The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

One of the privileges that still comes with being white or male is that you get to be an individual. When you do something unusually good or bad, the media doesn’t take you as a representative of all whites or all men. You’re just you; you did something; it’s news.

So nobody remarked on George W. Bush being the United States’ 43rd consecutive white male president, but 2008 buzzed with speculation that the 44th might be black or female. For example, pundits questioned whether a woman could be tough enough to be commander-in-chief of the military, but nobody has ever successfully made an issue of whether a man can be compassionate enough to be nurse-in-chief of Medicare, or understand small children well enough to be teacher-in-chief of Head Start.

Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan. The gunmen had names; their stories were presumed to be personal. When Bernie Madoff conned his investors out of billions, nobody asked “What makes a white man do something like that?” or “What should be done about the white male swindler problem?”

Sikh temple shooter.

Even when the perpetrators themselves frame whiteness or masculinity as an issue, the media tends not to pick it up. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 people at a camp for liberal youth in Norway, saw himself as a crusader against a Muslim takeover of Europe. His manifesto advocated a restoration of European “monoculturalism” and “patriarchy”. Wade Michael Page, killer of six in the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, was acting on his long-held white supremacist views. In each case, this motivation was spun mostly as a symptom of personal instability, and not of a dangerous cancer in the white community.

Mad as hell.

The upshot is that although we are surrounded by angry white men — on talk radio, on the internet, on the highways, in the workplace, in the NRA and the Tea Party, in the “men’s rights” movement, and in countless acts of domestic violence or public mayhem from Columbine to Sandy Hook — we aren’t having a national discussion about the anger problem of whites or men or white men. That’s because we don’t see them as “white men”; we see them as individuals whose stories reflect unique psychological, political, or social issues. (By contrast, consider how little Michelle Obama has to do to evoke the angry-black-woman stereotype.)

Enter Michael Kimmel and his book Angry White Men.

Chapter by chapter, Kimmel calls attention to angry white men wherever they are found: the loudest voices on the radio, the school shooters, the anti-feminist men’s-rights movement and its Dad’s-rights subculture, the wife beaters, the workers who go postal, and the white supremacists. He asks and answers the question you seldom hear: What makes white men so angry?

What links all these different groups … is a single core experience: what I call aggrieved entitlement.

Aggrieved entitlement is the belief that you have been cheated out of status and power that should have been part of your birthright. (It’s a close relative of what I have called privileged distress: the feeling that advantages you never consciously acknowledged are slipping away from you.) White men are angry, Kimmel claims, because

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

How it was supposed to be.

High standards and failure. White men also feel judged (and judge themselves) according to the standards of fathers and grandfathers who received the full white-male birthright, who didn’t have to compete with other races on an almost-level playing field, and who could count on subservient wives, mothers, daughters, and Girls Friday at the office to rally behind their leadership rather than outshine them or make demands.

You want a recipe for anger? Here it is: I’m a failure and it’s not my fault.

The seldom-examined setting for white male anger is failure, or at least failure according to the standards of another era. Dad and/or Grandpa supported a family on one job, and when he got home he commanded respect from his family. His marriage lasted, and his kids were not being raised by a resentful ex-wife on the other side of the country. When Dad or Grandpa was young, he was comfortable in his masculinity. He hunted deer and lettered in football. Girls waited by the phone for him to call, and when he paid for dinner they knew they owed him something.

It’s not that way any more, and it’s not my fault. Don’t look at me like that.

The rich and powerful speak for me.

The visible spokesmen for angry white men may be millionaires like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. But such success is what their listeners wish they had, not what they do have or will ever have. Kimmel observes:

It’s largely the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle classes who form the backbone of the Tea Party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists— in many cases literally the sons of those very farmers and workers who’ve lost the family farms or shuttered for good the businesses that had been family owned and operated for generations.

Violence. This sense of being cheated out of what was promised — and being judged as if it had been delivered — interacts badly with another part of the traditional male identity: Men have the privilege/right/duty to make things right by violence.

