By Ijeoma Oluo
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What happens to a country that tells generation after generation of white men that they deserve power? What happens when success is defined by status over women and people of color, instead of by actual accomplishments?
Through the last 150 years of American history — from the post-reconstruction South and the mythic stories of cowboys in the West, to the present-day controversy over NFL protests and the backlash against the rise of women in politics — Ijeoma Oluo exposes the devastating consequences of white male supremacy on women, people of color, and white men themselves. Mediocre investigates the real costs of this phenomenon in order to imagine a new white male identity, one free from racism and sexism.
As provocative as it is essential, this book will upend everything you thought you knew about American identity and offers a bold new vision of American greatness.
COWBOYS AND PATRIOTS
How the West Was Won
We all have that one relative, the one whose name is never said without a sigh of frustration or a groan of dread. The one relative who is always quick to offer inappropriate commentary, in his outdoor voice, at the dinner table. For our family it was someone I’ll call Brian. Brian was one of the rare Fox News viewers in the family. He would spout conservative talking points that he heard on cable news, and when he ran out of memorized semifactoids, he would make up arguments to defend his point. Sometimes he didn’t seem to have a point beyond “I disagree loudly with whatever it is you are saying.”
You didn’t have to be talking about politics in order to suddenly find yourself dragged into a convoluted political debate. You could be talking about your new cell phone and everyone would be commenting on what a nice phone it was, and suddenly Brian would interject with how his cell phone provider was better than yours and how the reason you were with such and such company was because of a vast liberal news conspiracy designed to “fuck you over.” Brian was pretty sure that a lot of things were trying to fuck us all over—cell phone companies, banks, car companies, universities—and somehow it was all liberal media’s fault.
Luckily for us, Brian was a distant relative; we only had to endure him at weddings, funerals, and occasional Christmas celebrations that brought the extended family together. We could give our fake smiles and try our best to change the subject, knowing that we would be able to return home, far away from Brian, and forget about him until someone else in the family died.
This all changed with social media. Suddenly, Brian was everywhere, and he was so much more Brian online. Everything was amped up—the conspiracy theories, the forced debates, the made-up talking points—all in caps lock. I didn’t think it was possible that online Brian could be more annoying than real-life, interrupting, bloviating, creepy-joke-telling Brian, but—here he was, somehow even worse.
As my writing career began to take off, Brian decided that I would make the ideal sparring partner for online debate. I had muted his posts early on, so I was no longer subjected to his daily rants about illegal immigration or his fearmongering about how Obama was going to take away all of our rights, but he insisted on bringing his very loud opinions to my social media pages. He would show up on random status updates to challenge me to a debate of wits (literally, saying: “I challenge you”) on issues I had no desire to debate. Every time, I would either ignore him or politely decline and wish him a good day. Sometimes he would try to debate others who interacted with my social media posts, and I would ask him to please go away.
I couldn’t understand what Brian was getting from all this online antagonism. Almost nobody took him up on his debate challenges; nobody thanked him for his uninvited opinions. The sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, racist politicians and policies he supported were not only in stark contrast to the beliefs of the family he seemed to genuinely love; they also hurt many members of our family and put many of them (especially those who were queer, Muslim, or people of color) at risk.
One day, after he left a particularly long comment on my Facebook page telling me that he supported Trump because all the Democratic candidates were weak on immigration and terrorism, I took the bait. I asked him how he could support someone who literally put his family in danger, why he insisted on spouting Fox News nonsense even when some of his closest family members had made it clear that his doing so hurt them. He responded that his own family—even the brown, Muslim family members—weren’t at risk because they weren’t the terrorists Trump was after. He talked about how liberal media had blinded me to the dangers that were out there waiting for me if Democrats gained control of the government.
Weeks later, after yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States, he showed up on my social media page again, this time in defense of gun rights. The story he shared was quite illuminating. He told about a fateful night when he was walking alone to his car and a “thug” with a “hoodie” confronted him with a gun. “It was him or me,” he said. But luckily, Brian was packing. If it weren’t for Brian’s weapon at the ready, he would have been dead. He insinuated that the “thug” got what was coming to him and that he would always do what was necessary to protect himself and his family.
