Laughter in the Face of White Mediocrity – and other strategies for anti-oppression excellence


By Christian Matheis (June 21, 2019)

“What do I tell my kids?” a student asked me last spring in an intro class on community problem solving. She, African-American and one of the few (4, she tells me) on the municipal police force of around 450 officers, caught my words.


“What do I tell my kids???” she repeated as I searched for an answer worthy of the question.


Here is what had prompted the question. In response to a class discussion about the covert and persistent versions of authority, white supremacy, and white privilege in institutions, I made a casual remark about mediocrity. Paraphrasing something Lani Roberts told me many years ago I said, “Remember, bureaucracy tends to select for mediocrity. And mediocrity tends to bolster bureaucracy. Act excellent, show brilliance and you’re a threat to the mediocre who have careers built on mediocrity. Stay mediocre, get promoted.” I voiced it matter-of-factly.


Her question, “what do I tell my kids???” was not casual. It was urgent.


In the moment I didn’t have the kinds of liberation-informed response I wish I had. So, I’ve given it some thought and reflection over the past few weeks and I at least found some of my voice to try again. In other words, through the cruel irony of white mediocrity itself I had casually named white mediocrity while a Black mother in a class I taught lived it, felt it like a ton of bricks and instantly had to wonder how to parent in spite of it.
More and more recently, a growing number of people have written about and re-emphasized Black excellence — a term by Black people, for Black people, about Black people that highlights the successes of Blacks who thrive despite and in resistance to global white supremacy. Or perhaps irrespective of white supremacy. I do not know.
I think it is not for me to say much at all about Black excellence, except that I think it stands in critical, liberatory opposition to white supremacy, white privilege, and white mediocrity by making these latter systems wholly irrelevant (or as much as possible) to how African Americans treat one another. Or to paraphrase Toni Morrison, “When I started writing I found that all the stories by Black men about Black people were about someone locked in a fight with their oppressor. Once I decided to kick the oppressor out of my stories I could write the realities of Black women, for us and about us” (my recollection of her remark at the Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech in 2013).
I want to reiterate that the mediocrity here is not just any mediocrity, not just any bureaucracy. It is *white* mediocrity. And it helps maintain and fuel white bureaucracy, white privilege, and white supremacy by any and all names we might call these systems.
Intersectionally, white mediocrity as the paradigm inside of white bureaucracies depends on the entire system of capitalist imperialist cisheteropatriarchal mediocrity (riffing on bell hooks).
(As much as I admire Bonnie Mann’s work on “sovereign masculinity” (2013), we have to read our Marx and Engels closely enough to notice that an elite class struggles with sovereign masculinity, while the vast majority of people exploited, abused, and murdered by patriarchy suffer in systems of “bureaucratic masculinity”)
White mediocrity plays out its favors and punishments through a system that at least includes:

– Aesthetic white mediocrity: collapsing and controlling beauty, awe, wonder, ineffability, the sublime, etc. in ways that protect and further entrench the role of whites as the paradigm of aesthetics, the benchmarks of all beauty, pure and magnificent. All others, ugly, impure, and mundane.
– Moral white mediocrity: assessing right, wrong, good, bad, and any complex value determinations in ways that protect and further entrench the role of whites as the best evaluators, the best at making judgments.


– Political white mediocrity: adjudicating claims of injustice, distributing resources and opportunities, distribution of social benefits and burdens, and ranking individual and group interests in ways that protect and further entrench whites as the best deciders.
– Economic white mediocrity: conceiving of quality of life, social welfare, distribution of resources and opportunities, etc. in ways that protect and further entrench whites as the best owners and controllers — to say little or nothing of interrogating and dismantling ownership paradigms in themselves.
Let’s get a few things on the table.
White mediocrity has promoted me.


My refusal to collude in white mediocrity, when I have mustered the strength and strategy, has also cost me. But it has never cost me as much as it has promoted me. The cost is optional for whites.


