Illustration by Sibel Ergener

White Millennial Men Don’t Get What It Means to Be White

A new study of white millennial men found that they had no idea what whiteness meant, except when they felt they were victims

People have parsed the demographics that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office every which way, pinning his unlikely victory on white working-class voters, or wealthy white voters, or white college-educated voters, or white rural voters, or white voters affected by the opioid epidemic, or old white voters, or white men, or white women.

The one group that seems to have avoided blame is the young white voter. A popular meme in the election’s aftermath is a map showing how Clinton would have won in a landslide if the country was made up of just voters between 18 and 29. But if you drill down into the numbers, you’ll see that even young white voters went for Trump by a five-point margin, and have historically voted more like the larger white populace than their smaller age cohort.

The Trump voter is overwhelmingly a white voter, regardless of income, education, gender or age. If we want to understand the Trump voter, and talk with them about the future of this country, we need to understand the one thing that united them: Whiteness.

But it might be a little difficult to have a conversation about it, because it turns out that’s something white men, at least, never think about.

Based on extensive interviews with college-aged white men from across the political spectrum, a new paper out of the University of Arizona found that “white identity had virtually no meaning” for most of the dudes. Except, notably, when it made them the victims of “reverse racism.”

Nolan Cabrera, the University of Arizona professor who wrote the paper, set out to understand how young white men experience their own whiteness. As a researcher at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, he had found that there was a lot of attention paid to race on campus in general, and a lot of theorizing going on about what it meant to be a white student, but there wasn’t a lot of survey data to back that up.

“When we talk about issues of diversity, race or racism, it implicitly means students of color, are black students present or not” Cabrera says, “but there is an absolute dearth of critical engagement with whiteness.”

So Cabrera recruited 62 young white men who were involved in campus political groups and started interviewing them at length, hoping to find some kind of patterns in how their experience informed their perception of whiteness, or that whiteness informed their beliefs.

Instead, he hit a wall. “The most common response to my question about what it means to be White was silence,” Cabrera writes in the paper. “The most common response to “What is White culture?” was uncomfortable laughter.”

Most of the white men, it turned out, just claimed to know nothing about what it meant to be white. Instead, they perceived whiteness as the norm, an identity devoid of… anything.

That is, until they got on the topic of “reverse racism” — then they had plenty to say. Over the course of the conversations, the guys consistently singled out experiences of perceived persecution as their only experience of being white. At the same time, they consistently dismissed or denied the idea that non-white people experienced racism.

Cabrera describes those two feelings — that white people are oppressed, and non-white people are whining about being oppressed — as being based on the idea of white racial innocence, which leads to a sense of victimization.

“There’s no empirical basis for saying that white people are oppressed because they’re white, but we need to take this attitude seriously,” Cabrera says. “What I want to understand is the socialization of victimization, what’s the process that allows them, despite it not really being rooted in an objective reality, to believe that this is true.”

One of the most striking things Cabrera noticed when conducting the interviews was just how much the students wanted to talk about “reverse racism” and their more general theories on non-white people.

“I’d be walking away and they’d still be talking, saying, ‘Oh, I just forgot this one thing,’” Cabrera says. “A lot of them feel racially persecuted or marginalized, and they don’t speak about race very much in their everyday lives — one described our interview as being like racial therapy.”

Cabrera is still finalizing the paper for publication (he presented a draft at a conference earlier this week), but he estimates that only a handful — four or five — of the 62 young men seemed to have any grasp of how white privilege functions in society.

Perhaps even more disappointingly, he found that the college experience, even if it introduced the students to a more diverse group of people (and possibly friends), only made them connect whiteness even more strongly with “reverse racism,” especially in the context of affirmative action. Cabrera summarized one student as being “all for diversity in friendship groups and diversification efforts as long as two conditions were met. First, that it did not make him uncomfortable. Second, that White privilege was not discussed.”

The interviews for this paper all happened in 2015, well before the Trump train picked up speed, but Cabrera’s findings seem to present an accurate picture of the candidate’s appeal.

“It wasn’t surprising to me at all that white people overwhelmingly went for Trump,” Cabrera says. “He really appealed to a lot of deep-seated racial issues that people aren’t really willing to talk about.”

Trump gave frustrated white voters a place for cathartic release, an open forum for white victimization consciousness-raising. The political discourse of the last year, which has led to the normalization of white nationalism, shows just how eager white people are to talk about whiteness — as long as that means they can talk about how non-white people are racist against them.

“If you don’t have the ability to talk about something but you have a very strong opinion on it, then frustration and anger builds up over time,” Cabrera says. But now that whiteness is very much out in the open, there might be a chance to start shifting that conversation.

“The problem is that these young men are directing that frustration and anger at the wrong group,” Cabrera says, and willfully ignoring the idea of white privilege to nurture a sense of being persecuted by non-white people. “They should be looking at themselves and saying, ‘What’s really going on here?’”