that people feel are less than them. So, if you’re a white man and you hate the way white manhood looks, know that no one’s going to, you know, listen to me the way they’ll listen to you, that you actually own this and you can engage with it and make it better. So, start looking at your power for opportunities to create real change.

SREENIVASAN: Well, what about white men who don’t have any power or don’t feel like they have any power? Because what you’re saying is, is inherently you do.

OLUO: Yes. Well, and you have some. And I will say it, it’s important to recognize that there is less power for the average person than a lot of people think there is, but you have some. You have that relative power. That’s why often white men are clinging to the status. That’s a bit of power that they have they don’t want to give up. Use that power. So, a lot of it is about educating yourself. So, what I recommend often to white men is look at what’s happening in your city, in your town. So, start saying, what are the graduation rates and the testing rates by race in my schools? What are the — how are women doing in STEM? What are the sexual assault rates in my area? Start looking at — look at who’s representing you in office. Look at where you’re spending money. And say, OK, this is where I have some power. I can be heard here.

SREENIVASAN: In the wake of your last book, you want to talk about race and in the speaking engagements and the columns you have been writing, you have personally been attacked in ways that I think most of our audience would find reprehensible. You know, tell us what does it mean to be doxed, what does it mean to be swatted?

OLUO: Yes. We were actually just doxed again a little over a week ago. But doxing is where you put someone’s personal information out on the internet so that people who do not like you can harass you. And often, nowadays, for me, it’s not only been me, my family, anybody associated with me. My mom is currently getting harassing messages on her phone about me, people, you know, wishing horrible things to happen to me. And so, that’s doxing and it kind of creates this general feeling of unsafety. You know, it caused harassment. I’ve changed my phone number multiple times. And then swatting is an offshoot of doxing where you — once you have someone’s address, you spoof a phone number from where they live and you call the police and you make some sort of a threat. And the goal is to send a swat team into their house, to have someone, you know, guns out, knock the door in. People have been killed from this because someone unsuspecting doesn’t understand why a cop’s banging their door in and reaches for a phone, people think it’s a gun. So, last year our home was swatted. I was actually out of town. So, my 17- year-old son was asleep alone. And I got a call saying there was a reported shot fired in my home. And it was someone pretending to be my son saying that he had murdered his parents and the goal was to actually target my son and send swat teams in the house. Luckily, I knew that we were at risk because I knew we had been doxed. So, at least they called me and told me they were going before six officers with guns showed up and six officers with guns did show up and wake — pulled my son out of bed at 6:00 in the morning. But nobody broke the door down at least. They at least knew there was a chance that everything was going to be OK because I got to talk to them. But I was literally across the country trying to board a plane home and wondering if my son was going to get shot. And from then on it was regular, you know, terrorists at our home. And the goal is to create violence and to use this against black people, to utilize police violence against black people. That is the goal of this technique. And so, it was very painful and scary. It is something that many black journalists face. It’s also something that regular activists of color face all of the time. It’s pretty widespread, and police don’t, in most jurisdictions, don’t actually have a good response to it. So, yes, that’s the terrorism kind of you face for being a black woman in this country who speaks out and takes up space that people believe you shouldn’t have.

SREENIVASAN: Going into this new administration, what are you watching out for? What are you hopeful for?

OLUO: I am not naive enough to say this is going to be a revolutionary administration that’s suddenly going to be, you know, embracing the language of, like, black activists across the country. But I do hope to have a little more space to work with him. When we are out doing our protests, to be heard a little bit more, to be able to maneuver a little bit more, that is my hope. That maybe we will have that grace and instead of, you know, working with an administration that was actively trying to make it, you know, against the law to do the work that we’ve been doing. And instead, to be able to operate it. The work remains the same. It’s just how hard is it to accomplish these goals? And I’m hoping it will be a little bit easier.

SREENIVASAN: Ijeoma Oluo, thanks so much for joining us.

OLUO: Thanks for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Anne Applebaum and Fintan O’Toole; Lawrence Wright; Ijeoma Oluo