I both have and can still give talks titled, “Anti-Racism for White People: Or How to Stop Worrying and Become a White Race Traitor” knowing that it is a luxury, an option. White mediocrity allows me to do so, but with as much or as little efficacy as I choose.


The social positionality allows me to write about it, in this moment, with relatively limited consequences.


We know all too well that whites can count on cashing in the white mediocrity chip at any time, anywhere, and that it benefits us to remain unaware of this particular form of corrupting privilege (Peggy McIntosh).


White mediocrity may take familiar forms. Though because systematic oppression operates to conceal itself it may not always appear obvious when one has come face to face with white mediocrity. For that reason, I want to try to help expose the anatomy of white mediocrity by naming what seem like common aspects:


– Assume authority is yours for the taking, that as white you deserve it if you put enough loyal years into an organization.

– Speak with the tone and cadence that always, flawlessly implies the threat, “I decide, or must I remind you.”

– Seek managerial promotion in white-dominated bureaucracies as an inherent good.

– Treat others as if they want managerial promotion in a white-dominated bureaucracy.

– Reward/encourage others as if they want promotion in a white-dominated bureaucracy.

– Sanction/discourage others who resist promotion in a white-dominated bureaucracy, especially anyone who doesn’t “play ball.”

– Defend your mediocre decisions as best for the white-dominated bureaucracy.

– Offer to mentor, coach, or advise people from underrepresented groups in how to obtain the fruits of white mediocrity by assimilating.

– Avoid people from underrepresented groups who question and challenge the mediocrity of white rule over white-dominated bureaucracies.

– Pat on the back anyone from any group who validates your fragile, white mediocre ego.

– …what else? This must be an open list.


These and many other normalized traits of administrative leadership and managerial authority depend on and bolster white mediocrity. We whites dare not admit to it. What would become of our claims to authority, force, power, rule? All so flimsy.


One salient insight into white mediocrity I can now recall was with a supervisor during an annual performance evaluation meeting. At the time I served in an advocacy role in a university, my salary paid for by student fees. During the conversation while I listened to “recommendations for professional growth” I had a sudden and inexplicable need to explain, “I think you think I someday want your job. Or the vice-provost’s job.” She looked shocked. I went on, “I took this job because I want this job, this work right now. I’ll hopefully take the next one for similar reasons. But I have zero aspirations about promotion, about climbing the status ladder.”


She, a cis heterosexual woman of color, confided in me several months later that that remark had seriously upset her. Not because it wasn’t fair or relevant, but because she realized that she had never once in her career questioned her desire to climb the administrative hierarchy. It was a given.


Given by whom? By mediocre whites.


White mediocrity can co-opt, tokenize, and assimilate people from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.
Various scholars of liberation such as Jane Nardal, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, Audre Lord, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, etc. have shown that oppression plants in the oppressed the seeds of their own liberation, while at the same time it (oppression) also masks that fact.


This is probably why Black excellence is so crucial to undermining white mediocrity. Black excellence exposes and at the same time treats as irrelevant the scheme of white mediocrity, or so I suspect.


In “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) George Orwell tells about the time in his young adulthood when he served as part of the brutal, colonial British military force occupying India. Many years later, reflecting on the depth of his acculturation into white imperialist rule he remarks, “Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. …I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East.”
What catches my attention is not that Orwell merely notices and confesses to his acculturation into British imperialism, doing the job while hating the job. It is the pattern of events that Orwell says most frustrated and upset him at the time, and what helped to expose to him the mediocrity of British bureaucratic oppression over India and Burma. In the opening of the essay he writes,


“As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow [sic] faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves.


Then later, in closing, “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”


What if white mediocrity has no immunity to laughter?


Perhaps what white mediocrity fears most is that the oppressed will realize how preposterous and mediocre white rule has always been. How laughable, unimaginative, and incoherent white supremacy actually is, and how it appears maybe most laughable in its bureaucratic administrative formations. Moreover, laughable in that so much of the scheme and scam of white mediocrity is about whites coercing whites to remain ignorant of it, and to use white bureaucracy to eradicate spaces in which people of color can create overt language – a language in which to talk about white mediocrity in institutional settings (e.g. in the workplace, classroom, research conference, annual performance evaluation, etc.).


