Relinquishing Rulers

Here are some things I’m learning about White Male supremacy – so far. This is an ongoing journey of the fish discovering the ocean, so this will be boring for lots of other folks. But I have lots to work out and repent. And this is where I’m doing it. In fact, I am making additional connections as I write.

White Male supremacy is not just hoods and burning crosses, not just lying and lynching, not just redlining and blue-lining. It’s all of those things and more. But at its heart, white Male supremacy is what the name states. “White” and “Male” are each supreme and together they are the “supremest.”

White Male supremacy is a cultural framework and system that makes the prototypical white man the canon and arbiter of all that is true and good and beautiful. Ijeoma Oluo describes White supremacy in these terms: “the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized,” she continues, “while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.” (Mediocre, page 3).

The White Male is the canon for our culture. A canon is literally a measuring stick. In English, oddly enough, we call such a standard measuring stick a “ruler”! That standard stick provides the rule or scale according to which things are measured. In the experience of some of us, such sticks were also used to enforce the rules on the behinds of small children. My rump reduced a number of such sticks to kindling over the years. But I digress…for now.

I have a small metal ruler that I carry with my journal. Mostly I use it as a straight-edge to divide sections of my writing. The ruler carries two different standards of linear measure – inches and centimeters. Six inches and fifteen centimeters describe about the same distance – or at least close enough for my journaling purposes.

I can see quite clearly on that metal ruler that inches translate or convert into centimeters and vice versa. But I almost always use inches – the “English” system – in my woodworking and carpentry. It’s the system under which I grew up and apprenticed. I can speak fluently the language of seven sixteenths and eleven thirty-seconds of an inch. I don’t need to translate those figures into any other scale.

I know that the English system is klutzy, clumsy, and slow when compared to the “metric” system. Multiplying and dividing by ten, adding and subtracting decimals, are both far easier than converting fractions. Yet Americans often scream bloody murder when the dimensions of a project are given in metric rather than English units.

I still see arguments online asserting that English fractional units are inherently superior to decimals – more accurate, more faithful to woodworking tradition, more…well, just prettier. There is a kind of English fraction supremacy at work that is ever so difficult to surrender. I am sometimes astonished at the creative and fanciful lengths to which some will go to “prove” that supremacy.

And then I remember how much I dislike using the metric system in my shop. Woodworkers, of all people, should know about the log in our own eyes versus the splinter in the eye of another. Safety glasses don’t protect against such metaphorical hazards.

Arguments regarding fractional supremacy, of course, are nonsense. Each measuring system has been constructed, and each has its history and heritage. But men like me who were formed in the fractional heritage still design most projects (at least for American consumers) and sell most lumber – at least in the U.S. So, inches, feet, and yards – divided into halves, quarters, eighths, and beyond – that’s the system. In addition, you must know the code – that a two by four is not really two inches by four inches, for example. That’s the canon. That’s the rule…and the rulers.

Why do I carve out this extended and somewhat tortured simile? White Male supremacy remains the canon for American culture. That’s changing, inch by inch (or perhaps centimeter by centimeter). We rulers are fighting the change every sixteenth of the way. But at least we have folks who now point out that other standards exist and are equally useful (often more so).

It’s no accident that I use the analogy of measurement for this conversation. White men measure things to decide if things matter and to determine their worth. White men measure what matters, and what matters gets measured – according to the canon of White Male Supremacy. A big part of the necessary change is relinquishing the cultural rulers altogether. We must let go of measuring. It makes me dizzy even to type those words, but that doesn’t change the truth of them.

I think about the ways that measuring is used to possess, control, and exploit people and things in our White Male culture. We have measured the “black blood” in people to determine their place in the cultural caste system. We have measured and managed black bodies at the slave auctions. We have measured miles of railroad right-of-way while stealing acre after acre of Native land that we said needed “development.” We have measured real estate for redlining and black and brown people for mortgage rejections. We measure voters and districts and manipulate the numbers to maintain legislative control. We measure money in order to hoard it for ourselves.

What I measure, I can manage. And if I also define and determine the standards, I control it all. If I am the Standard, then I have become god of the system. Willie James Jennings describes White Male Supremacy as “a way of being in the world that aspires to exhibit possession, mastery, and control of knowledge first, and of one’s self second, and if possible of one’s world.” (After Whiteness: Theological Education between the Times, Kindle Edition, Location 495).

Back to the simile of the ruler for a bit. Each system of measurement has its own story, its own utility, its own context and heritage. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could choose the best canon for the situation at hand? But that would require having multiple tools in our cultural toolbox, valuing each way of working for its own sake, and knowing how to use each of the tools appropriately.

White Male Supremacy is the cultural hammer that treats all other persons like nails – pounding them until they fit the system. Carpenters know you need the right tool for the right job. Willie James Jennings describes how this system enforces “hegemony” and “homogeneity.” He writes, ““Hegemony” and “homogeneity” are words that mean control and sameness, a control that aims for sameness and a sameness that imagines control. (After Whiteness: Theological Education between the Times, Kindle Edition, Location 156).

Doing things the White Male way might (for the sake of argument) be the right tool in a particular situation. But wouldn’t it be better to have a toolbox full of options for how to live our lives? Yet, there are White Male supremacy dangers even in this extended simile. The system of White Male supremacy can’t be made safe for the “users” or especially for the measured. Hegemony and homogeneity are not bugs in that system. They are unavoidable features.

What are some of these dangers? First, I can’t just pick the “tool” of another way of seeing and being, learn it and put it to work. That’s further colonialization, appropriation, and exploitation. That makes things worse. Second, doing things on my own is one of the limitations of the White Male Supremacy system. I don’t have to do life alone. I don’t have to be in charge of life. I don’t have to know everything. I need to step back and let others lead the way in their own ways.

It becomes clear to me that all this requires a change in the story of White Male Supremacy. In fact, it requires rejecting that story of being human altogether. The “supremacy” part must be removed, repented, and repaired. Seeing the White Male tool set as one option among many requires a revolution in seeing. It requires the “new eyes” that Proust mentions in his often-used quote. It requires relinquishing the ruler…and ruling.

A full toolbox for being human together requires that we White Males become multilingual and multicultural. We would need to learn new languages, new practices, new ways of thinking. We must violate one of the fundamental rules of the White Male canon and look at ourselves objectively and critically – from the outside and with an eye toward improvement. We must also violate a second fundamental rule of the White Male canon – that white men must possess, master, and control everything in the world. That has to go, even as many of us hold on with our last, dying breath.

“White male identity is not inborn,” writes Ijeoma Oluo. “it is built.” That means it can be deconstructed, if we White Males choose to cooperate in the demolition project. Part of the cost of White Male supremacy, Oluo notes, is the embrace of mediocrity as a way to protect the privilege of the wealthy and deceive the rest of us White Males (but that’s another story for now).

Suffice it to say that it is in the interest of us White Male mediocrities to help take the myth apart if we want to be fully flourishing human beings. We must disassemble ourselves and and our hegemony if we are to love our neighbors as Christ loves us.

This require relinquishing the rulers…and the ruling. I know it’s obvious to everyone else.