What made this story so revealing is that I’m pretty sure none of it happened. Lemme draw you a picture of Brian. Brian is a late-middle-aged white dude who lives in the Midwestern suburbs. He tucks his Disney T-shirts into his jean shorts and pulls his white socks up to his knees. Brian is a dude who has had few adventures in life, and even fewer friends. I’ve never seen him in the general vicinity of a gun. And if he ever shot a “thug” in the street, I’m sure I would have heard about it before then.
But none of Brian’s so vigorously defended political beliefs were based in reality. No “thug” had tried to take his life in the street, and yet he still clung to his belief that he needed access to guns in order to protect himself. He had never encountered any Muslim terrorism in his Midwestern suburb, but he was still convinced that there were terrorists eager to cross the border to bomb his subdivision. From these made-up horrors, these fictionalized enemies, he had created a villain worthy of the violent bravado that he imagined he would display if confronted by said villain. This web of racist lies was what he needed to make himself seem like a man. He invented a story about bad guys who were out to get him, and he repeated it to himself and others until he believed it. Then he made up another story—of himself as hero, defending himself and his family against this violent threat—and he repeated that one until he believed it too. Brian wrote himself into his own American western, a world of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. And for a man with no job, few friends, and a family that couldn’t stand him, pretending to be a main character in violent American mythology was as close to belonging as he was ever going to get.
I thought about every Black person who has had the cops called on them for trying to cash a check at a bank, for trying to shop at a store, for trying to exist in public—and I wondered what stories the frightened white people must have told themselves to justify their fears. I thought about the story that George Zimmerman must have been telling himself as he shot seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin for simply walking around a gated neighborhood as a Black teen. I thought about what story Michael Dunn must have been telling himself as he opened fire on a car filled with Black teenagers because their music was too loud, killing seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis. I thought about what story Wade Michael Page (who was likely radicalized by anti-Muslim propaganda while he served in the US Army)1 must have been telling himself as he opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing forty-one-year-old Paramjit Kaur, sixty-five-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka, thirty-nine-year-old Prakash Singh, forty-one-year-old Sita Singh, forty-nine-year-old Ranjit Singh, and eighty-one-year-old Suveg Singh.
I’m so glad that Brian probably doesn’t actually carry a gun, and I hope he never will. Mediocre white men who want to be heroes too often feel the need to fabricate villains to justify their imagined role—even if that means vilifying entire populations of people. Their dreams of grand adventures are mere whims and fantasy, but the violence such white men visit upon others is often very, very real.
A COWBOY IS BORN: BUFFALO BILL TAKES THE STAGE
Buffalo Bill is onstage engaged in fierce battle. He and his scouts are fighting a ferocious group of Cheyenne warriors. The audience holds its breath as the terrifying Cheyenne appear to be gaining the upper hand. But just when it seems all hope is lost, Buffalo Bill—dressed in an elegant black velvet, lace-trimmed, Mexican vaquero suit—takes aim at the Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hand and fires. Their chief shot dead, the Cheyenne are defeated. Buffalo Bill walks over to Yellow Hand’s lifeless body, takes out his knife, and removes Yellow Hand’s scalp. Buffalo Bill triumphantly raises the scalp in the air. “For Custer!” he declares.
The audience erupts into wild applause and cheers. “For Custer!” they cry.
In Buffalo Bill’s stage show The Red Right Hand: or The First Scalp for Custer, the scalping of Yellow Hand was an act of justice. George Armstrong Custer was the celebrated army general who was killed, along with his entire command, during the Indian Wars at the Battle of Big Horn in June of 1876. The infamous battle would become known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer was beloved in white American culture for his leadership in battle, but he was known to many Native people for his role in their forced removal from their land onto reservations. In July 1876, just days after the Battle of Little Big Horn, Buffalo Bill had taken revenge against the brutal Indians for killing Custer, using their own barbaric methods against them. He had scalped one of their leaders to avenge the death of one of his own.2 By the end of the year, Buffalo Bill would begin reenacting the scalping of Yellow Hand for the entertainment of paying audiences.
The idea of scalping as a Native act of barbarism is one that persists. But the act of scalping one’s enemies had existed in European cultures for over two thousand years before European colonizers arrived on the shores of this continent. And since the early days of European colonization in the Americas, the scalping of Native people by European settlers was not only encouraged but rewarded.