Where and when can we talk about white mediocrity? Cisgender mediocrity? The mediocrity of the temporarily able-bodied? Masculine mediocrity? Heterosexual mediocrity? And so on.
“What do I tell my kids?” she asked.


I do not know.


At least for today, I hope she tells them to consider laughter and Black excellence — Tell your children to laugh and love their Black excellence.

How Can We Make You Stop? They Can’t. A Guide for Marginalized People Who Challenge Discrimination

By Christian Matheis (June 20, 2019)

One of the things that happens to people from underrepresented backgrounds when they begin to advocate for themselves, including when they challenge patterns of institutional / systematic discrimination: attempts by people in positions of authority to get you to doubt your reality.

We need to call this what it is: an attempt to get people from marginalized groups to further internalize oppression, to engage in horizontal hostilities, and to accept assimilation and tokenism as “the other” (Suzanne Pharr).

Naomi Zack, a philosopher role model and mentor to me many years ago, told a story at a conference a few years ago (2016 APA Central Division Meeting) I want to paraphrase as an example.

Naomi had been invited by a colleague to give a talk at another university as a guest lecturer. As the talk neared, the colleague who invited Naomi wrote to say that faculty in the hosting department — also philosophers — were pressing this question: “how is what Naomi Zack does philosophy?”

Naomi identifies as a biracial/multiracial African-American Jewish woman from the U.S.A.


This is, in brief, how Naomi responded: she itemized her entire CV by illustrating that she earned various degrees in philosophy, including a PhD, has taught philosophy courses for several decades at accredited universities, has held various non-tenure and tenure-track positions in philosophy departments at different universities, is now a tenured full professor of philosophy, and has a long list of peer-reviewed publications in various branches of philosophy in a range of philosophy journals.

At the end of this narrative Naomi added the key response: “Tell them this, my CV. And then tell them that what they are asking is not how what I do counts as philosophy. They are asking, ‘how do we make her stop?’ And the answer is, tell them they can’t. They can’t make me stop.”

The intimidation may take all sorts of different forms, but it owes to the same objective of trying to convince people from marginalized groups that they are not qualified by their experiences, studies, survival mechanisms, community mentoring, etc. to address institutionalized oppression.

The intimidation may percolate up and take shape through a whole range of different phrases and behaviors that seem all-too-reasonable.

But what those with authority are asking is not whether thou art qualified. They are asking, “how can we make you stop?”

And the answer is: they can’t.

But you have to believe it and spend time with other people who live it, care about liberation, and who also believe it.


There is No Hierarchy of Freedom and Liberty: Another Gift from Audre Lorde

By Christian Matheis (November 14, 2016)



In the 19th and 20th century, when the U.S. was formally, legally segregated under Jim Crow laws, regressives cried “freedom! liberty!” in order to paint a false moral picture of their ill-gotten, mean-spirited grip on political and economic power. When activists responded with efforts to desegregate, those who opposed civil rights often did so with the same rhetoric of “freedom! liberty!” Today, when oppressed communities and their allies make calls for integration, many of which have not yet succeeded, they find the same opposition voiced with cries of “freedom! liberty!” Regressives would have people believe a falsehood: that liberatory movements to provide disenfranchised, oppressed groups with fair, equal shares in society compromise freedom and liberty.

Who knows what we would do without Audre Lorde’s voice reminding us that there is no hierarchy of oppression. In the short essay published in 1983, Lorde put to words what many caretakers, activists, and scholars already deeply felt and clearly understood: we must not allow identity politics, created and maintained in oppressive institutional and cultural systems, to turn people against one another through the belief that some forms oppression outrank others.[1] On the contrary, we should feel suspicious whenever we encounter the idea that suffering oppression in one way or another somehow causes worse harms than suffering oppression at all. That is, no particular form of oppression causes any more or less suffering than another form, despite how easily we might feel otherwise. No, Lorde argues, people cannot cut one another or themselves up in this way. None of us can live regardless of some aspect of ourselves. People are whole, integrated and beautifully complex inclusive of vast characteristics and expressions. Moreover, Lorde’s work illustrates that, to challenge oppression, we need not fully understand one another before choosing to help liberate one another. We can seem quite mysterious and misunderstood to each other while at the same time choosing to act for liberation.

