White Man: “We Built This Country.” Really?

White Man: “We Built This Country.” Really? September 3, 2012

The Wild Goose Festival was awesome as expected this weekend in Corvalis, Oregon. About a thousand folks gathered for the first-ever west coast version of the event started in North Carolina. There were artists, theologians, pastors, hippies, activists, poets and any number of other curious observers, navigating the landscape to better understand where this movement might be headed.

I offered a workshop on Saturday with Brian Ammons and Bruce Reyes Chow on masculinity and male identity. Folks gathered in the small animal arena on the fairgrounds where the event was held to hear about, and respond to, male identity from three fairly distinct perspectives. It was a rich conversation and pretty fun, at least until one question came toward the end, from a guy in the back row.

I suppose we should have seen it coming, but we had gotten a little too comfortable. The following is a paraphrase of what he said, but the essence is the same.

“Why is it that everyone seems to be criticizing men these days,” he said, “and no one takes the time to thank us or to celebrate us and all the we’ve done. Look around; more or less everything you see around us, we’ve built. Where’s the celebration for us?”

The three of us on the panel looked at the microphone as if it had suddenly been thrust in front of our faces at some high school debate tournament. For three guys known for always having opinions about nearly everything, we were notably silent. My wife, Amy, actually got up to respond, as we had opened the conversation to everyone in the room. She did well masking her rage (which she revealed in full to me later in private), but I’ll admit that I heard scarcely little of her response because my mind was still swimming with all the things I wanted to say, but probably shouldn’t.

But I’ve had a little time to process, and it seemed like an appropriate topic for Labor Day, so here are my more nuanced responses.

For starters, to suggest that men have little space left on the world stage for attention, recognition and celebration seems fairly myopic about the reality around us. From the political sphere to the silver screen, television, professional (and college) sports and other realms of popular culture, men continue to get more than our fair share of credit and attention. More than that, we get more money for the same work, and we have more power given our numbers. The very fact that we’re not the only ones in the spotlight any more hardly means we’re ignored.

And let’s not forget the mark we’ve left on the annals of history. Take a gander at Mount Rushmore (white guys), read about the Lewis and Clark Trail (not called the Sacajawea Trail, mind you), or at any number of monuments around our nation’s capital. I can only imagine what it’s like to gaze upon the historic (and present-day) faces of power, only to see so many faces looking back at me that hardly resemble my own.

On to the comment about building everything we see. First, it’s hard to know exactly what the man meant by “we” but given that all appearances suggested he was male and of largely Anglo descent, the comment struck the group (at least those who responded to me afterward) as speaking in part on behalf of white males.

I wonder how the comment sounded to my Native American friends in attendance, whose land was stolen out from under them to built all we saw around us.

I wonder how our African-American and Latino friends felt, knowing that our colonial history has depended (and in some ways, still depends) on exploiting the labor of other people for little or no compensation, and often by force.

I wonder how the women felt, both those who have sustained families with love, wisdom and myriad material provisions, as well as those engineers, manual laborers, scientists and architects who, too, have built what we enjoy and use every day.

I suppose I could go on, parsing out the various groups who have been marginalized, ignored, or forced into their roles as contributors to the vast infrastructure all around us, but you get the idea. If anything, his question served to point to the work yet to be done in broadening our conversations about identity, justice and our respective places in the larger conversation.

In the Christian context, it points, I think to the miles we have yet to journey toward “Thy Kingdom Come.” Yes, we all labor. We all have our trials, and we all crave validation and recognition. But to speak of perceived dispossession from a place of such privilege (past and present) only serves to drive deeper the wedges of misunderstanding, resentment and other-ness against which we, as Kingdom-seekers, should be working toward, together.

It’s not about credit; it’s about justice. and as the poet Robert Frost said, we have miles to go before we sleep.

For part one of the story I shared at Wild Goose, click here: 
Bromosapien: Evolution of the Postmodern Male (part 1)

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  • This was a great session–and this is a great post. I thought the three of you did a great job ‘handling’ the question. Amy was fantastic in her response. It was evident that she was trying very hard (and succeeding!) at keeping an even voice, steady breathing, and a charitable response.

