239 : Dying of Whiteness (w/ Dr. Jonathan Metzl)

Zach has the honor of speaking with Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and author of “Dying of Whiteness,” about the concept of just that. Dr. Metzl shares a bit about his professional training, he and Zach delve into why he chose that title for his latest book, and they confront a couple criminally unjust ways in which black and brown people are classified in relation to their white counterparts. Check the links in the show notes to check out Dr. Metzl’s books and more!

Check out Dr. Metzl’s books on Amazon and connect with him on Twitter.

You can read the Toni Morrison piece Zach quoted by clicking here.

Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.

Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.


Zach: “This is a serious project. All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color. Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening. In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street. To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right? These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status. It may be hard to feel pity for the men who are making these bizarre sacrifices in the name of white power and supremacy. Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others—especially to black people—they are willing to risk contempt, and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause. The comfort of being “naturally better than,” of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants—these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished. So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble. On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. William Faulkner understood this better than almost any other American writer. In “Absalom, Absalom,” incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its “whiteness” once again, the family chooses murder.” I just read to you a short essay by the late great Toni Morrison titled “Mourning for Whiteness.” This was submitted to The New Yorker in 2016. I read this as the intro to this episode because you’re going to be hearing a conversation between myself and a Dr. Jonathan Metzl, and we’re talking about the concept of dying of whiteness. We live in a time and an era that is driven by fear and insecurity and terror to the point where if we don’t make changes soon we’ll be destroyed as a nation. Hope you all listen, and catch you all next time.

Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and we’re here. We are here in the midst of this pandemic. Plenty of uncertainty. Prayers and thoughts go out to everyone who’s struggling with this in their own unique way. Shout-out to those, my friends and my family and my loved ones, who are staying safe. You know, this is just a very interesting time. I also say my love and my thoughts go out to the new parents trying to navigate these spaces as well as expecting parents. And so, you know, with that all being said, Living Corporate continues to amplify and center marginalized voices at work, and we do that by having real, authentic conversations with all types of thought leaders, right? And so I’m really proud of the fact that we continue to bring on incredible guests, and today is no exception. We have with us Dr. Jonathan Metzl. So look, now, Jonathan Metzl with deep thought leadership on mental illness and gun violence with a particular focus on gender and race. Dr. Jonathan Metzl is a professor and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, a psychiatrist, and the research director of the Safe Tennessee project, a non-partisan volunteer-based organization that is concerned with gun-related injuries and fatalities in America and Tennessee. Jonathan, welcome to the show.

Dr. Metzl: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Zach: How are you and your loved ones doing during this time?

Dr. Metzl: We’re hunkered down in New York. It’s been intense, but, you know, we’re surviving.

Zach: So look, I want to get right into it. I want to talk about your work. Like, what led you to focus on mental illness and gun violence, especially through the lens of gender and race? How did this come for you?

Dr. Metzl: Well, it’s interesting. I was trained as a psychiatrist and as a critical race theory scholar, and I wrote a book that came out in 2010 called The Protest Psychosis, and in that book I tell the story of kind of how the stereotype of kind of the angry African-American man became a threat to society and how the medical establishment was–in some ways knowing, some ways not knowing–complicit in that, and so I told the story of, during the 1960s for example, how African-American political protestors were diagnosed with schizophrenia and locked into mental hospitals, and in that book there was a small part about what happened when black men carried guns, and part of that story was how, you know, there was this stereotype of kind of the white patriot. When a white guy carries a gun he is defending the United States or he’s defending his territory or his family, but when somebody like Malcolm X or Huey Newton or Robert F. Williams said, “I want to carry a gun,” all of a sudden that person was branded a terrorist or a gangbanger, a criminal, everything like that, and so part of that story was how this kind of stereotype played into just attitudes about guns but also about mental illness. And then I kind of forgot about it, and then the Trayvon Martin shooting happened, and this idea that, you know, who gets to carry a gun, who is protecting, who is a victim, who appears to be a threat even if they’re just carrying a pack of Skittles, you know, and so I started getting quoted a lot and called into media a lot answering questions about “How is it that one guy gets to carry a gun, and what does stand your ground mean? What does the castle doctrine mean?” And it really led to an entirely new research career for me, just looking at guns and race and how those intersect with each other, and it led me to a new media career and, you know, it was kind of the impetus for the book I just wrote, “Dying of Whiteness,” in a very different way of race and guns.

Zach: Yeah, I’m really excited for us to get to that. If I could just double-click on that though for a second, could you talk to me about the reasons why you focused on the intersection of gender and race and not just gender or race?

