In his Sept. 19 column “Old White Men,” Louis DeFelice makes the startling choice to lodge a complaint against what might be the most inoffensive series of descriptive adjectives ever used to describe that group of people. Roses are red, violets are violet, white men are white men. Why not get a little spicier? Surely, during his time patrolling Yale University as White Knight Emeritus, he’s heard sharper insults from the man-hating cabal.
But, he argues, when “old white men” is used pejoratively, it alienates white men whose support is essential to advancing the cause of racial and gender justice. He is correct to note that some white men are offended by being called “white men.” But that’s not the principle obstacle to bringing them into the fight for racial and gender justice.
The principle obstacle is that in many material ways, justice is against white male self-interest. White men benefit from systemic racism and patriarchy (literally, that’s why it exists), so the most rational thing for any white man to do is to carry on, quietly or loudly, propping up that system. This is partly why DeFelice’s anecdotes about his own “imperfect allyship,” which came at some personal cost, feel so noble. We understand it to be generous and difficult to do what is right when you are in a position of tremendous power.
It is impossible to talk about the history of white supremacist patriarchy in the United States without talking about the complicity of white men in creating and maintaining this system. When he shares an anecdote about bullying he experienced in high school, DeFelice describes his South Carolina community as “oppressively Christian and heterosexual.” He connected his bullying to the identities of his bullies to communicate a reality about how homophobia operates in America. And he was right to do so. It would be doubly punishing to expect him to experience harassment and then to avoid naming the social sources of that harassment. Why, then, should black and brown women not only endure marginalization, but censor their criticism of its perpetrators?
We should not resort to euphemism to talk about historical fact. Instead,we should understand that white men are not our natural allies, not because of personal hostilities, but because it is much harder to motivate them to work against their self-interest than it is to convince black and brown women to work in favor of theirs. I am truly saddened to report that there is not a busload of white men waiting to become card-carrying Brown Berets if we’re just a little more pleasant to them.
That doesn’t mean we can’t choose to engage white men and ask them to fight alongside us. It just means that we shouldn’t give them the “mixed company” version. They should be asked to fully reckon with the power that whiteness and maleness give them. DeFelice might argue that holding white men to this standard is an example of my ivory tower idealism. That does a greater disservice to white men and to their ability to think critically than anything I’ve heard or said in my time at Yale.
There is a reason that some white men heard that “the Directed Studies syllabus is too white and male” and understood that to mean that “white men’s voices don’t matter.” It’s pure insecurity. When your confidence, talent and success are built on a 500 year presumption of superiority, it’s painful and disorienting to watch that castle crumble.
But our fight for justice cannot be dictated by white male discomfort. It would be a mistake to tiptoe around reality in the vain hope that white men will flock to our cause if we are polite or “rational” enough. America is experiencing a national delusion about its history and its present, and we will not win by obscuring systems of racist, patriarchal power through euphemism and feel-good unity rhetoric. We will not win if we are afraid of the truth.
Julia Salseda-Angeles is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .