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State of Disunion

When White Men Set Standards of “Normalcy”

White cisgender heterosexual men have assumed the power to define the terms for how to be—and not to be—in the world, rendering the rest of us aberrations. And that should terrify all of us.

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One of the first things that our infinitely complex brains learn to do is construct an idea of normal. It can be fanciful or ordered, depressing or comfortable, affirming or lonely, but “normal” is always a steady reality, a matrix of perceptions that ensures a kind of consistency, if not meaning, to the chaos of existence.

My normal has been a loving and supportive family, the double-edged blade of femininity with its edges made of beauty and pain, the soft acceptance of self that has defined my bisexuality, and the incessant repetitive refrain of American Blackness that white supremacy is always full of violence and always on the hunt. As I have gotten older, these frameworks have shifted and expanded, encompassing my lived understanding of the world as it and I interact. I wake up everyday with expectations, and largely, the trillions of interactions between billions of people produce a reality that meets them.

Normal is not necessarily boring; it is merely baseline. Normal is the absence of the abnormal; it is the palette for the contrast that warns us that something has gone horribly wrong. Which is why it is so deeply dangerous that we are trapped in the “normal” of white cis-hetero men.

We have been held hostage by this demographic for centuries, of course, bonded not merely to their notion of normal, but their ideas of freedom, justice, equality, art, beauty, and genius. Our bodies and lives are measured by their science, framed by their language, limited by their imagination. Everywhere, the boundaries of our society are defined by the edges of white men’s consciousness.

So it is for the rest of us to be aberrational, departures from the norm. We are violations of the expectations cisgender heterosexual white men have for the world, by being the wrong gender or sexuality or race or creed or ability, or freely expressing those traits that white men assume exclusively define their own humanity. We are left operating in the shadow of the space they leave behind, the pockets of their afterthought. It is how we are still clawing our way to firsts that any mediocre white man could have in his rearview mirror. And even in this, we are treated as bizarre or unrepresentative or threatening, as if we are new to existence and not merely their narrow perception of it.

This paradigm has always claimed an unfair share of the joys and ambitions of the marginalized by casting us outside of normalcy, and has thus always left the world at a deficit from insufficiently developed talent. There is no telling the breakthroughs we have been denied or the masterpieces that have gone unmade because white patriarchy refused to make the space necessary for them. But the true cost of this stunted imagination is not what it excludes, but what it encompasses.

Whether it is the easy proliferation of personal violence machines or the expansive conspiracy to overthrow the government rather than permit the peaceful transfer of power, there is no limit to what white men accept as normal when they are the perpetrators. A white man can admit, as former Speaker of the House and Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan did, that he is an inveterate, self-serving coward when confronted with the great moral question of our time, and his opinion will still be venerated and sought and treated with the gravity of seriousness. Openly manipulate stock price and deride your contracted promises, incite violence at the results of elections, “joke” about sexually violating your partner’s immolated corpse: None of it will receive any consequence or approbation. For white men, the narrative never changes, never gives, normalizing the depravity until only those who notice are called depraved.

It does not seem to matter what policy or problem it is—mass shootings or COVID, police brutality or voting rights, climate change or the stability of democracy—white patriarchy’s answer is either reactionary revanchism or milquetoast appeals to support the status quo, but with feeling this time. Normalcy cannot and will not be violated, least of all by the likes of us, no matter how many lives are lost from an ever-expanding virus, or how many futures are hobbled by unpayable debt, or how few people can live comfortably with their gender. We lose rights and bury children and add new names to a seemingly endless litany of grief, and in return, we are told that all of this is merely collateral damage amidst the “real” disagreements between members of the ruling demographic.

We stage protests and make arguments, suffused with the knowledge drawn from our different perspectives, our collective truths, and everything we do is treated as so much noise by the white men who mete out seriousness. We are too emotional or too close, too biased or too unconventional, too much like ourselves and not normal enough to have voices that matter. Those who get to define the baseline also get to define when it is broken.

There is no clean answer to the conundrum of how to make white men acknowledge their failure when they have trained themselves to believe it is impossible, but the presence of the question feeds the urgency of finding a solution. We have watched as white men began deconstructing every lever of power available to us as soon as we made it clear that normal was a place they’d have to share. Insulated as they are in the surety of their arrogance, white men either believe that the situation is not dire enough to constitute an emergency or that they will somehow be spared the effects of dispensing with most of society. That their inaction or insistence around their own supremacy represents a looming catastrophe for our collective future is not a reality they are prepared to accept.

But those of us outside their perception know better—not because of our immutable traits, but because we have had to navigate and survive the seething contempt and brutal oppression of the normalcy they imposed on us. We have placated it and managed it and placed ourselves at its mercy. We have tried to widen its narrowness and outshine its ignorance. We have contorted ourselves and broken ourselves and chipped away from inside to make enough space. For all that, we have learned there is no fixing a broken normal, just scattering its shattered remains and building something better with everything—and everyone—we can find.

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