Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America

by Ijeoma Oluo

Hardcover, 2020

Status

Available

Publication

Seal Press (2020), 336 pages

Description

Politics. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML: From the author of the New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race, a subversive history of white male American identity. What happens to a country that tells generation after generation of white men that they deserve power? What happens when success is defined by status over women and people of color, instead of by actual accomplishments? Through the last 150 years of American history??from the post-Reconstruction South and the mythic stories of cowboys in the West, to the present-day controversy over NFL protests and the backlash against the rise of women in politics??Ijeoma Oluo exposes the devastating consequences of white male supremacy on women, people of color, and white men themselves. Mediocre investigates the real costs of this phenomenon in order to imagine a new white-male identity, one free from racism and sexism. As provocative as it is essential, this book will upend everything you thought you knew about American identity and offers a bold new vision of American greatness… (more)

Rating

(107 ratings; 4.3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
Ijeoma Oluo has put together a seemingly endless string of situations where women and people of color have their lives battered and twisted out of shape by white male supremacy. By the end of Mediocre, the feelings of oppression, suppression and anarchic violence become overwhelming. This is life
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for minorities in America. Generation after generation. It’s essentially an impossible life. The abuse is stunningly widespread, omnipresent and intractable. It is ingrained and seemingly innate. The sole reason? To keep white males in control. It is so pathetic, it can often seem like minorities are just roadkill in the continual battle for and by white men to keep power. And yet, it is clearly wearing on white men, too. It’s complicated. And worth exploring:

Oluo bounces from tale to tale, from Buffalo Bill Cody to Colin Kaepernick, from women in the workplace to Elizabeth Chisholm running for president, from FDR’s programs to higher education’s blackballing. They all fit the premise that white male supremacy is a construct that is so twisted, so fragile and so demanding of its own, it’s a wonder it has managed to survive, let alone thrive. Even Bernie Sanders is faulted for his views; it is that ingrained in someone many see as a solution. It is artificial, bizarre, and damages white males as well as the minorities they feel entitled to rule.

She demonstrates how numerous programs and institutions foist discrimination on minorities. “Works according to design” applies to all kinds of programs such as the GI Bill, by which black soldiers were offered the lowest paying, most dangerous or menial jobs after WWII, and if they didn’t accept them, they would lose all their benefits under the law. Meanwhile, half of white GIs used their benefits to start their own businesses.

Works according to design also applies in finance, mortgages, and scholarships. Despite the highminded announcements, they all had the intention and the effect of keeping out minorities. Works like a charm, and Oluo details the finer points of how they pull it off. For those living in a fluffy cloud of white privilege, it can be a revelation.

Still in WWII mode, women were called upon to fill factory positions while the men went off to war. But government and various institutions spent those months plotting how to get them out of there and back in the home (“where they belong”). Polls asking what should be done with women workers after the war showed results like 48% saying “Fire them.” Women’s magazines told of divorce, infertility and death for those who persisted in factory jobs. Meanwhile 75-80% of the women themselves wanted to keep their jobs after the war. White supremacist men used lower pay, harassment and discrimination to force them out. Only white males should be the family breadwinner. Today, women CEOs face fatal criticism for words and actions that Wall Street praises in white men. Even FDR’s Depression programs forced women to stay home, by allowing only one government salary per family. Naturally, it went to the (white) male.

This kind of constant pressure on minorities is not isolated; Oluo has an endless supply of examples. It makes for unbearable negative forces, and of course, a much tinier rate of progress for the nation, because the white male supremacists demonstrate nothing if not mediocrity.

From Bernie Sanders on down, mediocrity disappoints Oluo. White male supremacists are far from the able geniuses who earn their positions in society by merit in her telling. But they are the only choice on offer. From the boardroom to the backroom, it remains a white supremacist country, where a Congressman like Steve King can wonder out loud when white supremacy suddenly became a bad thing in public life.

Oluo is a powerful writer, direct and to the point, making Mediocre a fast, easy read that penetrates. She likes short, declarative sentences, mostly in the active voice. And she minces no words: “The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way-this is a man that most of us would not like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet, we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes.”

Or: “(Bullying and entitlement) are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated.“

These internal contradictions are what is holding back the entire nation. From peace, from co-operation and from forward movement.

Collectively, it might not be quite so bad if white male supremacists demonstrated keen judgment, able decision-making, and inspired leadership. But instead, Americans get jerks in power, from the front office to the highest office.

These traits take their toll on the mediocre themselves too. Oluo points out that of the nearly 42,000 suicides in the USA in 2017, 70% were white males. They were (and continue to be) disappointed they haven’t risen faster or further. They are under pressure from their peers, with whom they are in endless competition. Their families are a further source of pressure and depression, leaving essentially nothing for them to appreciate, enjoy or take pride in.

