White Knights and the Stages of Privileged Feminism

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2011 by knightofsummer

A friend expressed hesitiation about pointing out that an ally in a women-centric space was interrupting and derailing women because he didn’t want to White Knight.  So I started thinking about what White Knighting is, and at what point people do it or don’t do it, and at what point it is Oppressive Of Women and at what point is not doing An Asshole Thing To Do.

So, first, why never speaking up when a man is behaving in some way squigs you out is not the answer:
If you don’t speak up, regardless of your intentions, it means that you have just made it the responsibility of women to address all sexist behavior ever.  That is totally unfair, and sexist.  It also implicitly perpetuates the perception that sexism is only women’s problem and fixing it is women’s responsibility. So don’t do that.

Second, the key factor in how I perceive men’s actions is simple:
Is it about the woman being addressed, or is it about the guy’s behavior?  Consider this comic: My problem is not that he said “there is something wrong with implying any woman on the channel wants to cyber”.  My problem is that he found it an inappropriate thing to do to a lady and that he apparently only cares because there is a woman involved.  It shouldn’t matter if there was no woman on the channel at all, and it shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to protect women, it should be motivated by the desire to not have men around who think women are just sexual objects.  It is about what that dude did.  Imagine a guy said, “I saw Erin Brokovitch last night” and some other guy said “A/S/L?”  Still sexist, totally reasonable to call out because you know what? Women’s sole purpose in life isn’t to satisfy straight men’s sexual desires and men who believe that it is are unpleasant to have in society.  They need to know that their community thinks they are wrong, rejects their point of view and finds their behavior unacceptable.  If they behave that way, they will be ostracized, not rewarded with a greater sense of camaraderie as the often are now. (Motivation To Speak Up: if you don’t, they assume you totally agree.)

Third, just because you get push back doesn’t mean you were actually white knighting, even if that push back comes from a woman (though you should take such criticisms seriously and examine your own actions):
You will get push back for speaking out against sexism.  This includes from women, especially in hyper-masculine spaces where chances are they have learned that if they just do their best to tune out the sexism they can get back to being One Of The Guys soon enough.  Some women believe they are geeks first and women second, and so will push back against anything they see as an attempt to change geek culture.  Remember, sexism is about perceived & performed masculinity and femininity, not about “men” and “women”, even though there is correlation between the two.
This is when having it be about the guys’ behavior and not the women is important; if she complains you should be able to reply, “this isn’t about you, it is about how he behaved.  Even if there wasn’t a woman around, what he said would have been unacceptable.” (Side note: Speak out when there aren’t women around.  Side note 2: Note that this is very different than saying, “it’s not about you, it’s about the principle of the thing.” The principle in question might still be chauvinism.  Speaking out is about changing social norms, not about principled stands; it should be practical and pragmatic, with a clear aim in mind.  If you are attempting to take principled stands without aiming to change behaviors, you may be grandstanding, white knighting or making the problem worse.)

You may also get cookies that a woman saying the same thing wouldn’t get, and feel guilty for this and assume that means you were white knighting.  You need to know, in your heart, that you aren’t speaking out to try to get cookies, and be totally okay if they don’t arrive.  Then you need to gracefully accept the feedback you get.  Most men don’t notice sexism, while most women do (the percentages in open source, for example, are 80%/20% for both groups).  When a man says “wow, that right there, that’s sexist” it is validating an experience that 80% of women have that 80% of men will swear up, down and sideways don’t exist.  It is like finally meeting someone else who notices the Boss is walking around naked all the time.  Rejecting their gratitude by saying, “but everyone should know that” diminishes their experience of being ignored, dismissed and patronized; Don’t Do It.
At the same time, if still-sexist folks give you cookies, feel free to tell them to get off their ass and do the work.  Also point out that many women have been articulating these problems for hundreds of years, and if you have time cite your sources or suggest further reading.  Introducing sexists to the idea that women have important and valuable insights is important.  That does not, however, mean you are not allowed to talk, it just means that you should talk proportionally and listen more (just like everyone else).

