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White Out?

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | February 13, 2019

This week, Esquire’s March issue went online featuring a cover story by Jen Percy entitled “The Life of an American Boy at 17.” It was intended to be the first in a series of articles, as Jay Fielden, the editor of Esquire, put it, “on growing up now—white, black, LGBTQ, female—that will continue to appear in coming issues.” The inspiration comes from “The American Male at Age 10,” a 1992 piece by Susan Orlean, which became a classic exposé of everyday life.

But this is 2019, and the subject of Percy’s profile, Ryan Morgan, of West Bend, Wisconsin, is white, male, heterosexual, not extremely conservative but decidedly unwoke, and this alone was enough to whip social media into a righteous storm of opprobrium. Some criticisms were thought-provoking. As Jezebel’s Clio Chang wrote:

The piece falls into the genre of a look into the “normal” life of an American boy. But the difference here is that a teenage Trump supporter is very decidedly not average. Generation Z, defined as young people between ages 7 and 22 in 2019, is as liberal, if not more, than the preceding generation of millennials. Only 30 percent approve of Donald Trump and two-thirds believe in bigger government. They are the most diverse generation, with nearly half of the cohort coming from communities of color. For those between ages 17 and 33—of age to vote in the next election—only 9 percent think that Trump reflects their personal values. And for those who did vote in the 2018 midterms, an overwhelming 62 percent of young voters between 18 and 29 years old voted for Democrats, including 58 percent of young male voters.

But much of the pushback was incoherent and unconvincing at best. A typical response went something like, Why is Esquire giving space to white male privilege during Black History Month? (When one observer pointed out that BHM is February and this is in fact the March issue, another responded without missing a beat that March is Women’s History Month.) Or, Why not celebrate some other identity instead—why give space to whiteness at all? The dual implication here would seem to be that being white itself is problematic and that journalism should necessarily operate with an activist agenda. Such views are not just gaining traction, they’ve become a kind of progressive orthodoxy. Yet it is hard to see how they will not always be alienating to large swaths of the populace.

In the world we’re busy creating, all identities, no matter how niche, can and should be not just examined but celebrated—all except for one rather large demographic. A far more compelling approach for navigating an increasingly complex multiethnic society would be not to silence or cancel some identities while affirming others, but rather to find ways to attenuate the importance of abstract, group-wide differences in the first place.

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