Racism does not cause harms in any better or worse ways than sexism and heterosexism. Sexism does not do anything more or less brutal than racism and heterosexism. Heterosexism does not result in any more deeply felt pains than racism and sexism. Even as these forms of oppression differ, they stem from devaluation of human dignity. Sometimes, specific incidents of each involve more or less brutality, and at times we may too easily to believe in hierarchies of oppression, yet we cannot let these false rankings of suffering fool us.

One might wonder whether the two ideas – freedom and liberty – also smuggle something troubling along the way. Or, perhaps, there exists no fundamental flaw within ideas of liberty and freedom except when different people put them into hierarchies, benefitting themselves at the expense of others.

I was born white, relatively able-bodied, cisgender, and male. I grew up speaking English and I have never personally faced extensive poverty. I try to act as the most humane person I can in order to live the life into which I was born, a life I did not earn, and the life I have since earned. When I can, I help facilitate relationships, a labor of making one another, to foster a livable future, feasible for this earth and for my loved ones. As a white, queer, feminist, anarchist, scholar, sometimes I find myself part of some group which the majority defines as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.” However, I also benefit from advantages I did not earn and as a result I often gain unfairly granted opportunities. Moreover, people often treat me as if I am just plain “right.”

Even though people sometimes gain certain rewards for acting as if some forms of oppression are worse than others, such as a small financial gain or a change in civil rights, these often amount to hypnotic carrots dangled before us. The paltry rewards for turning on another can, for a time, seem to give me or you or us an edge over them or those people, but horizontal hostility and internalized oppression (terms I borrow from Suzanne Pharr) can only keep us working against one another.[2] Following after these petty rewards results in a particular kind of self-harm and community-harm – a persistent degradation of dignifying relationships.

At the same time, if we know the game is rigged, we can decipher the feasibility of fostering liberatory coalitions; we can find another key to understanding oppression and solidarity by noticing a message implied in the details of Lorde’s original gift. If there is no hierarchy of oppression, then there is also no hierarchy of liberty and freedom.

Lorde gave us at least two gifts in what initially may read as only one: there is no hierarchy of oppression because all oppression stems from the devaluation of human life. Likewise, no hierarchy of freedom and liberty can endure if freedom and liberty are the affirmation of human life. Each one of these ideas follows from the other.

It might be a bad idea for a white guy from Texas to emend Lorde’s writing. Some say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Some say it goes “against the rules” to alter what someone else wrote and, in doing so, to put words to someone else’s name without permission. Maybe it breaks some taboo to act as a heretic by revising sacred texts. Sometimes, heresy honors the sacred notions more than devout preservation of the original words as if one way of writing a story counts as the only way. I do not think texts require us to treat the ideas too dogmatically, even if it risks some disrespect. In what follows, I have changed Lorde’s original essay to reveal the complementary notions that I think her original explanation entails. I think that what follows would have to hold true given the original version Lorde wrote. I would like to think that Lorde would forgive me for the things that I do not get quite right.

The phrases marked in italics have been revised to illuminate the underlying idea that there is no hierarchy of freedom and equality, otherwise there is no such thing as freedom and equality for anyone.


“There Is No Hierarchy of Freedom and Liberty”

Inspired by Audre Lorde

I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”

From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that liberty and freedom and the tolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of liberation and freedom. I have learned that sex equality (a belief in the inherent fairness of each sex toward another and thereby everyone’s right to equality) and equality of sexualities (a belief in the inherent value of each pattern of loving respect in fairness as are all others and thereby everyone’s right to equality) both arise from the same source as racial justice – a belief in the inherent fairness of each race with respect toward all others and thereby everyone’s right to equality.