I don’t want to be violent, but I can be.

That is the plot of just about every action movie with a male hero: A man who would rather be left alone to live his life and take care of his family is confronted with an injustice that can only end if he becomes violent and defeats it. If he successfully wields violence he is a hero. If he remains peaceful he is a wimp.

And so, while many women also feel cheated and judged unfairly, they tend not to snap in a violent way. Kimmel observes that all the recent rampage school shooters (other than the Korean Virginia Tech shooter, whose race evoked a discussion, and another Korean shooter since Kimmel finished writing) have been white males, mostly from rural and suburban areas. Kimmel imagines what would happen if they’d all been, say, inner-city black girls

Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago.


In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately.

The explanation is simple: When a man feels disrespected — on the job, in his school, in his family — the disrespect threatens not just his personal identity, but his identity as a man. (The archetypal Man is entitled to respect; if you are not being respected, you are failing as a man.) The obvious response is to re-assert manhood through violence, simultaneously righting the scales both socially and psychologically.

The Real and the True. One point I made in “The Distress of the Privileged” was that the “distress” part of privileged distress is very real: If you have convinced yourself that you don’t have any unfair advantages, and then those advantages start to go away, it feels like persecution. You’re not making it up; there are real events you can point to.

Kimmel covers this ground by distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “true”.

White men’s anger is “real”— that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true”— that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.

And what is most likely to be untrue is the object of the anger. When your well-paid factory job is shipped overseas and you can’t find another one, the villain isn’t the teen-age Chinese girl who does your old job for fifty cents an hour. If you can’t support a family on your income, the villain isn’t your working wife or her reasonable demand that you share the housewife duties she doesn’t have time for any more. If the value of your house crashes, the villain isn’t the black family that got talked into a sub-prime mortgage it couldn’t afford. If you judge yourself by the standards of another era, the villains are not the people whose fair competition keeps you from meeting those standards.

The collapsing pyramid. Patriarchy and racism are both systems of dominance that are coming apart. The white men who feel the change first are the ones just one step up from the bottom: Their step collapses, throwing them in with the “lesser” blacks and women, and the pyramid resettles on top of them. The white men higher up the pyramid want the victims of this collapse to identify with them and with the pyramid that gives them their status: What’s wrong isn’t that the pyramid itself is unfair — as you now can clearly see, being at the bottom of it. What’s wrong, they want you to believe, is that the pyramid is collapsing. You should defend the pyramid, blame the other bottom-dwellers for your loss of status, and maybe one day your one-step-up can be restored.

They know that’s not going to happen; they’re just counting on you not figuring it out. The Masters of the Universe are not going to bring your job back from China. Wal-Mart is not going to make room for your family shop to re-open. Bank of America is not going to forgive your underwater mortgage. Agri-business is not going to rescue your family farm.

The rich white men are not going to rebuild the lower step of the pyramid, no matter how much power they get. And nobody is making room for you on the upper levels.

If you have to blame someone, blame the people who promised you something they couldn’t (or decided not to) deliver. They sold you a bill of goods. Don’t buy another bill of goods from them.

But the best solution of all would be to get past the anger, forget about how things were supposed to be, and just start dealing with the situation as it is. Like a lot of people you never expected to have anything in common with, you find yourself at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s an unfair pyramid.

Let’s bring it down.

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  • Anonymous  On January 6, 2014 at 11:57 am

    One common theme here is that AWMs probably expected to work hard (or at least do work that they insisted was hard), but they didn’t expect to struggle, like the rest of us.

    If you expect to inherit the family business, you are a natural conservative. (You will not automatically be one, but it often happens that way.) Your outlook is that everything should stay exactly as it was when your Dad was pulling in big bucks, except that you will get to pull in the big bucks instead. In this mindset, things like education can seem like a waste of time, and change is simply bad.