Anyway, now that all that is out of the way, the four stages of privileged people without direct, noted experience of sexism coming to a certain kind of Feminism (if you are pissed off because you think this doesn’t apply to you, check the caveats):

1. Introduction
Phase 1 is all about the “what”.
People who first encounter feminism tend to keep doing what they were doing, only For Feminism!  It’s still not about men’s behavior, it’s about women as objects, just now to be protected instead of consumed.  The reason is that most people start by noticing  “bad things happen to women!”  In exactly that passive voice.
The first complication is that usually this is accompanied by, “but my life isn’t awesome either!”  They may be resentful, and some people abandon feminism all together at this stage because it doesn’t include their experience.  The entire Pick Up Artist community is based on people who failed out of stage 1.
Those who continue on usually read and internalize something about derailing and silencing, and just stop talking about their own experiences for a while.  The alternative is where the phrase “What About The Menz!?!” comes from, where they try to relate everything they are hearing back to their own experience but the lack the broader context to actually understand it (especially since, remember, at this point “bad things happen to women” in the passive voice, and feminism is all about women.)  Normally people asking “What About The Menz?” are actually asking “What About ME!?!!”, but haven’t been exposed to the language of self-reflection, lived experience or respectful sharing, and so end up coming across as self-centered and oblivious [N.B. figuring out how one’s own experience fits into a framework of gendered oppression is part of our personal work and while other people can help, the best people to ask are people like yourself who are further along in their journey and not people completely unlike yourself who might well have no idea what men’s experiences of sexism are, if only because men keep expecting women to figure that shit out for them.  Also, expecting women to walk you through your task is part of the sexist dynamic that expects women to caretake for men and lead them into fulfilled lives, rather than making men responsible for their own internal happiness.  Don’t Do It.]
Any way, at this point attempts to call people out are likely to be of the form “you are doing bad things to women! Do you not know bad things happen to women!?!”  This is reasonably called “white knighting”, even when done with the best of intentions.  Many sexists are oblivious to the context of their behavior, but the right answer is not to make their problem about women, and expecially not to make the problem about this one specific woman as a representative for All Women Everywhere.  Also, simply saying “what” without having a “why” to back it up doesn’t work; try watching:  People in phase 1 don’t yet understand the context themselves yet, they probably don’t have experience with all the techniques listed at http:///, and chances are they are just going to become frustrated or feel embarrassed or give into social pressure and still think that real sexism is bad, but clearly this isn’t real sexism.   People in phase 1 don’t understand why the problem isn’t simple to solve, or why it is necessary for them to not be the center of every discussion.
2.  Enough to Mansplain
Phase 2 is all about “how”.
This is when people think about how they came to realize that bad things happen to women because they are women and since it was probably something some woman did that made them realize that, they decide that if more women would just do X, Y or Z, feminism wouldn’t have such a bad rap and everyone would understand that bad things happen to women because they are women and then they wouldn’t do that anymore!
They might have gotten out of the passive tense by now, but it will be in the form of “$LABEL do bad things to women” where $LABEL means they don’t have to think it is them and often times it is so generalized as to not actually mean anyone.  It is also the point where other isms come through: “Islamic men”. “poor men”, “Black men”, but it always boils down to “other people” do bad things to women because they are women.  Not the person in phase 2, though.  They are Enlightened.  The scream “goddess” when they reach that special place (how common is this? Try bringing it up at a feminist group sometime and listen to the laughter.)  They will say things like, “I bet feminism would do great if it just changed its name”, completely ignoring the huge social backlash of privilege and power feminism has faced even for the thousands of years before it was called feminism and doesn’t go away just because they (incorrectly) call themselves a “humanist” instead.
They also take everything personally.  They will go on at great length about how making generalizations about men is terrible for feminism and you are hurting the cause!  Because they aren’t like that, don’t you know?  Extra irony points if they interrupted a woman in order to say that.  They probably have many stories about Their Own Experiences with feminism, and are happy to share them, at great length, no matter what the conversation was about before they joined.  Whereas people in phase 1 will be offended that a conversations isn’t about them, people in phase 2 have found the solution: they just make it about them!  They may have heard the words “lived experience”, and assumed that meant it is super-important for everyone to listen to them talk about themselves.  They probably have a list of the ways they are oppressed and are super-excited to play Oppression Olympics (pearl-clutching women live in phase 2); they just know that their issue will win!
