Have we misunderstood the white male?

Photo: Creative Commons

Ideally, when our children and grandchildren look back on our current generation (hopefully not from the vantage point of houses on stilts with the corpse of the last polar bear floating by), they might be able to mitigate all the inexcusable environmental and economic destruction we continue to wreak with the knowledge that at least we unfettered the individual from the stereotypes surrounding their demographic groups.

We have finally woken up to the fact that women aren’t inherently perfidious and seductive daughters of Eve, that if you cross a black person in the street then you aren’t in for a ‘shanking’, that barely any gay men devote their lives to mincing around and hairdressing and that hardly any lesbians obsess over power tools and plaid shirts.

Thankfully, despite the best efforts of the uglier elements of the right-wing press, the overwhelming response of not just trendy young Facebookers but also mainstream politicians after every Islamist terror attack is to re-affirm that these atrocities do not speak for the Muslim community.

All well and good then. Three cheers all round for realising that individuals are individuals. But, wait, what about white males?

As a reader of liberal media outlets  (I’m one of those horrid Guardianistas you read about in the Mail) and someone who spends a lot of time discussing social, cultural and political issues, I have grown very familiar with the imagery attached to the ‘white male’. Par for the course of the worldview of many modern Western progressives is the elision of being a ‘white male’ with closeted bigotry, all-round entitlement, obliviousness to the plight of minority groups and a lack of first-hand experience of hardship.

Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes and Boris Johnson: they are the kind of figures who are our socio-cultural informants, apparently. ‘White male’

is becoming shorthand for everything that is wrong with our current establishment.

We have to be nuanced here. I would be the last to reject the idea that Western history has disproportionately materially benefited (and still benefits) white males, or that there is a fundamental problem when a government does not reflect the diversity of its electorate, or that some white males do make questionable statements and commit outrageous acts that are indicative of a sense of innate privilege.

But I still don’t see these as acceptable reasons to adopt a default approach towards the general identity of being white and male that exudes suspicion and, amongst some on the liberal-left, contempt.

My objection is two-fold. Firstly, this whole treatment of the ‘white male’ category fails utterly to account for the individuality amongst white males that we afford to other identities. We are as capable of self-reflection and abstract thought that breaks through the boundaries of our identity’s heritage and history as anyone else. Of course, some are better at these processes than others, and some do not bother to engage in them at all.

Nonetheless, a great deal of us work hard to leave the colonialism and sexism of the past and to interact with the world in as inclusive, respectful and fair-minded way as possible.

We will never be free of our history, but I can guarantee that I and many others strive daily to allow it only minimal impact on our perception of who we are now. This should not be taken as a petition for you all to acknowledge just how good we’re being to everyone else. It’s just a fact that is worth bearing in mind.

Secondly, the stereotypes of the ‘white male’ forget a crucial socio-economic bracket and its experiences.

White, working-class males are not included in this narrative of centuries of power-handling and being born to rule.

Historically tied to drudgery of mills and mines and now trapped in a post-Thatcher dystopia where they are ignored by the political class, lampooned as thick UKIP-voters and EDL thugs who drive white vans and love Eng-er-land, and increasingly falling behind their peers at school, their experience of the world around them is principally defined by a sense of powerless.

I’m sure members of this social demographic would be bowled over in surprise were they to have frequent access to the kind of conversations that would gladly inform them that they are paragons of insufferable privilege and opportunity. As is regrettably often the case, our current discourse surrounding race and gender is generally being taken up amongst the middle classes, for the middle classes, about the middle classes.

In recent times, we have done so well to break down the walls that have historically restricted the opportunity for the self-identification and self-expression of a great swathe of people who have previously faced systemic oppression and exclusion from main stream academic and social dialogues.

 We have, in a great display of self-enquiry, come to terms with the true horrors that patriarchy and colonialism inflicted during their zenith and how their vestiges still have an impact on us today.

Yet in this age of such broad-mindedness, awareness and ardent belief in an individual’s ability for and right to self-identification, we have to be careful that we don’t undermine this whole, noble project through our treatment of the ‘white male’.

Every individual is an individual, even if they have pale skin and a name like ‘Tim’.



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