How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”

While I’m on the topic of allies:

Something that comes up a lot when talking to allies about sticking up for their marginalized friends is accusations of “white-knighting.” Most commonly, this gets lobbed at men who speak up about sexism; other men accuse them of being “white knights” and trying to protect women who can very well protect themselves.

Obviously, it’s a disingenuous claim–if I, a woman, tried to ask you not to make those rape jokes around me, you’d just tell me that you hope I get raped. When a man asks you not to make them, you tell him he’s just trying to get laid, or whatever.

So most of the time it’s bullshit. The reason people with privilege need to speak up for those without is because those without are probably exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed with trying to speak up for themselves all the time.

They also face much greater consequences for doing so. No white athlete who has spoken up about police brutality has been quite so viciously excoriated for it as Colin Kaepernick, who literally simply sat the fuck down. The fact that he did so may be part (or all) of the reason he’s currently unsigned. (This did not stop me from putting him on my fantasy team, however.)

Of course, there is such a thing as speaking over marginalized people despite one’s good intentions. (I distinguish that from speaking over marginalized people with BAD intentions, i.e. you don’t care about them.) I do have to roll my eyes at the white men who write impassioned but derivative screeds against sexism or racism, screeds which get shared and retweeted and praised, screeds which earn them podcast interviews and paid speaking and writing gigs that remain elusive for many marginalized people, especially women of color and trans people.

I think that there’s very little a white man can say about sexism or racism that hasn’t already been said better by a woman, trans/NB person, or person of color, and I think that part of the whole “using your privilege for good” thing is elevating those folks’ voices and making sure that they’re the ones speaking on panels and getting Patreon subscribers.

That doesn’t mean shut up. That means, make sure your article is full of links and credits to the people whose shoulders you’re standing on. Don’t accept the invitation to speak on a panel about sexism and racism, unless everyone else on it is a woman or person of color. Don’t respond to the effusive praise with “Thanks! :)” when you know how those same people would’ve responded if you were a woman or a person of color. Respond with, “Thanks, but I could never have written this if I hadn’t read bell hooks/Janet Mock/that woman you called a feminazi last week.”

But where “white knighting” comes up most often is in interpersonal situations. Sometimes, allies call out their friends for making bigoted jokes/claims only to have those friends point to the marginalized folks in the room and say, “Well, they don’t mind, so why are you speaking over them?” Relatively few of us in that situation would be able or willing to say, “Um, actually, I do mind…”

It’s all too easy to end up in a never-ending spiral of an argument: “Why can’t I make that joke?” “Because it’s offensive and possibly triggering to women.” “Well, none of the women here said anything about it!” “Maybe they’re just uncomfortable…” And then sometimes a random woman says,”Well, I certainly don’t care about a bit of politically incorrect humor!” And that’s that.

So, my suggestion is this: don’t try to be altruistic. Don’t see yourself as the brave defender of the marginalized and voiceless. Don’t put yourself in the awkward situation of trying to round up marginalized people who agree with you so that you can speak up for them. Don’t risk speaking for them, either, in the event that none of them actually care.

Speak up for yourself. Does bigotry bother you? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

“Stop joking about rape. I find it offensive.”

“Holocaust jokes aren’t funny. Don’t make them in my house.”

“I don’t want to hear you refer to people that way.”

For me personally, my disapproval of racist jokes has gone far beyond “it hurts Black people’s feelings.” I detest what those jokes represent. I hate the society that those ideas created, much of which continues today. It’s not just that I don’t want my Black friends to live in that world. I don’t want to live in that world. And I think I can say that while still acknowledging that I’m not the one primarily harmed by it. I do have the privilege of looking away, but I don’t, because that would contradict my own personal ethical code.

If you haven’t articulated for yourself a reason to oppose bigotry other than that it hurts other people, you’ll find yourself struggling for words in those moments. What if there aren’t any women or people of color in the room? If you’re not personally harmed by bigotry, then bigotry in those spaces becomes a victimless crime.

You also won’t know how to respond when people inevitably drag out some marginalized person who agrees with them. CNN’s Don Lemon is a Black man who believes that Black men need to stop wearing sagging pants, saying the n-word, and so on in order to improve their situation. (So, textbook respectability politics.) Emily Yoffe and Katie Roiphe are white women who believe that women who claim to be victims of sexual assault sometimes just drank too much, made “bad decisions,” and regret the sex they consented to. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ex-Muslim refugee from Somalia who wants to reduce immigration to Europe from majority-Muslim nations. Milo Yiannopoulos is a white gay man who…well, the less said about that, the better.

Other than Milo (and maybe Hirsi Ali? Who even knows), none of these are even reactionaries or conservatives; they’re exactly the sort of folks your Totally Enlightened white male friends are likely to come across and marshal to defend their own shitty views, hoping to trap you into defending yourself against charges of “white knighting” instead.

So don’t speak for marginalized people. Speak for yourself, a privileged person who finds bigotry appalling and intolerable.


Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

{advertisement}
How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”