In Canada, the American colonies, and Mexico, governments paid a handsome sum for the scalps of Native men, women, and children.3 In eighteenth-century New Hampshire, you could earn one hundred pounds for every male Native scalp you turned in, fifty pounds for each scalp of a Native woman, and twenty-five pounds for the scalp of each Native child.4 These were not individually named Native people who were wanted for particular crimes—the reward was for any Native scalp, for no other reason than the act left the world with one less Native person.
While both Natives and Europeans used scalping as a weapon in battle, the European use of scalping as one of their many tools of genocide would be largely erased from textbooks. In place of this gruesome history, Americans are widely taught half truths glorifying the supposed suffering and heroism of European colonizers.
The story of Buffalo Bill’s scalping of Yellow Hand would become a part of that mythology—a story that he largely invented, just as he had invented his own legend. Before William F. Cody was Buffalo Bill, he was a lot of other things. Cody had worked as a farmer, a teamster, a trapper, a driver, and a soldier. But throughout much of it, Cody maintained dreams of taking the stage as a successful actor.
Cody was given the name Buffalo Bill for his talent in slaughtering buffalo (now known as American bison). Buffalo were plentiful around the country, and hunting them was a popular sport, but Cody was obscenely prolific in killing—claiming to have shot dead 4,280 buffalo in just eighteen months.5 At first, Cody hunted buffalo for food. He got a job with the railroad companies to kill buffalo in order to feed railroad workers. But quickly, the work became about more than killing buffalo; it became a part of killing Indians.
As American colonizers looked to expand their territory westward with the building of railroads in the mid- to late nineteenth century, they came into direct conflict with the Native people who had lived on those lands for centuries. Prime railroad territory was often prime grazing territory, and valuable resources like gold were found in places where the Sioux hunted. The US government had declared de facto total war against Native people wherever they stood between the United States and its expansion west. The United States attacked Native people in every way it could—fighting combatants on the battlefield, killing women and children in their homes, spreading disease, forcing relocation—nothing was off limits. But still, Native communities fought to maintain their lands, and fought well.
“Cheyenne people, Lakota people, and Arapahoe people at that time were basically freedom fighters trying to defend themselves, their homelands, and their way of life,” Russell Brooks, a Cheyenne filmmaker, scholar, and educator explained to me.6
In 1869, facing a protracted battle with Native tribes like the Sioux, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Phillip Sheridan as commanding general of the army and asked him to help solve the “Indian Problem” once and for all. Sheridan reached out to William Tecumseh Sherman, who had distinguished himself with his scorched-earth battle tactics during the Civil War, for advice. Sherman observed that wherever buffalo existed, there would be Native people, and they would continue to fight for land wherever the buffalo roamed. Sherman’s advice to Sheridan was simple: remove the buffalo in order to remove the Indian. “I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all,” Sherman wrote to Sheridan.7 No more buffalo, no more Indians.
As Cody gained a reputation as a skilled hunter, he went to work for Sheridan, killing as many buffalo as he could. Buffalo hunting became a wildly popular sport for white people in the West—well, “sport” is far too generous a term, because there was little sportsmanship involved. Men from all over the country boarded trains headed west in order to shoot buffalo with .50-caliber rifles from train windows. They killed thousands of buffalo a day, leaving the animals’ lifeless bodies where they fell on the plains to rot.
Wealthy and powerful men from the East Coast and even Europe rode west to join in on the fun, guided by William Cody, by this point known as Buffalo Bill. As journalists traveled with the wealthy men to document the hunts for newspapers across the country, Cody saw his first real opportunity for fame. As Buffalo Bill started featuring in major newspaper stories as a symbol of the adventures to be had in the Wild West, Cody capitalized on the attention. He began partnering with the authors of dime-store novels and started commissioning plays about his exploits. Soon, Cody was regularly traveling back and forth—east to star in stage shows, and then back west to continue the wholesale slaughter of buffalo.8
As famous hunters like Cody popularized buffalo hunting and countless men joined in the killing, they found that they had to travel farther west in search of buffalo as numbers dwindled. The excitement following the widespread slaughter of buffalo began to wane. Cody, now having tasted celebrity, went in search of greater fame and found it in battle. An experienced scout with the US Army, he signed on to join in the Plains Wars in 1876, announcing from the stage of one of his shows that he was leaving “play acting” in search of the “real thing.” He packed his costume and went off to war.
