“This is not America!” many people (usually white, if we’re being real) keep saying when horrified at mass shootings, overt racism, removal of reproductive freedoms, denial of trans youth’s rights and safety, religious intolerance, mass incarceration, discrimination against immigrants, scaling back of voting rights, book and public school curriculum banning, positioning public school teachers as enemies, and so much more.

Well, of course this is America! This is how our country was designed to function by the “founding fathers,” as they and their heirs perfected white patriarchy supremacy, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism—in particular, through the genocide against Indigenous people and chattel slavery of Black people that converged to form the bedrock of the American economy, society, and identity while implanting a plethora of unconscious biases.

America is not and has never been “great.” And, if you’re willing to do the work, you’ll discern that it’s never even been good. Or even just “ok.”

Unless…

…you’re a white, cisgender, fully-abled male born in the United States of America, somewhere between the shining seas.

If you were lucky and privileged enough, like myself, to win that birth lottery, then the American experience has probably been great or at least good. Even if you think your own life stinks, you’re still a white male, have far more power than you realize, and get automatic, unearned benefit of the doubt.

Progress and privilege

Furthermore, let’s stop kidding ourselves. No matter how powerful the prevailing “progress” narrative has been for the past 50-60 years, it’s quite misleading. There’s many wonderful examples of the expansion of civil rights and protections to those outside of the white patriarchy, but it’s a blatant stretch to claim society as a whole has become something profoundly different than what its white male founders designed it to be.

This “look at all the progress we’ve made” storyline helps mitigate white guilt and, far more importantly and dangerously, diminish white responsibility. Across the lifetime of those of us considered “Generation X,”  this tall tale has been skillfully entrenched into popular culture and every significant American institution. It’s almost universally embraced in the absence of critical thinking and the allowance of cognitive dissonance.

Indeed, this storyline’s prevalence is only rivaled by the a priori belief that the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants”—when the facts demonstrate that we’re actually a nation of settler colonialists who’ve only tolerated immigrants when they’ve served our best interests (i.e., American capitalism and optics) domestically and abroad.

The progress narrative seldom leaves room for the more accurate, sinister storyline of what’s been hiding in plain sight (although increasingly transparent) since the 1960s: a steady, strategic, well-coordinated, and quite patient backlash from the white patriarchy (proceeding hand-in-hand, by the way, with idolizing shareholder value and the exponential widening of income, wealth, health care, and housing gaps), slowly gerrymandering and gridlocking its way into controlling a majority of state governments and, especially in recent years, the federal branches.

Sadly, the white patriarchy is more powerful than ever before and will likely remain so in the decades to come. Each year its most vocal, unashamed, and violent proponents, usually sporting a guise of victimhood, grow bolder and more daring through words and actions that ensure everyone knows and fears the extent of its reach.

This post isn’t some random off-the-cuff drivel from just another white liberal snowflake. This rant is the culmination of years of self-directed reading, listening, and relationship building with those different from myself. My ongoing learning dovetails with an incalculable and ever-expanding amount of unlearning. I’ll never be fully “done” with detoxing myself from the addiction of white patriarchy privilege and its ubiquitous echo chambers.

The challenge of recognizing one’s own privilege is akin to a fish’s orientation toward water. A fish doesn’t suddenly have an epiphany and say, “Hey, I’m like, immersed in water all the time. Wow!” The water is inseparable from the fish’s intrinsic sense of self and eludes objective observation.

Human beings, however, are not fish. We have sentience and the ability to step back from situations and try to see them objectively while thinking critically. Even though white patriarchy privilege often does hide in plain sight, we can unveil and explore it if we are willing—and then find ways to extend it to those who don’t have it, especially through compassion, advocacy, and public policy changes.

The bare minimum

I’m increasingly hesitant to write about this journey of learning and unlearning, and haven’t produced this kind of essay in a long time. White declarations of wokeness teem ad nauseum, often lacking the realization that even being in a position to decide to recognize one’s own privilege is itself a tremendous privilege. And, far too often, white pushback against white patriarchy is spun as “brave” or “heroic,” when in the proper perspective it is neither. Rather, it’s the bare minimum expectation for being a decent human being. I’m just scratching the surface and barely getting started.

I don’t know whether I’ll stay in the U.S. for the remainder of my life. I’m increasingly leaning toward leaving in the next 5-10 years; not to find a “perfect” country, because there is none; but to grow old in a society that doesn’t have white patriarchy supremacy as its very DNA and cares even a little more for the well-being and safety of all residents through robust, inclusive public policies and social safety nets.

Until recently I still had faith that America could fundamentally change and truly manifest that alleged “progress narrative” during my lifetime. This faith has been all but shattered since 2021 as the white patriarchy has further solidified its power and nudged our nation closer to fascism. I now wonder if my children, or even my grandchildren, will live to see the ideals of American democracy reflect the realities of American life.  

In the meantime, I’m committed to continuing to scratch and go beyond the surface, increasingly recognizing my privilege, finding ways to extend it to others and, most importantly, doing what I can to alleviate suffering. In the end, as the musician Jewel sings, only kindness matters.

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