Since phase 2 is frequently triggered by people at phase 1 getting frustrated by trying to call people out and failing, it is all about giving up on changing sexist behavior.  Instead of calling out people who behave badly in public spaces, they are all about trying to find grand schemes to solve all sexism everywhere or focusing on improving the feminist community.  Woe betide anyone who meets a phase 2 who has learned about intersectionality; they still don’t understand context, or that not every conversation will be about their issue, and they will welcome the chance to play Oppression Olympics.  They hate exclusive spaces, probably because they are the reason exclusive spaces need to exist.  Instead of derailing with “what about people like me?” they instead derail with tone arguments or attempts to explain what feminists are doing wrong or procedural concerns, debates over the proper terminology, etc.  They love calling out feminists in an attempt to make feminism a safe space for people still in phase 1, and pointing out that not all feminists agree, as though that justifies their inaction and continued participation in an oppressive system.  They may call out men, but usually done by explaining their grand, arching plan to eliminate sexism (bonus points for wanting to eliminate sexism so it’ll be okay to hit on women in public places again without fear of getting chewed out by a feminist.)
In phase 2 they may talk about how theoretical men behave badly, perhaps even “men” as a general construct, but the only reason it is a problem is because they are treating women that way still.  Don’t worry, they won’t say “men”, though, even if they mean men, because that would be sexist and we have to be better than them if we are to call ourselves feminists.  It is definitely not about how totally unacceptable it is to purposefully alienate yourself from half the human species just so you can justify controlling them in order to ensure paternity.  Oh, whoops, got ahead of myself there *cough*.  Anyway, it is still about the objects of oppression as objects, just now sometimes it is about how they could be better objects so that oppression would stop.
3. Oh, shit, they mean me
For the first time, feminism becomes about the behavior of specific people acting in sexist ways instead of about .  It is really hard to get here, and really easy to regress once you do, because we have such a visceral response to the word “oppression” and it requires a pretty healthy sense of self to be able to accept this flaw in yourself.    It is also only possible to address sexist behavior if you get to phase 3, because otherwise eventually someone will acting in sexist ways you also act and you’ll defensively defend them, since otherwise you’d have to admit and internalize that sometimes you act in sexist ways, and then you’d be in phase 3.
I promise you, you are sexist.  If your first, defensive, response is to regress to phase 2 and say, “but if everyone is sexist than no one is!”, know that you are wrong.  We live in a sexist society and that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your sexism, it doubles it.  Not only are you responsible for deconstructing and addressing sexist dynamics you observe, you responsible for addressing and deconstructing your own fears, anxieties and assumptions that lead you to act in sexist ways.
Actually, you are additionally responsible for listening when someone tells you you are being sexist and figuring out how to not do that, which leads us to the journey of phase 3.  In order to listen to people saying you are doing sexist things, you have to come up with a personal narrative of sexism, such that you can evaluate whether or not you should internalize their critique.  This often comes about for the first time so you can explain why pointing out sexism isn’t sexist, and at least you will be able to refute libertarians and objectivists (we’ll talk in a moment about why you probably won’t, though).  Phase 3 is all about introspection, self-analysis, taking responsibility for your own education and understanding, possibly for the first time, where the gaps in your knowledge are.  People in phase 3 are sometimes humble to a fault, as they attempt to handle guilt, shame, disgust and despair all at once and far too often on their own.  People often begin unraveling the ways oppression has affected them here, but they’ve realized why talking about that constantly would contribute to negative dynamics, they know now that Oppression Olympics is a derailing technique and so instead they tend to keep their insights to themselves.  This means that phase 3 is the least represented in feminist discussions and there aren’t a ton of books or groups for “oh shit, I’m sexist”.  Instead they read lots of other writings, some of which probably target generalized hatred at people like them.  Often it is justifiable, and it may make them feel better to have someone be angry at them for things they do that really should provoke anger but no one ever told them off for because of their privilege.