Opportunity struck a little over a month after Cody joined the 5th Cavalry in southern Wyoming. A small band of Cheyenne warriors had been spotted heading west in pursuit of two US military couriers. Cody gained permission from his superiors to take a small group of fighters to engage the warriors. Before leaving, Cody changed out of the typical sturdy, rough clothing that the rest of the cavalry wore and into his costume. Dressed in black velvet pants and a red silk shirt trimmed with silver buttons, Cody rode out to meet fame and fortune.
The fight itself was unextraordinary. Cody’s men exchanged shots with the Cheyenne warriors. Cody and one Cheyenne warrior fired at each other, the warrior just missing Cody, and Cody shooting the warrior in the leg and felling his horse. Then Cody’s horse tripped in a hole and went down too. Cody and the warrior both took aim again, and Cody once again proved the better shot, killing Hay-o-wei, his adversary. The name Hay-o-wei translates to “Yellow Hair,” which the young warrior was named due to his blonde hair. Yellow Hair was not a war chief; he was just a warrior of no particular rank. The entire confrontation was over in a few minutes.9
The rest of the Cheyenne warriors fled the scene, and as Cody’s men left in pursuit, Cody walked over to Yellow Hair’s body, scalped the dead warrior, and took his warbonnet and weapons as trophies. According to Cody, he thrust the scalp in the air and shouted, “The first scalp for Custer!” Nobody else at the skirmish remembered him doing that. None of the warriors that the men fought had been at the battle of Little Big Horn or had likely ever encountered Custer.
Within a week of his killing Yellow Hair, stories of Cody’s bravery under fire began to reach the newspapers. The first to write about Cody’s heroism was his friend Charles King for the New York Herald. The quick fight became much more dramatic in the retelling. Other papers picked up the exciting tale of Cody’s first scalp for Custer. The cavalrymen who were with Cody when they engaged the small group of Cheyenne warriors were surprised to see what had been such an inconsequential fight suddenly spun into an epic battle.
Cody made the tales even taller in a letter to his wife, Louisa, which was meant to precede a package of his war trophies. In the letter he wrote, “We have had a fight. I killed Yellow Hand, a Cheyenne chief, in a single-handed fight. [I am going to] send the war bonnet, shield, bridle, whip, arms, and his scalp.… The cheers that went up when he fell was deafening.” The package reached Louisa before the letter; when Louisa opened it, expecting a gift from her husband and instead finding a human scalp, she fainted.10
A few months after killing Yellow Hair, Cody left the cavalry to return to the stage. The Red Right Hand: or The First Scalp for Custer scandalized and excited audiences. Each night, Cody took the stage in the very outfit that he wore in battle to reenact a wildly dramatized version of the killing of Yellow Hair, now renamed by Cody as Yellow Hand and promoted to the position of chief, instead of simple warrior. Sometimes Yellow Hand would go down due to a gunshot wound; sometimes he would die in hand-to-hand combat with Cody. While papers denounced the blatant glorification of violence, audiences packed the theater to see Cody wave the scalp of Yellow Hand in the air in victory.
This was not the first time that Cody had tried to claim fame from violent confrontation with the Cheyenne people. “He was no friend to the Cheyenne,” Russell Brooks told me. Cody had long been involved in US Army campaigns to forcibly remove Cheyenne and Lakota people from their lands. Cody was involved in what is known to Americans as the Battle of Summit Springs but is known to Brooks and other Cheyenne as the Battle of White Buttes. In that battle, in which the US Army ambushed a band of Cheyenne who were resting on their way north to join up with Lakota people, twenty warriors, seven women, and four children were killed. Cody shot and killed a Cheyenne warrior and claimed that he had shot Cheyenne chief Tall Bull. Others at the scene testified that Tall Bull had been killed at the beginning of the battle by another soldier, and Cody had instead killed somebody else who was riding Tall Bull’s horse.11
Cody would go on to develop more stage productions showcasing the violent masculinity of the West to great success, leading to the 1883 debut of his most famous show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The timing of Cody’s show was perfect. In the mid-nineteenth century, white men in England and the United States began to worry about their young men. These young men had it too easy; their wealth and comfort had made them soft. In the United States, a country still fighting to retain the land it had stolen from Native people, this softness could threaten the expansion of America across the continent. The call for white men of America to maintain physical power was not just political; it was a spiritual calling. The rise in popularity of Muscular Christianity in the United States and Europe during this time gave white male elites a religious mandate to conquer both rugby fields and battlefields. According to practitioners of Muscular Christianity, physical softness in men had undermined traditional masculinity and had led to intellectual and moral softness.