They blame minorities for their lack of success and esteem. As white males, they grew up assuming the corridors of power were open uniquely to them. There wasn’t supposed to be this added competition. It was all supposed to be automatic. Working under a woman or a person of color is the ultimate humiliation in a life of abject failure for a white male supremacist.

And if it isn’t suicide, it is mass murder. White males are the biggest single threat to innocent life in the country. White males are the biggest terrorists in the USA, from the AR-15 mass murderers to police with handguns. From Oluo’s perspective, the bitter disappointment factor is ruining an entire society.

She even has a chapter on American football, burdened with the demands of players for money, recognition, respect, and authority. While two thirds of players are men of color, only white men own teams, black quarterbacks were unknown until recently, and of course the uproar over the national anthem has turned the whole sport into, shall we say, a political football. Or, as Oluo puts it: “When we look at how the sport has embraced violence, undermined workers and exploited people of color – what could be more American than that?”

She portrays the verbal beatings taken by Mmes. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and Pressly as typical of the abuse heaped on competent women. Rather than debate them into submission, white supremacist males call them names, denigrate them, make absurd claims about their work and their lives, and of course, encourage them to go home. But then, they have a great inspiration behind them in the examples set by the president.

This is Oluo’s America, a tight knot of contradictions, violence and gridlock. Viewed from her perspective, it is a wonder the whole thing doesn’t collapse and implode. It’s is certainly not somewhere you would want to raise a family.

Incredibly perhaps, Oluo is not pessimistic. She believes it is possible for all to work and live together, given just a tiny change in attitudes. She does not call for protests, revolution or even legal challenges. Through it all, she has clung to her humanity.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
This book needs to be on school required reading lists; it’s amazing. Everyone needs to read it as the author does a great job weaving history and how it’s brought us to where we are today. She covers everything from the Buffalo Bill Old West shows all the way to the protests by NFL players
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today. The through line of course is that white men suck, but here it’s explained how that happened and maybe hope for the future (optimism is a dangerous thing).
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LibraryThing member jonerthon
This author may be best known for her other title, So You Want to Talk About Race, but I haven't gotten to that one yet. In here, Oluo makes the case that white Americans, and especially white men, have gained and held onto power and trendsetting without reaching standards that they set for
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everyone else. The collective detriment is hard to calculate, but this gives a good idea of what we've lost in multiple arenas.
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LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Best for:
All the people, but I think white men really need to read and sit with this one.

In a nutshell:
Author Oluo explores the ways in which the elevation of the mediocrity of white men harms everyone (including white men).

Worth quoting:
“What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a
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baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.”

“How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?”

“Perhaps one of the most brutal of white male privileges is the opportunity to live long enough to regret the carnage you have brought upon others.”

(That's just a small sample of what I furiously underlined in the first 30 pages of the book. It’s SO GOOD.)

Why I chose it:
Ijemoa Oluo is an excellent writer. I loved her first book, and knew I needed to read this one. Due to living in the UK and different release dates (and our impatience and attempt to secure a copy from the US) we now have two copies - one for me and one for my partner.

Review:
Author Oluo is a brilliant writer. She takes on topics and explores them in ways that others may not have before. She makes connections and provides context, research, and new information to every topic she takes on. When I heard she had a new book coming out, and on such an evergreen and yet extremely relevant topic, I was excited, because I knew I’d learn something.

The book has seven chapters exploring connections between everything from the white invasion of what is now the western US to American football. I found myself wanting to share so much with my partner as I read.

For example, just in the first chapter Oluo connects Buffalo Bill to the Cliven Bundy incident in the Pacific Northwest. I was like 25 pages in and found myself saying out loud ‘oh my gosh, of course, but holy shit.’ Actually I think that could be my refrain throughout large chunks of this book - nothing is necessarily brand new, especially to people who have either taken an interest in social justice issues or have lived experiences in these areas, but the connections are on another level.

I think many of us realize how white male power constantly and consistently makes the world a worse place. The assumption that white male is ‘normal’ or ‘neutral,’ and everyone else is a deviation from that norm, a special interest, is literally killing people. White men are given repeated opportunities that women and people of color have to fight for and seldom get. And at the same time, when white men don’t reach the levels of power and supremacy they’ve been promised, they lose their shit, punishing the rest of us along the way.

I could go on, but anything I would say is said better by Oluo in this book. Just trust me and pick up a copy.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it
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LibraryThing member mcelhra
Mediocre should be required reading for everyone, especially white males. Of course, I knew that white males are the most privileged group in our society and that they have been scared of losing their power forever. They go to great lengths to keep from relinquishing even one iota of it. However, I
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didn’t realize just how pervasive and ingrained the myth of white male superiority is in our country. This book is well-researched and Oluo lays it all out in a way that left me wondering how I hadn’t put all of the pieces together before now. It’s truly amazing how much we capitulate to the white males of the world.

