Outsiders and the “white male” problem

With The Outside Edge about to hit the shops, we’ve been trying to drum up some publicity. But we’ve hit a snag: one I’m calling the “white male” problem.

“You’re a white male,” several reviewers have now stated. “That makes you the ultimate insider. So what do you know about being an outsider?”

Of course, outsiders are often – perhaps even usually – perceived through vertical divides such as race or gender: being the rare black face in an industry dominated by whites (as with Tidjame Thiam); or the rare senior woman in a male-dominated environment (as with Chritsine Lagarde), and so on. These are powerful divides that can generate “impostor syndrome” – in which we feel both unqualified and unwelcome no matter what our attributes – as well as other issues such as low confidence, fear of failure and conflict phobia.

Certainly, no one’s belittling these divides and their impact.

And let’s not forget those horizontal divides, such as age and, perhaps most perniciously (not least because of its subtlety), class. Again, their impact can be negative: with us feeling patronised or unwelcome or even simply excluded due to something we cannot change.

Yet these divides are not the whole story. Far from it. Throughout history there’s been the notion of the misfit, the “changeling”, the person that rejects or is rejected by their tribe or peer group. This is a far deeper phenomenon – potentially evolutionary in its roots and certainly tribal (based on notions of a required collectiveness for survival). No amount of legislation or positive discrimination or well-meaning lobbying can resolve it. It’s often thrust upon us – from being ostracised – but it’s just as often a self-diagnosing “condition” (though perhaps “identity” is a better description of our malaise). And it creates sometimes unseen psychological issues that can lead to isolation, alienation and depression.

So the outsider, in this context, is someone within their own peer group. Or at least that’s where they started. They’re from the tribe or clan (or within the vertical divide) but not of it. They’ve become estranged.

There are several root causes to this phenomenon. Learning difficulties for instance – or perhaps dyslexia, disbraxia or even mild autism (diagnosed or otherwise). There may be family stress: parental divorce or rejection, for example, or sibling rivalry or adoption. Or peer group pressures: being the fat, small or ginger kid; the poorest in the class; the new boy/girl at school; or simply the one living a distance from the others.

That said, it can also be hyper intelligence, or extreme beauty or greater family wealth compared to your peers. In fact it’s anything that prevents that person adopting the core thinking, beliefs and culture of their family, peer group or tribe. That makes them misunderstand it or question it. And that also makes them misunderstood.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why being an outsider has only a tangential relationship to gender or race or even class. Of course, being estranged from your peers can encourage individuals to try and smash any glass ceilings they perceive – resulting in them being the very people most adept at breaking those deeply-embedded vertical divides. That said, both Christine Lagarde and Tidjane Thiam – as examples – come from highly-privileged insider backgrounds, so let’s not get carried away by the potential: as I say in The Outside Edge, feeling like an outsider is a highly disabling trait, though a disablement we can overcome.

10 clues that you’re an outsider

So are you an outsider? I offer 10 clues that may suggest you are (none involving race or gender), though – as stated – it’s largely a self-diagnosing condition so don’t feel you have to tick-off every trait.

1) Sensitivity in childhood. Being the cry-baby or mother-clinger is an early sign that you’re uncomfortable with your surroundings. For instance, my eldest son loved nursery: he delved right in. My youngest, meanwhile, wailed all the way there, refused to integrate and sulked until he was collected. Indeed “laterborns” are far more likely to become outsiders (see below).

2)  Strained family relationships. Children from “broken homes” can experience depression, anger and alienation, yet outsidership can equally be developed within strained, though “normal”, family situations. Mean siblings can generate isolation and estrangement – as can working mothers or absent fathers – with, again, “laterborns” bearing the brunt of it.

3) Disliking childhood peer-group activities. Around 20 percent of kids have sensitivity issues at nursery age. By school, around half will become integrated. This leaves around 10% suffering withdrawal and/or shyness into childhood. Yet the attempt to integrate can also throw up “problematic” or even “anti-social” behaviours. For instance, any form of childhood group activity – cubs, brownies, football, ballet, drama club etc. – is almost certainly rejected by the outsider. For me, cubs looked like extra school with added bizarre rituals; and the local football clubs appeared to be licensed bullying. I escaped both.

4) Rebelling against authority. Anyone telling others what to do can find themselves at odds with outsiders. Parents and teachers, of course: but I also found myself falling out with community organisers of any form, as well as people in uniform, local busy-bodies and even the old lady running the post office. I saw right through their paper-thin authority and became determined to challenge it.

5) Late or early onset adolescence. An interesting one this, but those deviating from the norm with respect to the onset of puberty can find themselves psychologically distant from the group. Yet this tends to be gender dependent: early-onset girls are the most likely to develop “non-normative” behaviours that lead to alienation, followed by late-onset boys.

6) Identity hopping. To the outsider, standardised youth identities can all seem attractive – not least because we think that there lies salvation. Punks, goths, metalheads: every era has them, and outsiders can jump right in. Yet we jump right out again after discovering the need to adhere to a new set of (this time unstated) rules regarding dress, outlook and hierarchies.

7) Thrill seeking and often reckless behaviour. Outsiders are likely to be those with the sharpest taste for adventure: the more dangerous and the further from home the better. This can take bizarre forms. Mine was a keenness to explore the most notorious and dangerous parts of any city I visited – somehow feeling connected to the poverty and squalor (indeed, both romanticism and “downward mobility” are further outsider traits).

8) Career zigzagging. As with identity hopping, so with career pursuits. Outsiders often have wayward career paths, although this is sometimes due to poor attainment in formal education, resulting in us developing “alternative routes” – not all of which work out. For instance, most of my contemporaries at Manchester University were amazed that I’d left my run-down Essex comprehensive with just one O’level. “How did you get here?” they’d ask. “With difficulty,” I’d reply (actually through evening classes and guile).

9) Failing to retain friendships. And just as we identity-hop, so we’re poor at maintaining close friendships. This isn’t deliberate and certainly isn’t rejection on our part. It’s actually part-restlessness, part individualism, and part a well-formed notion – based on experience – that friends tend to come and go. Certainly, as friends, outsiders are unreliable, though that’s not necessarily the case with respect to love. Indeed, love can offer true salvation for many outsiders (with Maslow’s hierarchy offering an explanation).

10) Entrepreneurialism and creativity. Outsiders see things differently. They’re observers rather than participants, which can – when nurtured – result in strong creativity and often in the development of an entrepreneurial attitude. Indeed, many outsiders end up entrepreneurs of one form or another – not least because they struggle within formal workplace hierarchies.


So, that’s the outsider. Not necessarily black or female, or white or male. That said, a white male could well be the best-placed person to write such a book. Why? Because female and ethnic outsiders will write books based on overcoming the (strong and debilitating) vertical divides they’ve been forced to surmount in order to succeed. I had no such vertical divides (though the horizontal divide of class remains a highly-pervasive and corrosive division) – meaning I can discern the psychological wood from the vertical trees. Persuading editors of this is, of course, another matter.




The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders.


Comments 1

  1. Wow. What a revelation.This is me 100%. My life explained on a single sheet of A4. Re-assuring and depressing all in one go.

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