As the wives and daughters of these wealthy white men began to make strides in social and political life, men felt an even greater threat to their masculine identity. This fear of the “feminizing” of young American elite men led to calls for stories of “strong, brutal men with red-hot blood in ’em, with unleashed passions rampant in ’em, blood and bones and viscera in ’em.”12 “Masculine” theater, dime novels, and adult male fiction steeped in grit and violence known as “red-blooded realism” became increasingly popular, in large part due to the threat of the widespread success of women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner (whom author Nathaniel Hawthorne dismissed as a “damn’d mob of scribbling women”),13 and of plays geared toward women audiences. Young white men popularized dime novels that told wild tales of danger and exploration, hunting and gunfights, first with stories of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and later with fictionalized accounts of the exploits of heroes and outlaws like Kit Carson and Billy the Kid. Buffalo Bill’s own stories of adventure would make it into dozens of wildly popular dime novels. Men in search of manhood began to look west.
Cody’s Wild West show offered everything that white men in search of power and glory were looking for. In Cody’s show, white men were noble and brave. They fearlessly tamed animals and fought savages. “Indians,” even when Cody allowed them to be something less than mindless killing machines, were seen as great relics of the past, conquered by the superiority of white men. Once-great Native warriors were paraded in front of white crowds like tigers in a zoo to show how great white men must be to have physically bested people built for little more than violence.
The lure of Western adventure did not dissipate as these boys became men. Instead, they set out to star in their own stories of physical dominance. One man who was heavily influenced by cowboy mythology, and in turn shaped an entire generation in its image, was President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a poster boy for the manly renewal that Western-themed violence promised. Once known as a scrawny, squeaky-voiced dandy, Roosevelt moved to the Dakota badlands in the late 1880s to remake himself. When Roosevelt returned to the East Coast, tanned, muscular, and brimming with tales of taming wildlife and battles against cattle thieves, he became the American man that every American man wanted to be.
Roosevelt was not just a strong proponent of cowboy mythology and Muscular Christianity; he was also directly inspired by William Cody’s image. When Roosevelt fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the name given to his regiment, the Rough Riders, was taken from Cody’s Wild West show. In return, Cody dramatized the Rough Riders’ celebrated Battle of San Juan Hill in his stage show.14 Roosevelt also seemed to believe the same violent, racist stereotypes of Native people that were displayed in the early Wild West shows, infamously saying in 1886, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”15
As president of the United States, Roosevelt’s obsession with the physical supremacy of white manhood would influence his policy decisions. Roosevelt saw the West as a place to be won, and in his view white Americans had already won it—by conquering both the terrain and the Native people. To Roosevelt, it was white Americans’ honored duty to preserve and protect the beauty of Western lands for future generations of white Americans to enjoy. Roosevelt claimed for the United States tens of millions of acres previously promised to Native people, land that had been stewarded by Native people for countless generations. They became our national forests and parks.
