I should have liked Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo. I loved Oluo’s first book, So You Want To Talk About Race, and I always learn so much from similar books on racism and feminism.
Why didn’t I like it?
Maybe I would have liked Mediocre if it were my introduction to modern America’s history of racism and sexism, but since it’s not, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new.
But I did learn new things. There were plenty of people that I read about in Mediocre whose stories I needed to know.
Maybe it was the title that threw me. To be honest, I think the title of Mediocre, paired with the cover image, grab your attention. You think, “Oh, that’s so right!” and, well, you want to read it. You know that white men are taught that they deserve exponentially more than everyone else even if they are half as interesting or talented. You want to dive deeper into that, to learn why and how to stop it.
But… I didn’t feel like Oluo really delivered that. The book was about white men doing bad things, and being entitled and racist and sexist. However, I didn’t think the stories had much to do with each other outside of that, and they didn’t seem to come back specifically to mediocrity.
The subjects in question
Mediocre covers the following topics:
- Buffalo Bill Cody
- The Bundy standoff
- Max Eastman and Floyd Dell as failed feminists
- Joe Biden’s position on busing
- Bernie Sanders and Bernie Bros’ refusal to discuss systemic racism
- Woodrow Wilson’s and A. Lawrence Lowell’s racist legacies as president of Harvard
- The Great Migration
- George Wallace’s white supremacist presidential campaign
- Racism in Seattle (where Oluo lives)
- Women’s labor in the Great Depression
- Women experiencing sexism as CEOs and in the workplace in general
- White men causing harm in politics
- Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign
- Bill Clinton’s betrayal of Lani Guinier
- Racism and sexism toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib (the original Squad)
- George Preston Marshall’s white supremacist influence in football
- 2015 Mizzou student protests against racism on campus
- Michael Bennett’s and Colin Kaepernick’s backlash for using football to advocate for social justice
Unfortunately, the 20 chapters don’t feel very connected. The only things that tie them together are a general connection to racism and sexism in America. I can’t help but feel that the sections on the Bundy standoff, Bernie Bros, women in the workplace, and Colin Kaepernick did not belong in the same book. Perhaps Mediocre could have been marketed as a series of essays rather than supporting evidence in the argument that, as the title claims, white men are both (taught to be) mediocre and leaving a dangerous legacy in America.
What is Mediocre actually about?
When I can’t place exactly why I disliked a book, I ask myself, “What was the author’s stated goal?” But Oluo didn’t give a very explicit goal. Following the “I didn’t know what to write this book about, until I realized I would write it about this!” anecdote that Oluo opens the book with (which is such a pet peeve; get to the point!), she explains that it came to her at a writing retreat:
And here we were, a group of accomplished women talking about these white men as if they were a problem that had recently fallen upon us out of the sky, instead of the predictable product of centuries of cultural, political, and economic conditioning.
And suddenly, my anxiety of the last few days faded, because I knew that I was going to write this book.Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre, p. 5
I wonder if career authors’ books can sometimes become… mediocre (sorry) because they know they just need to write something. I tried to read another book once that similarly started with something like, “My publisher told me to write a book about this. I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about that!’ But here I am, writing it.” It was an immediate turn-off. I didn’t get very far in that book.
Perhaps it was jarring to go from general racism (like in the NFL) to general sexism (like towards women in the workplace). It was not like the other books I’ve read on how racism and sexism intersect for women of color, save for a handful of its subjects. Then again, does a Black woman writing a book about racism and sexism have to write about their intersection and provide an in-depth analysis of the ways that feminism and antiracism interact? Of course not. After all, white men have been praised for much less.
Are white men really mediocre?
I want to end this review with what I did like about Mediocre, and that’s with the way Oluo set up the narrative in the introduction. She gave context as to why she calls white men mediocre, how this came to be, and how it affects everyone.
I am not arguing that every white man is mediocre. I do not believe that any race or gender is predisposed to mediocrity. What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent. I also know that many white men accomplish great things. But I will argue that we condition white men to believe not only that the best they can hope to accomplish in life is a feeling of superiority over women and people of color, but also that their superiority should be automatically granted them simply because they are white men. The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre, p. 5-6