    In any case, the rest of us have to struggle, and know deep down that all our struggles may not result in success. We tend to get an education, think about what jobs might be best in the future, but we also take whatever jobs we have to in order to get by. We are willing to move for a new opportunity, or even just to get away from a depressed area.

    The idea of struggle (which you may not win), and a lack of guaranteed success and status are anathema to proto-AWMs. They become AWMs when reality sets in.

    • weeklysift  On January 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      Kimmel says as much: “That world, now passing into history, is a world in which white men grew up believing they would inevitably take their places somewhere on the economic ladder simply by working hard and applying themselves.”

      [Kimmel, Michael (2013-11-05). Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (p. 18). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.]

      I grew up thinking that “privilege” meant getting ahead without working, and I was insulted that someone might think I had (or even aspired to) such privilege. It never occurred to me that there was privilege in the very assumption that hard work would necessarily pay off.

  • Hank Vandenburgh  On January 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    There are also plenty of examples of non-whites as mass or serial shooters, so I consider much of this analysis procrustean and smug. I don’t ordinarily like Kimmel’s stuff (his book on campus sex was extremely distorted,) and I doubt if I’ll be reading this. The failing of “privilege” as an analysis is that, in a real sense, only the 1% are privileged. Others are just a few paychecks away from homelessness. Middle America is appropriately upset about coastal liberals’ culture of proposed management of their beliefs and reacts to the right. Working class people do the same. Feminism’s issue and anti-racism’s issue is actually with wealthy people if they only knew it.

    • weeklysift  On January 7, 2014 at 8:01 am

      I agree that when you expand the class to serial killers in general, non-whites play their role. (The D. C. snipers come to mind.) But there’s a type of serial shooter — what Kimmel calls “rampage shooters” — who are overwhelmingly white: The man who plans carefully, assembles an arsenal, and then starts killing people at random until police kill him. The urge to go out in a blaze of glory seems peculiarly white.

      Growing up in the working class, I saw clearly that many white men suffer from oppression and always have. But I also saw plenty of white men whose one-step-up from the bottom was that they could dominate their wives and humiliate blacks. If that small measure of status was denied them, they could get violent.

  • Richard Olson  On January 7, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Bring it down. Hierarchical patriarchy historically is the only way the only game there is, economics (who gets what stuff and how much of it), is structured. Why? Because with rare and shortlived exceptions, strongmen call the shots. Always have and still do.

    This is a prehistoric mindset that remains virtually universal among humans and it is a only a tiny subset of the group that does not unquestionably accept it as the sole possible paradigm.

    Even when a population finally is fed up: change is uncomfortable, it’s twin is uncertainty, and almost always awful conditions are necessary to impel actions intended to effect any sort of change from that hellishness which currently exists, actions virtually always accompanied by awful suffering.

    It is possible for almost all humans to foresee the peril that accompanies change; it is why it is so difficult and rare for large movements to form and act. But it is next to impossible for almost all humans to recognize (or admit they see) the nihilism inherent in the traditional hierarchical paradigm, and realize the necessity for immediate action to deal with the imminent danger to existence it presently poses.

    And it appears ever more certain that for necessary change to occur which may yet just possibly result in minor, perhaps even substantial, improvement in life for 99+% of humans — along with sustainability for the majority of the rest of the life forms on the planet — bottom-up positive forces must be initiated, organized, and implemented.

  • Paul Bennett  On January 9, 2014 at 4:19 am

    I think this article is great but actually demonstrates a big part of the problem. The article spends a lot of time brilliantly breaking down this issue but does not offer a real solution. In fact it makes the men’s rights movement out to idiot mysongnists (Maybe they are I dont know) who should just stop.

    What this article misses is that the solution to isolated mass shooters etc is to build a new alternative to being a white man.

    I’ll outline one part of the solution. Mind you its silly and goofy but that’s part of the solution.

