For as long as I can remember I’ve had anger. It isn’t directed at any specific person or thing or idea. It’s more of an ingrained attitude, a way of viewing the world. This anger is never foremost in my mind; it lurks at the periphery, just outside my mental field of vision. It’s subtly colored my perceptions and everything I’ve done. But I don’t consider myself an angry person overall—I didn’t even know the anger was there until recently. So where the hell did it come from?
I was raised free from abuse in a lower-middle-class household where my feelings were acknowledged. My parents supported most of my interests and provided me with a used car when I turned 16 and put me through college. I’ve never been unjustly arrested or persecuted. I’ve been allowed to go about my merry way untrammelled in the world, for better or worse. I am a living example of white privilege.
Nevertheless, I had an instinctive mistrust of authority from an early age. As a young skateboarder I was run off strip mall parking lots by meathead suburban cops. Growing into adolescence, I was drawn to the standard introductory subversive literature: the dissident humanism of Kurt Vonnegut, the outlaw insight of Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, the caustic self-satire of Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. A total cliché, I identified deeply with the writings of JD Salinger, from Holden Caulfield’s hatred of “phonies” to Franny Glass’s bourgeois asceticism.
I was forging an identity, a manner of existing in the world. What I didn’t realize that I was doing it almost entirely based on the visions of preceding generations of white men much like me, thoughtful types with rebellious streaks. For all the expansiveness that literature brought me, it was more or less a closed loop: older white men imparting their wisdom and observations to a younger white man. Their worldviews shaped my identity, and still do.
Even as a relatively sheltered teen I intuited that there’s something wrong with the way the world works. That’s where the anger comes from. Adult society was a place of elusions and insincere pleasantries and barely concealed aggressions and I wanted no part of it, yet I was being inexorably forced into it.
Gradually I began to perceive the massive contours of the unjust systems governing this adult world. As the specifics came into focus, I learned that these systems were created and held in place by and for white men like me and all my favorite writers. That anger once outwardly directed began to turn inward. I realized that our voices were expendable to a great many people. My taste in literature, my opinions, my worldview—they were never definitive, regardless of how much those books meant to me. (I might’ve realized this a lot sooner if I’d ever bothered to read any books by black women—or any women for that matter.)
Lately a lot of people have asked the same question, in some form or another: “What the hell do white men have to be so damn angry about?” White men’s anger is ubiquitous in the age of Trump. It drives our politics, our economic and foreign policy, our cultural institutions. Our needs are catered to and taken as the default at every level of society, and yet we’re angry. I’m no exception; depite a happy childhood and a relatively trouble-free life, I’ve lived with this ambient mental backdrop of anger since at least adolescence.
I’m going to give my fellow thoughtful white dudes the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re angry, like me, because they sensed from early on that the world is not the way it should be. Perhaps, like me, they realized at some point later in their development that they are an inherent part of the wrongness of the way things are. Many of my colleagues will never accept this but it’s true, and any honest reading of history confirms it.
It’s a horrifying realization: Of all the things to rebel against, the most crucial target is the space you occupy. It’s a hard pill to swallow, one that should probably only be consumed with lots of therapy, self-reflection and the patient love of friends and family.
I’m 42 now, married and raising another little white boy, who I’ll make sure reads books by many different types of people. I’ve mellowed. Some of the things that outraged me as a younger man seem laughable now. But there’s still a little flame of fury hovering on the periphery, waiting to flare up. Through careful study, listening and life experience I have a better sense of how the world works. It turns out all this time the one thing I should’ve been working hardest to change is myself. And that’s infuriating.