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.