The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) is the most important theatre group here in Melbourne. This year it is performing a play
called "Straight White Males". Yes, it's a case of whiteness studies now hitting the stage.
The play was written by a Korean-American woman by the name of Young Jean Lee. It's about a liberal white family dealing with their "privilege":
With Straight White Men, Lee was interested in exploring a problem: What do you do when you've got privilege — and you don't want to abuse it? Lee, who is Korean-American, wanted to create straight white men on stage who think about these things.
Young Jean Lee assembled a group of women, minorities and homosexuals to tell her what they wanted out of the straight white male characters. They wanted the character of the oldest son, who is meant to be the most conscientiously liberal one, to stay quiet and listen:
"I asked a roomful of women, queer people and minorities, 'What do you want straight men to do? And what do you want them to be like?' " she recalls.
Lee wrote down all of the answers. It boiled down to this: They wanted the straight white male character to sit down and shut up.
And so she wrote the oldest son as a character who holds back in life so as not to take the limelight from others:
The character, named Matt, is a sort of idealized straight white male. He works for a not-for-profit and is guided by a sense of trying not to — in his words — "make things worse."
But to Young Jean Lee's surprise, the women, minorities and homosexuals ended up hating the character because they saw him as a loser:
Lee and Stanley workshopped the character in front of the students. Who hated him.
"Hated him," Lee said, clearly still surprised. "And I realized that the reason why they hated him was — despite all their commitment to social justice — what they believed in most was not being a loser.
So all that talk from rainbow alliance types about wanting "cisgendered white men" to sit obediently at their feet and not object to anything they say is not supposed to be taken seriously - the rainbow types would be as revolted by it in real life as any healthy minded white man would be by the thought of it, as being spiritless.
There's another angle to this. Young Jean Lee does give a few hints about what she considers privilege to be. For instance she writes that she herself shares
some of the privilege of being a white male:
Believe it or not, Lee discovered she has something in common with straight white men. Sure, straight white men don’t share the emotional intimacy she’s used to, but: “As an Asian-American female, I share a lot of privileges with straight white men,” she says.
“There’s a lot of positive association: Asian women today are considered sexually desirable, they’re considered smart, and hard workers. Absolutely nobody’s ever going to assume I’m a criminal.”
So privilege has to do with being perceived to be sexually desirable, smart and hard-working. More on this in a moment. First, consider the following statement
from Young Jean Lee:
“The question I was asking myself when I was working on the show was: ‘To what extent am I a straight white man, and to what extent am I accepted into the continuation of straight white male ideals? Am I using the straight white man as an excuse to not have to give anything up for social justice, because I can always point at the straight white man and say, ‘Well at least I’m not him’, so I can just do whatever I want and I’m making the world a better place because I’m making it more diverse?’” she said. “There’s a contradictory expectation these days. One is that they be more deferential, be less macho, and take up less space. And the other is that we want them to continue to be typical straight white men because we’re invested in it.”
I think what this means is that she gets to pursue what she takes to be white male success criteria and still be considered a progressive social justice warrior because she is advancing as an Asian woman (a diversity figure) rather than as a white male. If white males weren't there as a foil, then she wouldn't get the free ticket.
What's interesting about this is the underlying assumption about privilege. She assumes that being considered sexually desirable, hard-working and smart, and advancing in some status seeking way in a job, are the standards by which privilege can be measured and that these things represent the cultural high ground, the ideals of straight white men, which we white men now have to vacate so that others have room to occupy this ground.
If you look at the big picture, the larger sweep of history, this is not a very elevated view of culture. It is a relatively sterile, domesticated and tame view of what it means to be a man. If I work hard, don't get arrested, get a job with some social status, and have some Asian women like me - that is supposed to make me a great white male? That is my great historic privilege?
I don't think so.
No wonder that Young Jean Lee can see us as "privileged" even as we are being shuffled out of existence - as for her, privilege is not measured in terms of belonging to a rich tradition, or to a closely connected ethny or nation, or to a longstanding culture.
Nor does she see success in life in terms of the cultivation of character and virtue. For her, "white males" are an icon for individualistic career progress, rather than an embodiment of courage, fortitude, loyalty, and integrity.
She does not care about the inner spiritual life, about piety or religion or what a man holds to be sacred. And she is little concerned about family: about the quality of a man's commitment to marriage and to fatherhood.
She does not understand that it is a privilege to be connected closely to people and place, to manhood and a masculine culture, to nature and to art, to virtue and to a love of family.
Young Jean Lee's "idealized straight white male" represents a radical descent of culture - as does her own standard of privilege. It would be a mistake to be drawn into this world view, to see it as defining the terms of what matters in life.