In an article published in the American Indian Law Journal, Native scholar and law professor Angelique Townsend EagleWoman noted that while Roosevelt is celebrated today as a great conservationist for his creation of national parks and forests, his actions were actually “an illegal, unconsented-to land grab from the Tribal Nations, and then a reappropriating of those lands owned by tribal peoples to the ownership of the United States on a might makes right basis.”16 Roosevelt made this decision not just callously, but calculatingly. Professor of American history Gary Gerstle described Roosevelt as a man who “expected that they [Native people] would be eliminated, exterminated from America in contest with the white men who were settling the continent, to the people who he hailed as backwoodsmen. And he required the Indians to be there to be the strenuous opponent through which Americans could prove their valor. But he was very clear that in a modern America that he was building, he expected they would be exterminated either through battle or through simply the inability to adjust to modern life.”17
The white culture of the West was steeped in the expectation of triumph over land and peoples. In fact, Roosevelt shared this belief with Cody, whose stories of white victory over both the West and the people who had previously inhabited it carried a sense of inevitability and paternal racism. “This continent had to be won,” Cody wrote. “We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”18 Manly men were quick to sing the praises of a stage show that opened with the scalping of an Indian and then moved through gunfights, horseback riding, cattle roping, and more fantastic feats of masculinity. One reviewer commented that compared with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, “all the operas in the world appear like pretty playthings for emasculated children.”19 Cody himself encouraged this celebration of hypermasculinity. A poster for Wild West from 1902 loudly declares that the show is “Standing like an obelisk above and beyond all others. A perfect phalanx of all that is GREAT, GRAND, and HEROIC.” It touts “A gathering of extraordinary consequence to fittingly illustrate all that VIRILE, MUSCULAR, HEROIC MANHOOD has and can endure.”20
Cody expanded his show from a small stage to an extravaganza the size of a small town. He hired real Native warriors to play Native warriors. Gunslingers and cowboys would join the show. Eventually he would add “Zulu warriors,” Mexican “vaqueros,” Turks, and dozens of other “exotic” performances. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became the most popular show in America, and he became one of the wealthiest and most famous entertainers in the world.
Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and many other dime-store-novel heroes would inspire an entire generation of young white men to head west in search of their own Manifest Destiny. With the Wild West show gaining in popularity, Cody also strove to increase its respectability. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
- “Wide-ranging in the cultural history it provides, Mediocre illuminates the various ways white men work to maintain racial power.”—New York Times
"A conversational call to action, an urging to rewrite our definition of White manhood and diminish the power it holds…. Oluo is asking us to evaluate the myths America tells itself about itself, see the violence within, be honest about the perpetrators and the victims, and then tell different stories. Truer ones. But she is also inviting us, on occasion, to chuckle. There is levity and voice in Mediocre.”—Washington Post
- "Searing.... Oluo lays out a sweeping cultural history of white men failing upward, from education to sports to politics.... Mediocre is a fast, engaging read, and Oluo is a warm, evenhanded narrator."—San Francisco Chronicle
- “I’m eternally grateful, as I think everyone is who reads your book. Your books don’t come from a place of hate, but of determination to make a change... Thank you for writing another amazing book.”—Trevor Noah, on "The Daily Show"
- “Oluo examines the cultural and political underpinnings of what she calls the 'mediocre-white-man-industrial complex.' ... She also digs into how, at different points in history, this country has failed women—a particularly salient reminder amid a pandemic that has driven hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce.”—Fast Company
- “Oluo takes readers on a journey through 150 years of American history, from the post-reconstruction South to present-day controversy over NFL protests, all while pointing out the influence and costs of white male supremacy.”—Katie Couric
- "Ijeoma Oluo's sharp yet accessible writing about the American racial landscape made her 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race, an invaluable resource for anyone looking to understand and dismantle racist structures. Her new book, Mediocre, builds on this exemplary work, homing in on the role of white patriarchy in creating and upholding a system built to disenfranchise anyone who isn't a white male."—TIME