She starts all the way back with Buffalo Bill and ends up in the present day. She’s equal opportunity – it’s not just white male conservatives enjoying their status – she takes Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to task as well. I especially appreciated what I learned about how women CEOs have been typically been treated. The section on the history of racism in the NFL was also enlightening – I wish that everyone against the players kneeling for the national anthem would read it.

Oluo has been doxed, swatted and received multiple death threats and yet she keeps on speaking and writing the truth. Just like her first book, So You Want to Talk about Race, Mediocre is written in her accessible style with some dry humor sprinkled in. I hope that everyone reads it.
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LibraryThing member MrDickie
Outstanding book about racial history and what brought us to where we are today. Recommended reading for everyone. Read as an Audiobook, ten hours.
LibraryThing member write-review
The Price We Pay for Prejudice and Exclusion

Oh man, just a glance at the cover of Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre will probably set off howls of protest from white men who have enjoyed and benefited from privilege their entire lives. That they can feel the subject of unjust assault points up one of the
Show More
powerful aspects of privilege as a birthright: that it seems like the normal course of things and envelop those within it to such a degree they cannot see beyond it, nor, apparently, want to. Which is why books like Oluo’s are so important, because they chip away at the cocoon in which white men, and, yes, many white women, exist. Really, when you live in the nearly perfect world, why would you want to give it up? Unless, of course, you have a social conscious and the ability to see how much better America and the world could be with something like fair treatment and opportunity for all. Much in history and current events demonstrates not only how detrimental favoring one group over all others has been, many, many more than any writer could cram into one book, with the most recent and urgent being the spread and devastation of the coronavirus.

That said, Oluo does a good job of showing just how white privilege has deprived all of us of better lives by actively excluding non-whites and women from making contributions to our collective advancement. She touches on a wide swath of privilege in America. Among these are the obliteration of native peoples and the whitewashing of it in American history, a legal justice system that functions as yet another extension of slavery by continuing to oppress an entire American population, an educational system skewed for the benefit of whites, the active campaign from the beginning to keep women out of the workforce and at home, and more. It doesn’t take a genius to see the truth in what she reveals, and certainly not a genius to realize how much we all have sacrificed by actively promoting an unacceptable degree of mediocrity, giving advantage to the lesser in a group just because they are the right color and sex.

The right like to call acknowledging this problem of white restrictiveness and programs to address and rectify it as “awoke,” and efforts to end it by various epithets and simpleminded phrases designed to rally resistance to change. And so here you have this book, read that will be read mostly by those knowing there is a problem and mocked by the fewer readers who are happy in their cocoons.

The best advice, then, is for you to read Mediocre and ask yourself is anything Oluo highlights untrue. Keep an open mind and you might learn something.
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LibraryThing member tokyoadam
This was a challenging book to read. Not because of its prose - Ijeoma Oluo is a great writer - but because of the message. Challenging and uncomfortable in the sense of being slapped across the face and asked why I wasn't seeing what was right before my eyes, why I wasn't hearing what people have
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been shouting my whole life.

I needed to read this, and need to read - and do - more. Oluo makes a strong argument for her position though I think, as others have noted, that the focus of the book sometimes wanders from a focus on "white male supremacy" specifically to either white supremacy or male supremacy. However, as I (as a cis-gendered, white, Anglo-Saxon male) am the direct beneficiary of both of those systems of injustice, it is a bit rich for me to present that as any form of criticism.

There were some arguments or fact patterns in the book that I questioned a bit - perceptions or interpretations of events that she had. However, I realize part of the exercise for me is not to fit what Oluo is saying into my worldview but to sit down, shut up, and listen to what she is saying from her worldview - she has a hell of a lot more experience than I do dealing with white male supremacy and I need to hear what she is saying.

There is a lot more I could (and did at one point) write about this but it would end up (ended up) being a confessional rather than a review. In the end, my eyes are opening (but not open - the process is not complete). I need to be and act better.
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LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
The title is worth the price of admission alone.

Oluo looks at many of the ways the white, cishet patriarchy has harmed the overall welfare of Americans. While I'm a big fan of Oluo and agree with all her angles in this book, I am not sure I learned anything new or felt more fired up about this
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issue than I already was. As always, the people who I wish would read and get the message of this book will not likely be the ones reading it. But it's good for the rest of us to look at the larger problem and adjust our course to make substantive change.
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LibraryThing member write-review
The Price We Pay for Prejudice and Exclusion

Oh man, just a glance at the cover of Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre will probably set off howls of protest from white men who have enjoyed and benefited from privilege their entire lives. That they can feel the subject of unjust assault points up one of the
Show More
powerful aspects of privilege as a birthright: that it seems like the normal course of things and envelop those within it to such a degree they cannot see beyond it, nor, apparently, want to. Which is why books like Oluo’s are so important, because they chip away at the cocoon in which white men, and, yes, many white women, exist. Really, when you live in the nearly perfect world, why would you want to give it up? Unless, of course, you have a social conscious and the ability to see how much better America and the world could be with something like fair treatment and opportunity for all. Much in history and current events demonstrates not only how detrimental favoring one group over all others has been, many, many more than any writer could cram into one book, with the most recent and urgent being the spread and devastation of the coronavirus.

