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This editorial was going to be about Natalia Kills and Willy Moon but I’m already tired of that story, as I’m sure you are.
Last week Salient covered a story about the gender and ethnic imbalances on University Council. Most of the feedback we’ve received has been very positive. A couple of the letters we received this week, though, were of the depressingly predictable “ermagherd stop picking on us white men” variety. As a white man, I feel compelled to step in.
This is difficult for some to accept, but race is a different—and more significant—issue for people of colour than it is for white people in New Zealand. Gender is a different issue for women than it is for men. These differences exist because the basic fabric of our society was woven centuries ago in a way that innately favours white men.
It’s easy to forget that gender and race (and to varying degrees, class and sexuality) are significant parts of your identity and your standing in society when you’re not reminded of them on a regular basis. “Microagression” may be a cringeworthy progressive buzzword, but it’s a fairly good descriptor (I imagine) of the kind of individually minor, but cumulatively exhausting experiences to which women and people of colour are constantly subjected. Forgetting (or imagining away) one’s group identity is an unmistakable sign of privilege. To all my fellow white men out there—you know that this is true; don’t pretend otherwise.
White men—like some of our illustrious letter writers this week—cry foul at attempts to redress the balance. This is because these attempts are, by necessity, highly visible; whereas society’s inherent racism and sexism, because it is structural in nature, is largely invisible (to us white men at least). The effects, however, aren’t—and when challenged to explain why white men just happen to be doing so much better, their defenders immediately fudge the issue.
White men often claim to be offended when their privilege is called out. Speaking on behalf of my people, I can tell you this is absolute bullshit. With the exception of straight-up White Nationalists, white men don’t perceive themselves as being part of a “white male” culture on a daily basis, because society has trained them not to. Rather, claiming to be offended—playing the “victim card”—is all about power. I repeat: this is bullshit, and you do not have to listen to these people.
Reason and emotion. Public and private. State and society. These supposed opposites exist because centuries of white male academics and statesmen assumed they could stand apart from their emotions, their personal lives and their group interests, and “do politics” in a completely objective and impartial way. It’s a myth that took centuries—until women and people of colour finally found a political voice—to break down.
It’s a myth that, for instance, has long held back the development of true artificial intelligence: the notoriously white-male-dominated STEM industries simply took the prevailing theory at face value, separated reason from emotion and chased AI down a blind alley of sheer computing power. It’s only relatively recently that they’ve been encouraged to do their philosophy properly, and to recognise that true practical reasoning is fundamentally affected by emotion and feeling—most AI research now focuses on developing robots that can “learn” in an genuinely human-like way, through experience.
More significantly, it’s a myth that lies at the very core of our economic system (every first-year economics student is told with absolute certainty that people are “rational utility maximisers”), our legal constitutions, and our kneejerk retreat to “my rights” and “equal treatment” when faced with the claims of various minority groups.
Pointing out that society is dominated by men isn’t sexist—it’s a fact. Pointing out that society is dominated by white people isn’t racist—it’s a fact. Advocating for measures to address these issues isn’t racist or sexist—it’s called not being an arsehole. And doing so as a white man doesn’t make you a whimpering, self-flagellating hypocrite—it just means you have to listen, occasionally, and try not to be too much of a dick.
But, hey ho, we need to fill up the letters page somehow.