If calling out of other people happens at all in this phase, it is usually of a strictly dry, factual description of observed dynamics.  Like, “did you notice you interrupted her just then?” and is frequently followed up by an apologetic debasement like, “I only notice because I do that sometimes too, and it’s something I’m working on, so if you notice me doing it feel free to point it out….” At other times, people become intimidated by possibly white knighting, because now they are examining their own behavior, so they stop saying anything at all (see the beginning for why this is bad).  By making it about themselves, they avoid a lot of the really vicious backlash fighting sexism can produce; it is much safer to only concern yourself with your behavior, because it is something you can (and should) control.  Occasionally the “humble to a fault” becomes “desperate plea for validation” as people’s sense of self can’t handle the “I do bad things, but I’m still a worthwhile person” dynamic.  In the best case scenario they get some reassurance, along with a good solid “why”, internalize it and so are learning the coping skills necessary to do further self-analysis.
It is possible to get stuck here, so wrapped up in the enormity of the problem that helplessness and futility set in.  Especially if they do try to speak up; saying feminist things causes backlashes, and whereas someone in phase 2 probably loves the sense of noble purpose being trolled gives them, someone in phase 3 just feels like crap.  It means they failed to communicate and someone is out there who believes those things, which is pretty depressing.  Besides which, because they stopped talking to people (realizing that, often, they had been doing so in ironically-oppressive ways that weren’t based on empathy at all), they are less likely to get feedback, support or knowledge of the history of feminist self-analysis of which they have become a part.  They might look back on how hard it was for them to get this far, or how miserable they now feel, and wonder how anyone ever makes that journey, or why they would.  They may well wish they’d taken the Blue Pill.
What people in phase 3 don’t realize is that they are laying the groundwork for something better.  By first addressing their own behavior, in the future they will be able to approach people acting sexist and people experiencing sexism from a place of empathy, not sympathy or false equivalence.  By being quietly depressed while they self-educate they learn how to listen and how to stay quiet while people discuss their lived experience.  The breadth of reading and need to justify practical choices to themselves becomes the basis of a cohesive narrative of gendered relations.  They may start understanding that intersectionality isn’t just about “what about people who are X?” but also the ways in which the reason people who experience X are further oppressed is because of gender-reinforced dynamics (as well as Y, Z and Q dynamics).  They may discover that their concept of gender is incomplete without a definition of “man” and “woman”, which leads into trans* oppression and cis* privilege.  Now they are able to read and absorb thinkers who they don’t agree with (since trans* oppression and cis* privilege are full of writers who contradict one another, this is key), so they can start to grasp the complex interplays of race, class, ability, size and more with the definition of gender and the enforcement thereof.
Perhaps most importantly, by learning that sometimes it is about them, people in phase 3 stop reacting defensively to everything everyone says.  Ironically, by learning to accept that sometimes it is personal, they stop taking everything personally.  In order to get through phase 3, they have to learn coping skills, some way to accept responsibility without being overwhelmed by guilt (and so making it all about them again), to accept feedback without feeling attacked, to accept the actual attacks that will be thrown at them by other people who aren’t over their defensive reactions and know that they can handle it.  They become willing to put themselves out there in order to break down these dynamics, even though they aren’t perfect, even though they know they will still make mistakes, even though they know that doing so is going to be hard.
4. Integration
Phase 4 is all about the “why”.
Having made it through phase 3, it becomes an iterative process.  Often sparked by, “huh, that makes me feel defensive”, or “huh, that makes me feel uncomfortable”, or “huh, that thing over there matches this pattern I’ve read about/observed/be told about”, people in phase 4 examine not only their own behavior, but also other people’s.  They examine their own fears, anxieties and frustrations, which offers the possibility of a more authentic, fulfilling life.  They experiment with intervention strategies, and start observing other people critically, not longer from the phase 2 “what should they be doing different?” but now “what should I be doing differently?”  They probably start posting meta-commentary, like this, discussing their own experiences and the common threads they’ve observed with other people’s experiences.
Finally, it isn’t about the cookies; if they wanted people to like them, they wouldn’t be doing the day-to-day work this style of activism requires.  They probably still feel guilty for getting any cookies at all, since they are still doing all the self-work from phase 3 and now they understand how cookie delivery reinforces sexist dynamics.  They may be told how reasonable they are, and thanked for explaining things without being angry or attacking, at which point they will tell the people in phase 1, again, that discounting people for whom these issues are personal is a form of privilege and oppression and they should Not Do That.