That said, Oluo does a good job of showing just how white privilege has deprived all of us of better lives by actively excluding non-whites and women from making contributions to our collective advancement. She touches on a wide swath of privilege in America. Among these are the obliteration of native peoples and the whitewashing of it in American history, a legal justice system that functions as yet another extension of slavery by continuing to oppress an entire American population, an educational system skewed for the benefit of whites, the active campaign from the beginning to keep women out of the workforce and at home, and more. It doesn’t take a genius to see the truth in what she reveals, and certainly not a genius to realize how much we all have sacrificed by actively promoting an unacceptable degree of mediocrity, giving advantage to the lesser in a group just because they are the right color and sex.

The right like to call acknowledging this problem of white restrictiveness and programs to address and rectify it as “awoke,” and efforts to end it by various epithets and simpleminded phrases designed to rally resistance to change. And so here you have this book, read that will be read mostly by those knowing there is a problem and mocked by the fewer readers who are happy in their cocoons.

The best advice, then, is for you to read Mediocre and ask yourself is anything Oluo highlights untrue. Keep an open mind and you might learn something.
Show Less
LibraryThing member froxgirl
Where is the lie? In every facet of American life, standards are set and enforced by white men, and reflect only their experience and desires. The author tells it true in every infuriating aspect. Military decisions, social justice movements, higher ed, the workplace, politics, even football - Oluo
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makes the case that in every area, by design, the prevalent voices stifle anyone not in their demographic. There's only one solution: change this by blowing up the norms, open the windows, let the new air prevail!

Quotes: "American Indians colleges were denied land-grant status and funding until 1994."

"In 2015, when Princeton students took their concerns about a campus building named after Woodrow Wilson, university officials told them that "everyone was racist" back then - as though it was a popular dance raze and not the violent oppression of people of color."

"George Wallace didn't need a strong, thorough policy platform. He promised with gusto to take on the hippies and commies and activists and establishment politicians. That was enough for the white men who were looking for someone to punch."

"White men can run for office and focus almost exclusively on the needs of white men without being branded exclusionary or divisive. They are unlikely to see the entirety of their personal life used against them."

"When Kaepernick took a knee, Trump called Dallas Cowboy owner Davey Jones with a message for all NFL owners: "This is a very winning, strong issue for me. This one lifts me."

"White male identity is in a very dark place. I can only imagine how desperately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquest and competition."
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LibraryThing member thewestwing
Really interesting look at American politics and society. I think it’ll remain relevant for years to come.
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

I’m having trouble finding the words to describe the book. It made sense while I was listening (to the audio), but hard to sum up in a short couple of sentences. The author is looking at how US society came to be so focused on white male power. How it’s a sort of benchmark, and even
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mediocre white men tend to have more power than many others (people of colour, women, lgbtq+, etc.).

As for the audio book, it was read by the author herself and she did a great job; it held my interest. As with many anti-racist books, there are some things that are hard to hear and (as a white woman), it’s sometimes hard to wrap my head around some of the horrible experiences of people of colour. I think I’m also lucky that I work in a female-dominated profession.
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LibraryThing member KallieGrace
This was mostly information I've read in other books here and there, plus some very recent additions from politics and culture, but that makes it an ideal summary of systemic racism and white privilege at the intersection of race and gender. Excellent, biting, and worth a read even if you think you
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know it all. The liberal white is always white before liberal, so there's definitely something for you here.
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LibraryThing member Daumari
Unfortunately an evergreen topic: the systemic ways in which society is structured to support and enforce white men in leadership across fields, industries, genres. I'm from the intermountain west, so the opening chapter on Buffalo Bill Cody, the Bundy family, and the myth of 'taming' the West at
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the cost of mass genocide and poor land management practices was immediately familiar (how often do we hear a potential state politician say they're a 5th generation Idahoan etc.? awfully often, tbh even though I maintain that there's not a good metric for measuring inherent "Americanness" etc.)

Very comprehensive overview with end notes. I ended up reading the sports chapter during Super Bowl Sunday so the thought about Black bodies benefitting white owners was very much on display.
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Awards

BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Nonfiction — 2021)

Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

2020-12

Physical description

336 p.; 9.55 inches

ISBN

1580059511 / 9781580059510
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