- “Redefines the idea of American greatness”—Cosmopolitan
- “This well-researched, yet highly personal, tome shines a spotlight on modern-day racism and white supremacy.”—USA Today
- “As Ijeomo Oluo puts it in her new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, “By defining greatness as a white man’s birthright, we immediately divorce it from real, quantifiable greatness—greatness that benefits, greatness that creates.” Make America Great Again can be assumed to be about the former kind of greatness, and it was always a promise that greatness meant this long era of inequality. Inequality is the central platform of the right and Trumpism.”—Rebecca Solnit, for LitHub
- “Oluo’s ability to clearly and directly address the country’s most intractable and thorny issues of racism and misogyny have garnered her a legion of fans across the country and around the world.... Addressing head-on the elephant in America’s living room, Oluo uses a wealth of historical research to support her argument that our country’s default mode of propping up and centering white men not only doesn’t serve us, but is actively destructive.... she challenges us to imagine a different way—a new path that maximizes the potential of every person, that doesn’t waste the incredible talents and contributions of women and people of color.”—Seattle Times
- “With its provocative title and blunt dissection of race and privilege, Mediocre could be one of the season’s most important conversation starters.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
- “The history of white male entitlement masquerading as meritocracy is a long one. In her follow-up to So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo explains how understanding that entitlement is a necessary first step to dismantling a system built on oppression and exploitation, and the “violent, sexist, racist status quo.”—Toronto Globe & Mail
- “This historical look at white male America explores the socioeconomic and political ways racism and sexism have shaped our country to protect white male power. Even further, it considers how that grip on power has stood in the way of happiness and liberty for all Americans.”—BookRiot
- “We all joke about having the confidence of a mediocre White man, but New York Times–bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo breaks down what this really means in her new book. Your ultra average, angry White man didn’t happen by accident. Oluo methodically identifies and explains the structures that create, multiply, and embolden him.”—Zora
- “Puts patriarchy on blast”—BUST
- "Oluo examines how white male supremacy permeates and shapes almost every facet of our lives, and ultimately asks us to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others."—PAPER
- “Deftly weaving past and present… Each case study reveals how well-trodden American tropes of “meritocracy” and “rugged individualism” have served as sneaky myths covering up the real workings of white male supremacist power and oppression, reinforcing the false image of white American men as supermasculine heroes while blaming marginalized groups for their own dispossession and dehumanization."—Bitch
- “Oluo's newest book examines how the privilege afforded to white men in western culture has made the world more dangerous for us all. Although it's tempting to believe that Donald Trump is the worst product of this trend, rest assured: Trump is only the most visible."—Bustle
- “In Oluo’s characteristic incisive prose, she details how much white men’s undue influence in the US has cost the country and its people socially, economically, and politically.”—Autostraddle
- “If the title of this book makes you uncomfortable, then that means you should probably read it. Oluo excavates the legacy of white male power and how our culture and systems have and continue to uphold it.”—WBUR's "Artery"
- “Reading history-rich analysis of white male supremacy and its toxic repercussions from the author of So You Want To Talk About Race on the same week that the living personification of white grievance stormed the U.S. Capitol was like finding the key in the back of a fantasy novel: Suddenly, the labyrinthine gibberish started to make sense.”—A.V. Club
- “Oluo is clear and approachable—a lucid teacher, leavening lessons with snark. As I (white guy) read the book, I was again disoriented by how much Oluo’s been harassed for her supposedly ‘antiwhite’ writing.... Oluo’s case is compelling. America has long been telling a bad story, one that manifests in movies, in presidencies—that white men are heirs to the kingdom, regardless of their abilities. It’d do us well to realize when we’ve been sold a lie.”—Seattle Met
- “Using statistics, anecdotal evidence and persuasive eloquence, Oluo depicts a world where white male supremacy harms us all.”—Entropy
- “Ijeoma Oluo’s look at the history of white male mediocrity in America feels like it is coming out at the perfect moment…and I know I will be referencing it for many years to come.”—Hey, Alma!