“Oh,” says a voice from the Black community, “but being Black is NORMAL!” Well, I and many Black people of my age can remember grimly the days when it didn’t used to be!

I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from freedom and liberty any more or less than any other part of my identity can benefit from freedom and liberty. I know that my people necessarily profit from the freedom and equality of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. In fact, we enhance ourselves by securing to all others what we have shed blood to obtain for our own children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in the sense of giving up who they are in order to work together for a future they will all share.

The increasing freedom and equality for lesbians and gay men are only an introduction to the increasing freedom and liberty for all Black people, for wherever freedom and liberty manifests itself in this country, Black people are potential beneficiaries. And it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to discourage members of oppressed groups to act toward and in support of freedom and liberty for each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action. Yet so long as we are united because of our particular identities we can join together in effective political action.

Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any defense of Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any defense of lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of freedom and liberty.

It is not accidental that the Family Protection Act, which is virulently anti-woman and anti-Black, is also anti-gay. As a Black person, I know who my allies are, and when the Ku Klux Klan goes to court in Detroit to try and force the Board of Education to remove books the Klan believes “hint at homosexuality,” then I know I cannot afford the luxury of advocating one form of freedom and liberty only. I cannot afford to believe that guarantees of fairness are the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to favor only me. And when they falsely appear to favor only me, it will not be long before they falsely appear to favor only you. But when they appear to favor me as much as they favor you, it will not be long before they appear to favor you as much as they favor me.

[1] Lorde, Audre. “There is No Hierarchy of Oppression.” From “Homophobia and Education” (New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983).

[2] Pharr, Suzanne. 1996. In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation. Berkeley: Chardon Press.

Why Don’t the Names of Gun Manufacturers Make the News?


By Christian Matheis (October 5, 2015)

“He patted the thing he wore on his belt, a metal object like a deformed penis, and looked patronizingly at the unarmed woman. She gave the phallic object, which she knew was a weapon, a cold glance.”  The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin Continue reading “Why Don’t the Names of Gun Manufacturers Make the News?”

Political Explosions Versus Moral Harmony: Can anarchists imagine another sort of liberated radical?


By Christian Matheis  (September 3, 2015)

Continue reading “Political Explosions Versus Moral Harmony: Can anarchists imagine another sort of liberated radical?”

What’s the Retail of Two Cities?

By Christian Matheis

Imagine you hold a particular place truly sacred.

Perhaps a town, or a building, or a region.

Let’s give the image a bit of life. The place, your most cherished, holds sacred for your community.  As the sine qua non – that without which nothing else in your life can matter – you consider it holy, divine, hallowed. Continue reading “What’s the Retail of Two Cities?”

Should Anarchists Vote?


Chris Dixon ends his recent book Another Politics:  Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements with a series of questions that are meant to confront and guide the direction of future organizing projects.  Some of these questions have to do with electoral politics:  How should people dedicated to anti-authoritarian politics relate to this sphere? Continue reading “Should Anarchists Vote?”

Walking Away From Paradise: Teaching Ursula K. Le Guin and Social Justice

The Anarres Project for Alternative Futures takes its inspiration, in part, from the imaginative work of Ursula K. Le Guin.  For decades, her speculative fiction has woven together fantastic worlds with reflections on the nature of human life and the meaning of a socially just world. Continue reading “Walking Away From Paradise: Teaching Ursula K. Le Guin and Social Justice”

What We Broke the First Time


Pressing the Restart Button on Liberatory Movements

By Christian Matheis


Recently, I posted the following question on a social media site:


If feminism hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like? Continue reading “What We Broke the First Time”

Fair play or liberation?

Inequality, political cheating, and liberatory thought in the 21st century

By Christian Matheis


In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Joseph E. Stiglitz addressed the dismal condition of U.S. domestic policies and political machinations. Rebuking the regressive view that with democratic liberties we must also live fated to the dominance of capitalist industries, Stiglitz rightly takes on the underlying assertion that market forces and laws of economics result in certain kinds of inevitable inequalities. Continue reading “Fair play or liberation?”