For the past three years, I have been making work about white American masculinity. I am scarred but exceptionally privileged by it, and thus it is my responsibility to address it.
White American masculinity is a construct. It is the subtext in detergent and power tool ads, crystallized at football games and in sermons, described in the design of little boys’ clothing. It undergirds our politics and permeates our homes. And it’s scary.
You may notice that if you aren’t white enough or man enough, they’ll put you through hell. They’ll tease you and shove you down and feel better about themselves for beating you. So am I winning yet, I ask? Have I won the American dream? When others look at me, do they know that I am both the problem and the activist? I know what I’m fighting against. And I am it.
I have both benefited from and been duped by my whiteness and my maleness. I have won. But I don’t always feel like a winner. Celebrating the cowboy, the war hero, or the boxer, for instance, requires that we simultaneously obscure the emotional neglect, violence, and physical injury that a man embodying (or seeking to embody) this construct will experience or produce.
The internal contradictions I experience are a microcosm of our nation’s. Founding fathers such as Patrick Henry—who demanded either Liberty or Death—are memorialized in myriad, public ways, while their anonymous slaves died liberty-less. On one front, we fought a war for independence, while on the other, we fought to deprive others of theirs, hastening the genocide of America’s native population. And now, with free and democratic elections, we continue to elect leaders who perpetuate the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic language that traces a history of profound Othering, subjugation, and injustice.
I hardly have the language I need to talk about this. Sometimes it feels like I need to make it up. It’s scary to say it’s scary to be a white man in this country, because it’s even scarier to be a woman or a minority. I am he whom I fight against; I need to call deep on my empathy, for to receive it I must first give it. The contradictions plague and confuse me. This project—a portrait of a psyche—is the language I’ve thus far conceived.
If you enjoyed this article, you should explore these features: Mectoub, prize-winning portraits of men in the Arab world; Made You Look, celebrated work on dandyism and black masculinity; and Transportraits, studies of brave transgender men that challenge notions of American masculinity.