  • Tara Adams

    I was there, yes. But, no I did not take this the way it was
    received by most of the people there. IF he had been speaking for all white
    males then what he said was fairly insensitive. And his wording was horrible. However,
    I also can see his side of things. I am not a man, but I think I can defend the
    guy. I believe some men feel a little lost in how to demonstrate their masculinity
    and sense the 70’s our society has swung the pendulum so far that I can see how
    a man may not feel appreciated for…well, his manhood. Trust me…I am thankful
    for our foremothers. I am thankful that I can vote, that I receive the same pay
    as a man for the same job (in my case this has been true) and I am not…under
    any circumstances…vacuuming the living room in high heels. However, as a woman…I
    am a little sad that our men do not feel appreciated for being men. I am also a
    little sad they are so confused and that they have been taught by their
    well-meaning feminist mothers to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    For example, when Brad (my husband) and I were going out he
    didn’t open doors for me. I was appalled. My dad opened doors for every woman
    he saw whether she was five or forty five or 105…did not matter if she were
    good looking, or if her arms were full and he wasn’t doing it to be
    disrespectful. Quite the opposite. So I asked Brad, then my boyfriend, where
    the hell did your manners go? To me…he was being rude. He looked at me and
    said, “Tara, I could get sued for that. I mean I will open doors for you,
    but..I didn’t think you would like it. I didn’t think I could.” I then realized
    that Brad was a little confused about what I expected of him as a “man”. So,
    Brad and I had a really long and honest talk about how he saw his masculinity
    and how I saw it and how I expected him to demonstrate it. Amongst opening the
    doors and taking out the garbage, was his role as a “leader” and his role as a “representative”
    of our union in public. Now, that Brad knows these things are connected in my
    head as being positive aspects of his masculinity…when I compliment him on good
    decision or representing us, as a couple, outside the home…he knows that I am
    complementing him as a man…that I appreciate his masculinity. I have feminist
    friends who would cringe at the words “I appreciate his masculinity”, but why
    shouldn’t I admit this? This is in fact…one of the foremost reasons I have a
    husband. I could have just as easily had a wife if I wanted one. However, I was
    drawn to Brad, because I was attracted by his masculinity. And that is okay.
    And I believe it is okay to appreciate him for it. On the flip side, and I
    think I should state this, Brad would never abuse my appreciation either.
    Respect goes both ways.

    I am sorry that this guy expressed the same sentiment with
    really poor wording because I think he meant “we” as in “us guys”…not “us white
    guys”. And men did have important roles
    in history. I am thankful for Fredrick Douglass just as much as I am thankful
    for Harriet Tubman. I think, as poorly worded as the statement from the guy in
    the back row was, he was brave for bringing up feelings that are for the most
    part taboo to speak about in today’s society. I believe that this person felt
    he was in a safe learning space where his opinion could be heard. I think he
    probably learned a thing or two as did the rest of us. I think a lot of people
    struggle with the question “What does it mean to be masculine or feminine?” I
    think the answer to that really is in our relationships with ourselves AND the
    people we love. These tough questions can be easier to answer if we do go ahead and have those courageous conversations.

    • Tara Adams

      And yes, I acknowledge that he should have known that his comments would be perceived as “white” because he is “white”. I am not defending is lack of responsibility for choosing his words more carefully as a white man…For the record. And I also appreciated Amy’s comments very much.

    • SamHamilton

      Thanks for your thoughts Tara. It’s always good to get a second first-hand account. We all view events through our own biases.

  • Daniel Fan


    I was at Wild Goose, but sadly, was not able to attend this session.

    Can you tell us what your wife’s response was, or maybe she can tell us, as she was more present in the moment?


  • Ben Howard

    I wasn’t there, though I would have loved to have had the chance to experience the entire event.

    I do think I understand the perspective of the man though. I’m only 25, so I’ve only ever really participated in a world that openly recognizes the equality differences between gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other difference of identity. However, there is an underrepresented story here, what, if I recall correctly, Foucault referred to as the shadow of inclusion.

    In order for there to be equality, something must be taken from someone and for the most part, that person is a white man. Now, I understand that as a white man I was born into an extremely privileged position, and I am grateful for this.

    However, I did not participate in the oppression that granted me this position of privilege and I have only ever been able to experience this level of privilege. Essentially, what is a privileged position to many I only experience as normal life. As a result, I can understand the fear and uncertainty when that perceived normality is altered in order to increase someone else’s stature even though that increase is deserved in the search for justice and equality.

    The more I consider it, the more I think that white men are the older brother when a new baby is brought into the house. It is an adjustment to realize that we’ve been the center of attention, and it very much feels like a loss when that attention is shifted even if its being shifted for good reason.

  • I was in attendance at WGFW, and was also present for this talk on masculinity. I wasn’t planning to attend this discussion but after hearing Brian Ammons share in the diversity discussion in a morning session, I decided I wanted to hear what he said about masculinity.

    I took two vans full of men from my church to the 2nd ever Promise Keepers event in Boulder when it was just 5000 men. The next year I took two buses full when they packed out the stadium for the first time. I’ve heard the standard rhetoric and participated in the promises. Mostly, for me, it was non-productive.

    While I understand the frustration of the white man saying, “Hey, what about me…” It makes me think that those of us who have been born into privilege and control don’t understand the pain from those who were born at the wrong time, wrong place, or wrong pigmentation of skin. We need to keep listening if this will ever truly change.

    The opening ceremony was so appropriate at WGFW to understand the historical context of the land where we were creating community. It is hard not to listen to it and not mourn for what happened, take ownership for our father’s sins, and ask what can we do to love our brothers and sisters as our equals today.

    Finally, and maybe most importantly, I think the example of Jesus is something us White Anglo Saxon Men should consider. Maybe our theme verse should be modeled out of Philippians chapter 2.
    “Who, being in very nature white men, should not consider being a white man something to be grasped, but instead we could made ourselves nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, like Jesus did with his Godhood, when he came to serve us.”