Gender Focus Reads: Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel

by | November 6, 2013
filed under Books, Feminism

Cover of Angry White Menby Jarrah Hodge

White men are angry. Some of them are angry at the government, some at minorities, some at their ex-wives or feminists or even just women in general. Some are angry at all of the above.

This won’t be news to feminist bloggers and activists dealing with ad hominem attacks or victim-blaming postering campaigns from men’s rights activists (MRAs).  It won’t shock the people who read or saw the news story yesterday about Jim Andre, the Alberta School Trustee who is refusing to resign after tweeting and retweeting jokes calling Miley Cyrus a prostitute, black people monkeys, and making light of the Holocaust.

But where is this anger coming from? Why are white men so angry and why is that anger being targeted at people with less power?

Michael Kimmel attempts to answer these questions in his new book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. The book draws on interviews Kimmel has undertaken across the country, as well as a great deal of non-interview research.

His main argument is that white men in America are suffering from a sense of aggrieved entitlement. That is, even though “white men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called world history,” they still feel powerless. In the introduction, Kimmel explains:

“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. The ‘enemies’ of white American men are not really women and men of color. Our enemy is an ideology of masculinity that we inherited from our fathers … that promises unparalleled acquisition coupled with a tragically impoverished emotional intelligence.”

When white men do masculinity the way they’re told but still don’t get the rewards they feel they’re entitled to (a decent job, a compliant woman), they feel they have to blame somebody else.

The majority of Kimmel’s book is spent going into depth on different groups of angry white men: angry white boys involved in mass shootings, MRAs, fathers’ rights activists, men who commit violence against women, men who go on workplace rampages, and finally white supremacists.

This where I ran into a few problems, the main one being I thought Kimmel’s overall point was well-argued, but I wasn’t sure who he was trying to make it to.

At various times it seemed the book would be useful for feminists in helping us understand and respond to ill-founded MRA or fathers’ rights activist attacks.

For example, he provides great myth-busting research that counters those who claim “misandry” is a real thing, there is gender symmetry in domestic violence (equal violence by men and women in heterosexual relationships) and women invent allegations of spousal abuse in order to get custody of children.

But there were a couple of times I felt like he almost throws a bone to the very angry white men he’s critiquing.

In the part about fathers’ rights and custody, Kimmel rightly explains how most of the evidence says when women claim domestic violence it’s usually true, “especially given the hurdles women have to go through in order to be believed in the first place.” But he also empathizes with divorcing men’s sense of “vulnerability” that a soon-to-be ex-wife might “casually drop in a domestic violence charge in a case that doesn’t seem to be going her way”.

And then actually suggests:

“If most women who come forward are telling the truth about their victimization, better that women report more often, rather than less. But perhaps the ideal case would require that either some physical evidence (a police or medical report) or some documentary record that precedes the acrimonious divorce proceedings substantiate such domestic-violence accusations.”

This paragraph was a red flag for me. In addition to the barriers Kimmel does identify for reporting domestic violence, there are situations where a wife might not report because of a language barrier or because she’s worried it might jeopardize her immigration status. Women in rural areas and indigenous women face additional issues reporting and getting documentation of abuse.

Kimmel’s suggestion about increasing the burden of proof on women may speak to an ideal world where issues reporting domestic abuse don’t exist, but I think we might be as far away from that world as we are from a world without domestic violence period.

I have two other issues with the book. The first is that it wasn’t called Angry Straight White Men. The book talks almost exclusively about cis, heterosexual men and I don’t feel that aspect gets explored to the extent that was done for whiteness or masculinity, though there are occasional mentions.

Second, the book is long on analysis and short on solutions, so it’s not very clear where we’re supposed to go with the knowledge we’ve just gained. The epilogue, where Kimmel gets into envisioning a way forward, starts on page 279 of 285.

I support the overall vision presented there: “We need to begin to decouple masculinity from that sense of unexamined and unearned entitlement” and “[join] together across race, and gender, and other identities that we think divide us”. But I was left wondering how we make that happen.

Finally, as a personal observation, I found it difficult and uncomfortable at times reading this book and being asked to join Kimmel in trying to understand and empathize with these groups of men.  It’s hard for me to “acknowledge the authenticity of the pain and anguish that propel [MRAs’] misguided empirical analysis” when I’ve gotten death threats from them for the most basic things like saying feminism isn’t about hating men.

Angry White Men does an admirable job drawing links between different groups of angry white men in America and showing how their anger is related to experiencing a sense of aggrieved entitlement. It’s chock-full of research to help you gain understanding about what’s really going on behind the Tea Party rallies, school shootings, anti-immigrant demonstrations and MRA poster campaigns you see in the news. However, the intended audience isn’t totally clear and one or two sections might be uncomfortable for feminist women readers.