For the first time, calling people out is about those other people’s behavior.  Speaking out isn’t about the people it is targeted at (though motivation through empathy can still be present), but instead the way these people are protecting their egos, indulging their anxieties and making themselves feel important by treating other people like crap.  It has nothing to do with any specific woman, or the group of women, and everything to do with the patriarchy.  Some people are allowed to behave badly as long as they only behave that way to certain people, and all the more subtle ways both men and women reproduce sexist dynamics.  People in phase 4 will still be told they are White Knights, including by women, but they have a mental model of the patriarchy against which to check that allegation.  When they find that they have been roused to action by a protective instinct, they are more likely to examine other situations where they probably should have spoken up and didn’t, rather than decide never to speak up.  They also figure out how to use the minimum amount of energy while still being effective; it is amazing the difference “wow, that was rude” or “how about not using misogynistic insults?” can make.  It still takes work to come up with strategies to address these problems that don’t play into sexist dynamics, but suddenly feminism doesn’t have to be about Women, and in a good way not a phase 2 My Experience Is Key way.
There is work to do here that is totally not women’s responsibility, but that needs to be done, analyzing the “why” of sexism and how to teach young boys and old men both a better sense of self that doesn’t rely on destructive, defensive misogyny.  This work can be done without ignoring women, and it must be done without ignoring women in order to remain non-sexist, but it should also be done without imposing on women or expecting them to show the way.  Be wary of exclusive spaces, since men and women are taught not to listen to women and it is easy to end up with a space that does nothing to include women’s perspectives.  The best model I have seen involved a woman who was willing to sit quietly and listen until a question came up, at which point all the men stopped talking and listened to her.  There are also some (not all, some) gender-variant people who have unique insight into both sides of the question.  I highly recommend reading writings by butch lesbians, for example, for examples of alternative masculinity, or finding a group of Radical Fairies to listen to.
It is easy to burn out in phase 4, especially if you get really into it.  Feminists don’t all agree, and they don’t all behave in respectful ways to each other, much less other people.  Some people do hate people like you, and the only thing you can do about it is respect their wishes and stay away.  Paying attention to the horrors of the world can be devastating, and so it is important to notice the triumphs too.  Lara Logan got raped, and it caused a huge number of people to respond by wanting to ban women from reporting from dangerous areas, but do you know her life was ultimately saved by a group of Egyptian women?  The threw themselves on top of her, taking the hits intended for her and ultimately drove off the mob. It is also possible to get lost in theory, in relativism, in everything except the reality of people’s experiences.  Each dynamic we understand has a real effect on real people’s lives, and we must always remember to listen to as many voices as possible and incorporate the perspective we glean from them into the larger picture.
But if you get here, you will get to watch the world change.  In the past ten years the world has changed, and I am sure that in the next ten it will as well.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to go forward.  There are powerful forces arrayed to support the patriarchy, and becoming more powerful all the time as wealth concentrates and the working class needs to be appeased as capitalism fails them.  It may not seem important, but each small step you take here, each act of sexism you learn to recognize, even just living your own authentic life without taking your anxieties out on the people around you, is a revolutionary act.  It is part of how we can go forward.  It is part of what we must, absolutely, do in order to finally free ourselves of the oppressive, alienating society brought about by men’s fear of being cuckolded.
And that is how to address sexism without being a chauvinist. I am sure people are pissed off that there’s an ordering, because it implies that some approaches are better than others, but you know what? I think there is a hierarchy, and I do think that people who react defensively to things that aren’t targeted at them are less feminist that people who are willing to evaluate their own behavior on a regular basis. It is not that those people don’t matter, it is that 90% of my writings will never reach them and someone with far more patience than me will have to sit them down and explain why their enthusiasm for anti-sexist work is actually sexist. However, the good news is that it is pretty hard to be a White Knight, because White Knights care about what people think, and people don’t react well to being called out so it’s not normally worth it for them to keep doing it for long. Actually calling out problematic behavior is all about addressing sexism itself, by acknowledging and actively respecting the humanity of everyone involved, by constantly reevaluating your own behavior, and not accepting everything everyone says but rather holding a mental model that is open to being tested against what you observe and changing when it is found to clash with reality.  Is it easy?  No.  But I think it’s easier than telling entitled, privileged men they need to change their behavior.  And you should know that it is worth it, even if you never get a cookie.

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