This story came to my attention today. Apparently, the University of Kansas is offering a course titled “Angry White Male studies” as part of their Women’s and Gender studies course offerings in the fall. The course description on the KU website says,
This course charts the rise of the “angry white male” in America and Britain since the 1950s, exploring the deeper sources of this emotional state while evaluating recent manifestations of male anger. Employing interdisciplinary perspectives this course examines how both dominant and subordinate masculinities are represented and experienced in cultures undergoing periods of rapid change connected to modernity as well as to rights-based movements of women, people of color, homosexuals and trans individuals.
Taught by (noted white male) Dr. Christopher Forth, it seems to be a course responding to the growing cultural awareness that white men in America, in large numbers are angry about something (evidence: one Donald J. Trump) and the rest of the world should probably take notice and figure out why they are angry.
From what I can tell, the emerging debate around this class has centered on two questions: first, is this a legitimate class for a university to offer; and second, are white man unusually or especially angry? As someone who just spent the better part of the last year researching and writing a thesis centered around figuring why white people – of which I am one – are angry, and how the Church can begin to formulate a constructive theology that takes this anger seriously and begins the work of healing and reconciling, I feel I am somewhat well equipped to think about these questions.
We’ll start with the second: are white men especially angry right now? I began my research with the premise that white people in general – and especially white people inhabiting rural and working class areas – are indeed quite angry. To say this isn’t a value judgment. I’m not overly interested in why white people angry in the sense of trying to fix those things; this is because I think a lot of the things driving that anger – immigration, cultural demographics, empowerment of women and LGBT people – are good things on net, and basically aren’t going to be changing their trajectory. This doesn’t mean some of the other reasons for the anger aren’t legitimate – for instance, growing economic inequality, the slow death and degradation of small town and rural life, the cultural scorn often directed at rural working class people.
All in all though, I am less interested in the causes of that anger, and more interested in the fact that that anger is real and deeply felt and is being expressed in loud and often socially damaging ways. What ways? Well just name two, the growing rise of white nationalism:
and the high numbers of mass gun violence committed by whites:
Apart from the socially-destructive aspects of white anger, there is also the fact that white people are the only demographic group currently experiencing a growing mortality rate, or that suicide is an increasingly larger reason for cause of death among white men, or that drug and alcohol abuse it rising at alarming rates, including the well-publicized effects of the opioid epidemic. Clearly, there is an alarming level of existential angst amongst white people, manifesting itself both publicly and as self-harm, and it is worth our attention.
In my own research, I came across an abundance of sources on the growth and drivers of white anger. Justin Gest, in his book The White Working Class, does a great sociological analysis of white people in the United States and the UK, unpacking the demographic drivers behind growing support for right wing movements like Brexit, white nationalism and Trumpism. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land is an extraordinarily moving account of a particular context of white working-class people in Louisiana, documenting their anger and despair over a changing world. As she writes in her book, “Trumo was the identity politics candidate for white men.” And finally, Rev. Tex Sample’s Working Class Rage does a really good job of exploring a Christian approach to the anger felt by white working class people.
You don’t have to dig into academic works, however, to investigate the phenomena of white anger. A simple Google search for “white anger” will return a plethora of articles at a variety of news sources on the nature of white anger in America. So, in answer of our first question, yes, I would say white men are very angry. I think a lot of people are angry right now, but as we have seen, the anger of white men is manifesting itself in particularly public ways.
Which leads to our second question: is a class on white male anger something a university should be offering? In short, yes. Seeing as how we just noted a variety of ways in which white people – of which at least half are white men – are particularly angry at this moment in history, then it seems legitimate to me that a humanities department at a major university in the United States would want to attempt to study and think about it. This doesn’t seem overly objectionable to me; in fact, this is what the academy is all about. Exploring questions, even if the answers to those questions ultimately prove spurious, is one of the primary missions of the academy.
To get back to my earlier point: this is the exact kind of thinking people need to be doing right now, especially in the church. As I said, I’m not as interested in questions of why white people are angry, except as those reasons inform our ability to address that anger. Because, whether the reasons are legitimate or not, the fact of the matter is, the anger and hurt and despair being felt by white people – and being expressed by white people – is very real. And, not only should we be thinking about it with a utilitarian motive – as in, it’s importance because of the way it effects us – but, as Christians, we should also be thinking about it because these are our fellow human beings. Their pain is real, and we have a responsibility to take another human being seriously when they are telling us they are in pain. Even if we don’t understand the reasons, or agree with it. Understanding is worth our time, because only by understanding is empathy created and solutions found.
I think, from this view point, the KU course is a really good thing. I hope more universities start grappling with questions of real substance concerning the forgotten world of rural working class people in America, rather than dismissing their interests and situations. While I hold no illusions about some of the non-constructive directions this course could take, I also think there is the potential for the unequivocal goods of empathy-building and the door that opens to building bridges and, ultimately, communities of reconciliation and healing.