White Men and the Well of Actually

It seems like a lot of white men like to be experts about everything.

Years ago, when I was in graduate school studying linguistics, I was visiting my father. We were chatting, and somewhat randomly, he presented me with a piece of information: “Korean has the same writing as Chinese.” He followed it up with, “And don’t tell me that’s not true, because I got it from a Korean person.”

It’s not true. What’s true is that South Korean newspapers use Chinese characters in their articles, and that educated South Koreans know several thousand characters. But there is definitely a thing considered the Korean writing system (i.e., Hangeul) that is separate from these characters (i.e., hanja). Japanese writing has a similar relationship to Chinese writing.

My father’s defensiveness was partly due to my education. He pre-empted my predictable “well, actually…” by invoking an absent expert. And while I knew he was wrong at the time, my answer would also have been wrong. I didn’t know about the use of hanja, and so would have insisted that, while Koreans might be able to read Chinese, they had a completely unrelated writing system.

Having studied Japanese, I could have given him a primer on the use of hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji, but all I knew about Korean was that Hangeul clusters phonemic symbols into syllable groupings, which is clearly different from Chinese logographs. That would not have stopped me at the time from waxing for twenty minutes on the subject.

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This was about a quarter century ago. I’m thinking about it now because fellow GMP contributor Alex Yarde asked: “White People, what’s it like to make an unchallenged statement?”

When I first saw Yarde’s question on Facebook, I idly skipped it. I knew he was being largely rhetorical, so I didn’t feel a need to answer. I’ve had too many experiences of seeing people of color being ignored or dismissed, so I wasn’t offended by the question.

But as I thought about it, something nagged at me. I reversed the question: “What’s it like to have your statements challenged?” And this question sent me into a labyrinth of anxiety.

A few months ago, I challenged myself to stop using the word “actually.” This was based on a running internet joke about “Well, actually…” being the go-to flag for the white male condesplainer. Certainly there are other ways to communicate.

Once I started paying attention, I was surprised to notice how often I used it. And it rarely added anything to what I was saying. It was a Bat Signal of my expertise: Don’t argue with me! I know what I’m talking about!

The Well of Actually is the entry to a maze of existential threat.

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I’ll narrow Yarde’s question to white educated men. I have no doubt that white people as a group dismiss people of color, or that men as a group dismiss women, but the being that is the White Able-Bodied Cishet Educated Affluent Christian Male too often sits on the top of the hill, guarding its domain.

I’m a white man. I do not preach from a place of sanctimony, but of shared blame and responsibility. I do not speak to your labyrinth, but of mine.

What’s it like to have my statements challenged?

As a teacher, I encourage students to challenge my statements. I want to help them learn how to question authority in a respectful, constructive way.

Even so, when I’m not mindful of my own reactions, I still slip into my programming. It was part of my enculturation into the value of a white man that I be correct all the time. Much of this had come from my father, who tacitly claimed expertise on any topic that interested him.

He was an intelligent man, but he was nonetheless threatened by my own intelligence. He didn’t seem to know how to deal with the mixed feelings of needing to be the expert and wanting to be proud of me, so our conversations were often filled with Nerd Alpha Dog posturing about who knew more about what.

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The internet is filled with my expositions and pontifications, most from an earlier version of me. As I was thinking about this essay, I saw a meme comparing burning a Confederate flag to shooting a person of color. In the comments, someone said it wasn’t illegal to burn a flag, and they got the predictable response: A multiple-paragraph technicality of “Well, actually” discussing arson. I was reminded of me, circa 2000. Pedantic, technically correct, and annoying.

Meanwhile, a search for the phrase “Well, actually” sent me to the Mens Rights group on Reddit, similarly populated with carbon copies of me, circa 2000.

I’m tempted to ask, “What was wrong with me back then?” But this question misses two details. First, there was nothing wrong with me specifically, there was something wrong with my programming. If it were some brokenness particular to me, it wouldn’t be so easy to find others repeating the same behavior.

Second, the use of past tense suggests I’ve stopped the thought process. I haven’t. I’ve greatly reduced the number of times I fall back on that place of privilege, but I still catch myself thinking that way, and sometimes, I still post those comments.

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When I put as much emotional energy into being correct as I do when I’m in that zone, it’s a tremendous threat to be challenged. A gorilla standing on the top of a hill beating its chest does not take kindly to young ones mocking him, and so it is with the white educated male declaring its superiority through intellectual arguments.

If I feel the need to exert my authority on a subject, I can beat my chest more violently than the largest gorilla. In moments of weakness, I can feel the panic running through me that I will be discovered, undermined, and mocked. I have felt this worst in those situations where my depth of knowledge is less than the confidence of my assertions.

This is an irrational reaction. If I’m correct about something, it shouldn’t usually matter if other people believe it. If someone else chooses to ignore my input, so be it. There are exceptions, but not as many as my trail of self-righteous internet comments would suggest.

Meanwhile, if I’m incorrect about something, I should absolutely want to correct it, not defend my wrong thinking. Part of the Man Box, though, is that “I was wrong” is a sign of weakness, and of blood in the water. I was raised on the Fonz, who couldn’t even say the word “wrong.”

I’m actively teaching my son to challenge my statements. I don’t need to be right all the time. The programming runs deep, but it’s not all the way to the core.

So, fellow white men, keep it in mind: We don’t have to be experts at everything. We don’t have to always be correct. Other people can have valid beliefs, opinions, and thoughts.

Mind yourself around the Well of Actually.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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