The history books are laden with white men changing the world, from Alexander the Great to Churchill. Look at our religions- Jesus and all his disciples are white. Every saint painted on a fresco is white. The great explorers of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were all white. Every astronaut who landed on the moon has been white. Every statue we have from antiquity to the Renaissance is a thing of white marble beauty. Even the most famous wizards of all time–Merlin, Gandalf and Dumbledore–are all white old men. And of course movie stars have been white males from the Silent Era to the present. Finally, who runs and has run the Western governments since time immemorial, only old good ol’ white men.
This may create a perception that white men are exceptional. Is it any wonder then that people of all races, religions, social status and nationalities look to white people to lead them? It’s the perception of trust that leads to a feeling of entitlement: ‘I can be President. I can be an astronaut.’ And the stereotype has been fed time and again by artists, the media, politicians, universities, military organizations, educational systems and now marketing departments.
It has been established that people who are more attractive have a better chance of landing a job than those who are not. Given our heritage, what is sexier than a white male fueled by innate self-confidence.
And what happens when we come across white men in history who may have noble ideals but end up killing millions? We frame them as tragic figures with flaws that lead to disastrous outcomes (Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Richard Nixon) or misunderstood (Julius Ceasar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin) and a warning to other white men not to make the same mistakes. After all it is assumed that white men in power are basically good guys, who will do the right thing.
Is it any wonder then that we feel secure at a reptilian level when we see a white guy in power? After all, we know the history of white guys and with it the frequent narrative of progress: haven’t they done a good job for the vast majority of humanity? And if they haven’t, who are we to trust? In any case we can always (at least in liberal democracies) get rid of the white guys that are bad apples, and replace them with white guys who will do better.
Of course this is a very Eurocentric view of the world, but who can argue that our interconnected world is not a product of the Age of Discovery (circa 1500 to 1700), the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800) and Colonialism (1600-1900), all led by governments, leaders, and thinkers that were white men?
We can argue about their methods, and whether we would be better off without them, but we cannot argue against the proposition that they have been largely responsible for creating the modern world. The representation of white men from history, from art, to science, to commerce is long and well-rooted, and it is there that we find the root of white male privilege.
As a white man the odds of you getting the job, education, spouse, bank loan or a role in a major motion picture acting role you aspired to were significantly higher than if you were from any other gender or ethnicity. That is the American Dream we talk about, although what we all know is that it is really the white man’s dream. How can we question whether there exists White Male Privilege then? Indeed, if you are a white male and not in a position of power or wealth, many people will assume there is something wrong with you.
From this perspective can you see the appeal of Trump? A rich white guy, who promises to change a broken two party system run by white men. A white guy, who promises to come in and throw out the other white guys, who have been corrupted by power and wealth. A white guy, who blames women and minorities and immigrants for the country’s woes. The country was doing dandy under the white guys, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr., until that black guy came into office and some white lady became speaker of the House. Conservatives (mostly white folks) want a return to the status quo and can you blame them? America has been great for white people so far.
If you’ve come this far thinking I am Conservative, or worse, then this next bit is gonna be a let down. I am not. In fact, my argument is that this long history is starting to crack, and indeed will crumble over the next fifty to one hundred years. Our children and grand-children could be in for a real treat, as the world moves in fits and starts out of the Age of the White Man, and into the Age of, well, whatever we call it in two hundred years.
We have already seen the beginning of this in the twentieth century. With some exceptions, every country in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania has thrown off the yoke of colonial white masters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yeah, people of Spanish, English and Chinese heritage control some countries, but they were at least born in those countries and serve the inhabitants instead of a bureaucracy in Peking or London of Madrid. This means that new leaders who aren’t white are getting a chance to change the course of their country’s political history.
How about Europe, where the leaders of he two biggest economies, U.K. and Germany are women?
The world’s second and third largest economies? China and Japan (the EU doesn’t count as a country) are run by indigenous Chinese and Japanese.
African and South American countries are run by local governments, increasingly at liberty to forge regional alliances that do not involve European powers.
In the US there are black television channels (BET), Hispanic television channels (Univision), movies with all black production units and stars that are no longer on the fringes of society: they are mainstreaming.
As for university curricula, well you can major in Spanish, Chinese, African, Asian, African American, and Women’s Studies at just about every place of higher learning in the US.
Artists? Who are the biggest stars on the planet today? Lady Gaga, Dre Dre, Madonna, Taylor Swift, BTS? Who makes the best music? Kendrick Lamar (Pulitzer Prize). White crooners like Elvis, Sinatra, Harry Connick have disappeared, boy bands have crawled back under the rocks from whence they came, even the most popular singer-songwriters all seem to either non-white or female.
I am not saying that white males don’t have a leg up anymore. But the system has been rigged in their favor for hundreds of years. It is going to take some time for that ebb away. Now that increasingly all kids can look up and see people of their own skin color, sex, sexual orientation, and religion make it, they can have the confidence to do so too. They will work harder knowing it is possible to succeed.
And we are just starting to see how the crumbling of their privilege is affecting white men. The confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh is a perfect microcosm. Why were Conservatives in such a hurry? After all, there were plenty of conservative white men more qualified than Kavanaugh for the job.
Midterms are coming up, and to start the confirmation process again risked hitting the speed bump of an altered Senate, where there is no guarantee that white conservative men will control either branch. They had to get this guy and they had to do it now.
The white male fears run deeper. With a majority of white male conservatives on the Supreme Court, white men think they can now rest more easily, secure in the knowledge they may have one remaining ally in the years to come, when white people will not longer be a majority in the country, and when Blacks and Latinos and LBGTQ and women, and Indians, and Chinese will start to win districts that were were once the preserve white men.
The Brahmans in Congress know their time is limited, and this was the last major push to keep a hold on a power they have enjoyed since the foundation of the state. So hats off to them, but it it won’t last.
What we’re seeing now is the last wheezing breath of old white men in power, pathetically clinging to it like an addict who cannot quit, and refuses to die, because their vanity demands they go on using others.
Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, but the tide of history is too powerful at this point. Instead of leaving a legacy to be proud of, they will leave a stain we will all wash out eventually, so that instead of being remembered they will be forgotten, once new leaders with vision take over.
In one hundred years you won’t read about Mitch McConnell or Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump, but about Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama, Ruth Badar Ginsberg, Angela Merkel, Serena Williams, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Neil Degrasse Tyson. After all, they are who kids look up to these days, and certainly not George Bush or Donald Trump or Samuel Alito. Wanna know why? Because if you are white, male, grew up in Kentucky, and have an eighth-grade-education, your whiteness won’t get you where you want anymore. Republican policies will ensure you don’t have access to a proper education, healthcare, a healthy environment, or social services. Live in a city however, where you can hustle, make connections, go to college, and kill it in law school, and you will have a pretty good shot at making Partner one day, or even the Supreme Court.
We will see the fading of trust in white power and a belief in leadership which is colour and gender blind. That is my hope anyway.