Dr. Metzl: Well, it’s kind of unavoidable. You mean in the gun research? Part of it was, you know, then I started studying mass shootings, and all of these stereotypes of race and gender definitely played out, and so part of the work that I’ve done on mass shootings looks at the stereotype of kind of the angry male white mass shooter and the stories that society tells about that, and a colleague of mine [and I?] wrote this paper, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” where we just looked at the different cultural responses to different mass shootings, and when the shooter, tragically of course, was somebody like, you know, Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, or the Las Vegas shooter or, you know, the Colorado shooter, he was always kind of the “lone, troubled male gunman,” but it was never a kind of cultural thing, but then there was this whole other story of when a mass shooting happened in the middle of Chicago. You know, all of a sudden it was “This is a gang problem, and it’s black society,” and things like that, and so it really was the story about how, you know, a mass shooting is a horrific tragedy–four or more people are killed, but when it’s a white male who does it we tell one story, and when it’s an African-American male we tell a different story. So we were really looking at how that tied into bigger beliefs about race and gender in society.

Zach: That really leads me to my next question, ’cause as a psychiatrist I’m curious if you have an opinion or a perspective on why the majority seems to be so comfortable pathologizing black behavior in ways that we don’t really see for white counterparts. Let’s say if we see a black person commit a crime, like, in the media we see a black person commit a crime, then the follow-up tends to be some type of larger exposition or examination of black culture and behavior, and we start kind of, like, lumping all black people together or blaming fatherhood or–we create some type of profile for all of blackness, it seems, when black folks make mistakes or commit crimes in ways that we don’t necessarily do when white people commit crimes, right? So like you just said, like, the language around there being “This is an individual. This individual made a mistake,” or, like, with police violence, “This is one bad apple. This is not a systemic issue,” but it doesn’t seem to be congruent in analysis.

Dr. Metzl: That’s exactly right. I mean, there’s a long history of that, and I mean, certainly we see it with gun violence. You know, when somebody like an Adam Lanza commits a shooting, it’s of course a complete tragedy. You know, innocent people lose their lives. It’s horrific. But the story that society often tells is “What’s wrong with this guy’s brain?” We individuate it. “Is this a mental illness problem? Is it a chemical imbalance?” And really it’s a disorder of the individual, right? You would never hear somebody say, “The problem is whiteness.” [both laugh] It’s almost laughable to even think about that, but that’s what happens when there’s, like, a quote-unquote “gang shooting,” and all of a sudden it’s a problem of black culture, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, people don’t respect society, or it’s a violent this or that,” and so, you know, it’s interesting to think just what do you lose when you narrate it that way. Well, isn’t it possible that an African-American shooting could also have a psychological component? The minute you start calling it a gang shooting, it leads to all of these assumptions that are about inevitability and criminality, and you lose the ability to think that maybe there’s also a psychological component to why somebody did it but also to the pain and suffering. So it’s a way of not paying attention to people. And also there are grouping factors. I mean, I think that there is something that we have to think about about the broader categories, that white gun crime happens [?], which is important to interrogate what does it mean about whiteness or society. So yeah.

Zach: No, no, this is great. I want to make sure I respect your time. You took the time to be on the podcast and we appreciate it. You’ve authored several books, but this title sticks out to me, right? “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.” How did you arrive at a title so… some would call polarizing. I personally love frank book titles, so I love it ’cause it lets me know exactly what–I feel like I get a very clear understanding of what I’m about to read, but, you know, I would imagine that this garnered some reactions, and I’d love to hear how you arrived at this title for this book.

Dr. Metzl: I was doing focus groups with men around the Affordable Care Act. It was in 2010, 2011, 2012. And, you know, it was an interesting time. I was in Tennessee working with some colleagues, and there were just a lot of really, really sick people who needed medical attention, and what we found–we did groups of African-American men, Latino men and white men, and the minoritized men were all like, “This is awesome. The Affordable Care Act is gonna help us pay our medical bills. It’s gonna give us protection, and we can actually go see a doctor for a check-up, all of the things you would want,” and in Tennessee a lot of people didn’t have that before the Affordable Care Act. But a number of the white men, who were really medically ill, said, “We reject this because we don’t want–” And here’s a quote from something that I heard a lot, “We [don’t] want our tax dollars going to undeserving immigrants and minorities.” So this idea that basically whiteness is this thing, which I’m holding onto as some type of privilege, and it’s so deep and so powerful that it’s actually going to lead me to reject a healthcare program that might help save my life. And so just this idea that what whiteness was meant holding onto something that was so self-destructive became the jumping off point for a bigger story about just thinking about the broader ways that what it means to be white is an inverse relationship with what it means to live a longer and healthy life.

Zach: You know, you published this book in 2019, well before the pandemic that we’re experiencing now, and I’m curious, you’ve been recently talking about this pandemic and tying it back to some of the core elements of your book, and I’m curious to hear more about that. Like, how are we seeing your position that there’s this death that’s happening because of whiteness? Like, can we talk a little bit more about that and how it’s playing out in line with what we’re seeing today?