    We need a nonprofit dedicated instead of getting men “off the streets” or in college, it would be to get them to stop achieving. Success for this nonprofit would be measured by the number of white men NOT in the senate or NOT wealthy. It would measure success by the number of straight white men who take up ballet or become administrative assistants.

    It is totally silly but we need silly because the source of the problem (as far as I see it) is that white men have no other culturally approved path besides taking power. We dont get hugs a lot. No one sends the Koch brothers emails with smilely emoticons except if they just made a lot of money or destroyed a teachers union.

    Look at it from the Koch brothers point of view. They are super rich and powerful but what else can they do without appearing “gay” weak and without losing friends? Not a lot. So the next day they feel like their only choice is to work more and more and get angry at those people in the population who have other avenues of closeness besides work.

    Ok. I could go on but what I’m trying to say is that the Koch brothers need more hugs.

    I am still working out this idea as an idea so I would appreciate any comments or encouragement.

    • weeklysift  On January 9, 2014 at 10:51 am

      I get what you’re saying, but I’ll have to think about how to package it. It’s related to the idea that by channeling people into gender-related roles, patriarchy oppresses EVERYONE who doesn’t fit into their assigned role. That doesn’t deny the fact that assigned male roles have in general been more desirable than assigned female roles; but that generic desirability doesn’t help you if in your heart you’d rather be a nurse than a lawyer.

      • Paul Bennett  On January 9, 2014 at 11:30 am

        yeah! and how when a white guy (?) like you breaks it down, you also see it in structural, economic terms without any thought of their emotional experience. even now to talk about the emtional experience of the Koch Brothers seems absurd and stupid but it’s central to the issue.

        If you look at it from a logical perspective, their hold ideology doesn’t make sense. It’s all emotional. For example, why does it seem like laws are “being forced down their throat” or the “irs is oppressing me.” where does that pain come from? It’s not real. It’s emotional.

        There is great literature on the emotional impact of slavery on blacks (post traumatic slave syndrome) it is sometimes called. but no one thinks that there is anything going on emotionally with the Koch brothers- simply because they are acting like mean jerks.

        The answer isn’t more analysis of the situation (largely). It’s creating new paths for humans to follow together. (I am a white guy who is still learning this)

  • Margie Redmon  On January 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    My experience growing up Quaker, is that there are alternatives. As a group. Quakers are committed to social justice. There are plenty of “white men” in Quaker communities, but they seem to have different goals: the good of the community, families, and the “have-nots”. Hierarchy is virtually absent, except in the way of having the experience to suggest (only suggest) alternatives that others may have overlooked. Because all decisions are arrived at through consensus, no one is “in charge” and it works quite well.

  • Anonymous  On January 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    “Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan.” That is a completely absurd statement. Plenty of study has been done on the motives of Oswald and Hinckley, and their race was absolutely analyzed as a part of the psychological workup. I realize you use sweeping generalizations and hyperbole as cornerstones of your piece but really, that statement is particular is patently ridiculous.

  • Anonymous  On April 23, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    I will. If I ever get the big win I have been hoping for, I will raise everyone from the bottom half of the pyramid up to the bottom rung. There are always people like me if every society that truly feels they themselves could right the wrongs. If the rich connect with them and say “I can give that chance, that opportunity, that path forward” then these people, people like me, will support them. We, the angry right at the bottom are not as naïve as this article suggests. We do not believe for second Donald trump has any interest in improving our lives, or changing society in our favor. What we believe is that there is a locked door preventing us from gaining our own success and that people at the top can open the door for us. Once open, we can work our way to success, fortune, and power. We can become the nouveau riche and improve the world for everyone.
    P.S. White men, are not the only men that believe this, but this is most definitely a masculine way of thinking.

    • Terri  On September 8, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      It is naive to think that Trump and others on the right will ever open a door for the have-nots. However, I am encouraged as from time to time I meet people like you (Anonymous 4/23/15) who take a personal interest in leveling the playing field should the opportunity ever arise.


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