“A gifted storyteller and thorough researcher... with solid scholarship and useful pop culture references... [Oluo has written] a bold, incisive book on heavy topics with a call to action for a more equitable future that doesn’t center White men.”—Kirkus
“Erudite yet accessible, grounded in careful research as well as Oluo’s personal experiences of racism and misogyny, this is an essential reckoning with race, sex, and power in America."—Publishers Weekly
- “Whose America is it? Oluo makes the case that whiteness and masculinity are powerful yet also dependent on the identities that they oppress. Outstanding chapters scrutinize the anger and fervor of Bernie Bros, resentment toward women in politics, right-wing attacks on higher education, and even the origins of football."—Library Journal
- “Oluo expertly shows how inequality, toxic masculinity and an unequal power structure deeply hurt all Americans, including white men. Through careful research and scholarship, she breaks down the system that sustains the status quo while shedding light on the ways others can also dismantle this system to ensure a more equitable future for all. It’s an essential read.”—Bookpage
- “Oluo draws clear lines from the mythmaking of “Buffalo Bill” Cody—who recast himself as a hero after scalping a Cheyenne warrior in a fight—to George Preston Marshall’s ardent and determined resistance to desegregating his NFL team, which he named the Redskins as an act of racist defiance. Oluo persuasively argues that the result of leaving power in the hands of men like Cody and Preston is not equal, fair, or even advantageous. Mediocre is an eloquent and impassioned plea for the moral and practical value of pursuing a more just future.”—Booklist
- "A conversational call to action, an urging to rewrite our definition of white manhood and diminish the power it holds. Oluo is asking us to evaluate the myths America tells itself about itself, see the violence within, be honest about the perpetrators and the victims, and then tell different stories. Truer ones. But she is also inviting us, on occasion, to chuckle. There is levity and voice in Mediocre.”—Washington Post Book World
- "Ripped, tragically, from yet another and another and another set of headlines, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America breaks ground and forces a bold, startling, and necessary conversation about the implications of institutional supremacy, and its crushing impact on people of color and women."—Patrisse Khan Cullors, Co-founder Black Lives Matter, New York Times bestselling author of When They Call You a Terrorist, Joint recipient of The Sydney Peace Prize
- "Oluo masterfully diagnoses the pervasive plague of white mediocrity. Mediocre serves as a call to action for every person, regardless of race or gender, to actively resist white male mediocrity's hold."—Kimberlé Crenshaw, Executive Director, African American Policy Forum, and Professor, UCLA and Columbia Law Schools
- "Oluo is one of our great voices and Mediocre not only educates us, but it inspires us all to act and change the world for the better. But first, I need to read this book again. It's just that damn good."—Phoebe Robinson, New York Times bestselling author of You Can't Touch My Hair
- "There is no one more adept at parsing the toxic effects of white male privilege and systemic oppression than the immensely talented Ijeoma Oluo. Her brilliant book is a master class in understanding how systems of domination working relentlessly in the service of white male patriarchy not only harm all women and people of color, but ultimately hinder white men themselves from reaching greatness."—Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times bestselling author of Long Time Coming
- "Ijeoma's revelatory and visionary new book confronts disturbing hidden histories that vibrate throughout our institutions and communities today. The connections and insights in Mediocre make it an essential read."—Austin Channing Brown, New York Times bestselling author of I'm Still Here
- "Mediocre offers profound truth in service of liberation. It cuts to the heart of white male supremacy, a system that is life-destroying for people of color and even for white men ourselves."—Matt McGorry, Actor, How To Get Away With Murder and Orange is the New Black, Activist, and Co-Founder of Inspire Justice
- "In her illuminating new book, Ijeoma Oluo unpacks how 'mediocrity' is a privilege created and perpetuated by our obsession with white male superiority. Oluo deftly balances the cultural history of white western male myth-making with contemporary cultural criticism of the aggrieved white American man. It is a deft and thought-provoking book that contextualizes public discourse on race, class, and gender in America."—Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, author of the National Book Award Finalist Thick
- "Once again, Ijeoma Oluo uses her elegant voice to speak directly to the root issues at the core of the United States' seeming inability to reconcile who we have been with who we had hoped to be. This book goes beyond how we got here, and digs into where we are, what we're going to do about it, and what's at stake if the people with the most power refuse to do better."—Ashley C. Ford, writer
- "Mediocre is urgent, powerful, and laced with an acidity that forces us to contend with our own complicity in a culture that systematically oppresses women, people of color, and especially, women of color. America is a nation that aspires to greatness, but refuses to acknowledge how its laws and conventions instead protect white male mediocrity. Both So You Want to Talk About Race and Mediocre are necessary reads, because few writers are as vital to understanding our present moment as Oluo."—Jeff Yang, author, CNN contributor, and cohost of the podcast They Call Us Bruce
- "Oluo skillfully weaves each argument with history none of us ever learned in school, making a strong case for how we got here and how we can get out."—Fast Company, Books We Can’t Put Down This Summer
- "An engaging mix of American history, political analysis, and social commentary, brought to life through stories of her experience as a Black woman...Mediocre is not a threat to White guys but a gift, offering the social/political tough love that we need to see society—and ourselves—more clearly."—YES! Magazine
- On Sale
- Nov 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Seal Press