Dr. Metzl: Yeah. I wrote Dying of Whiteness to be a wake-up call. Kind of a warning sign basically saying, “All these completely ridiculous formulations of race are leading us down a terrible path,” because they’re bad for everybody, you know? Obviously they’re bad for people of color who are being oppressed by these formulations, and they’re also really bad for white people because white people are holding onto this idealogy that’s causing them to act in ways that are completely against their own self-interest. They’re rejecting healthcare. They’re being told what it means to be white is to support a politican who’s gonna eviscerate the budgets for your own kid’s public school. It didn’t make any sense, and so I was writing it as a wake-up call to basically say, “Let’s get beyond this. There are ways that we can work together better,” but unfortunately as the pandemic hit all the really troubling aspects of what I wrote about, you know, were amplified, were amplified in these huge ways. So all of a sudden, you know, the pandemic as one example was a perfect example of a time where we should have been expanding Medicaid. More people all of a sudden needed healthcare. More people needed access to doctors. More people needed to not worry that getting sick was gonna cause them to have a bankruptcy. But instead, the Trump administration immediately rejected any kind of expansion, and people didn’t protest that. It was shocking. Part of the story about Dying of Whiteness is about guns and how dangerous it is to have completely unregulated guns. A lot of people I interviewed had, you know, six guns under their bed and two on their nightstand, and when the pandemic hit all of a sudden people were rushing out to buy more guns to keep in their homes where they were being, you know, quarantined with their kids and stuff. And so part of the story here was about the worst, the most self-destructive parts of this kind of white identity, were being amplified in the pandemic, and we’ve seen that now exacerbated even more by these protests where people are running out and not wearing masks and bringing their guns and really [?] any concerted public health response to the pandemic itself, linked of course to a very polarizing political response, which really is leading us down a very, very, very, very dangerous path. And so initially these were all examples of dying of whiteness, but now I feel like we’re all dying of whiteness because of this.

Zach: So you know Living Corporate is about centering marginalized, underrepresented, under-supported voices in the workplace, and I’m curious to know if in any of the research that you’ve done in compiling in the book, did you see anything that tied back into how dying of whiteness ties into folks who also are working?

Dr. Metzl: Mm-hmm. And I should be clear, I’m not talking about all white people. I’m talking about a kind of form of white identity politics that is crafted in a way that is anti-immigrant, anti-government, kind of, you know, pro-gun to the extreme, and it’s based in this fear that “Undeserving immigrants minorities are coming to take away my stuff or my privilege,” and I just feel like that is a path that has led us in a bad direction. It’s that particular kind of politics that as we see in a pandemic make it very hard, but I do, especially towards the end of the book, look more broadly at the flip side, which is how much more beneficial it is to live in a society where everybody’s opinion is equally valued, where there’s equal access or relatively equal access to resources. How much better overall do those societies do? We can see it now in pandemic responses, but I also looked a little bit at corporate America, and I looked at how businesses that have diversity of opinions are much, much better able to address complex problems. In other words, if you have people who come from different backgrounds socio-economically, racially, ethnically, and you’re facing a complex problem, you don’t want everybody to exactly think the same thing. You don’t want their main job to be kissing the boss’s tush, you know? You want people to bring their different perspectives, because it turns out complex problems do better with multiple viewpoints, and that’s true across the board. Companies that have that structure are often more innovative, more cutting edge, and conversely, companies that don’t often are stuck in old ways of being, which makes it much harder for them to pivot to new economies. And I think that the response to the pandemic by our government has really illustrated why having everybody who thinks in one way is really a really hard way to face what we’re facing now, which is probably the most complex problem our species has faced in a very long time.

Zach: You know, in your book you talk about the importance of rejecting racial hierarchies that have defined American culture since its inception. I’m really curious though to reject this white identity politic, ’cause you talk a little bit about the historicity of it, right? Like, it’s not this new phenomena that came in with Trump. There’s some challenges that we’ve had for some time, and I’m really curious, how would you prescribe folks to wean themselves away from this for the sake of our own survival?

Dr. Metzl: We are really facing an existential crisis right now. It’s a life-or-death moment for a lot of people, for our country, and you would think that a life-or-death moment like this would be a time where we would all realize our common humanity, our common interests. So now would be a great time to move beyond archaic formulations, you know, of race. You know, this would be a great time for that, and I’m worried that if we can’t do it now–I understand that people, when they feel like their life is threatened they become more idealogical. They fall back on their tribal identities. There are a lot of factors involved with that, but I worry that if we can’t do it now, when are we gonna do it? So I would say now would be a great time to [?] common humanity, but the only problem is there are a lot of forces that benefit financially and from power by polarizing us, and so it’s harder to reach across the aisle when, you know, all of our interactions are being mediated by staying at home and following Twitter feeds of people we agree with. So really it’s a [?] message to society to think about ways that we can try to break down some of these connections, because right now the power of just finding people who agree with you is so great.

Zach: Jonathan, this has been a great conversation. I really appreciate the fact that you came on. I find your work intriguing. I don’t think we have enough examinations of white identity politics or examining whiteness as a structure and its impact, right? Like, its systems impact on the world in which we live, and particularly one another as citizens in this global community. So I really appreciate the fact that you were able to come on, and we look forward to having you back. We consider you a friend of the show. And that does it, y’all, for Living Corporate. Now look, make sure you check out the links in the show notes. Make sure you check out Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, and then make sure you check out some other readings, and until next time, we’ll catch y’all. Peace.

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