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Let me address the “elephant in the room”. That is, the title of my book: White Man’s Disease. Do a search online for White Man’s Disease and you will get millions of results. For a book titled with such a seemingly common phrase—at least according to search results—it sure generates a lot of “raised eyebrows”, and sometimes worse reactions. Yes, it is a provocative title, but White Man’s Disease is not a provocative book. The book is neither about White men nor is it about a disease. The title is metaphorical.
The phrase is used only twice in the book. On page one I recount the first time I heard it, although it gives no hint as to why the book has that title. The second time it is used is in the middle of the book as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the book’s subject matter.
White Man’s Disease is not about race (although a wise man, my editor—told me a memoir written by a Black man in America is inevitably going to be about race.) White Man’s Disease is a story about resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
You’ve heard the maxim: don’t judge a book by its cover. Hopefully prospective readers won’t judge this book by its title. In this highly racialized environment we find ourselves in, I acknowledge that is a risk I incur with that title. That would be too bad; readers of all races, from all over the country have shared some wonderful sentiments about the book with me. Page
Long ago I first heard the phrase White Man’s Disease uttered on national TV by, surprise, a well-known White man. Though I damn near fell out of my chair when I heard it, it was unquestionably used in a clever, amusing way. Little did I know at the time that I would appropriate the phrase for my own use many years later.
Furthermore—and this is not about defending or rationalizing the title, but just for perspective—White Man’s Disease contains several depictions of what I saw as heroic acts. All but one of these heroes are White men—including one I credit with saving my life, and another I credit with single-handedly resurrecting my promising professional career that had been derailed by a traumatic event. (I said all but one: the African-American hero in the book was Muhammad Ali, who touched my life in a small but poignant way.)
In the past couple of years, we have seen a number of books with racially provocative titles become national bestsellers, although they have the power of major publisher marketing campaigns and/or celebrity authors behind them: What’s the Matter with White People; White Trash; and, White Rage, are a few that come to mind. Oh and don’t forget that politically incorrect international hit, Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey. (Just kidding; that is a song by soul/funk icon Sly and the Family Stone released almost 50 years ago. My how times have changed!)
Ironically, though the title of my next book, Mommy What Are We Going to Do, is a lot more innocuous and pleasant sounding, its content touches on the political/cultural environment we find ourselves in. I suspect Mommy What Are We Going to Do will be far more squirm-inducing to readers than What Man’s Disease ever was. Don’t judge a book by its title!
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.