1.01.2011

White Knights

If you've been on the internets for more than a day, you may well have come across mention of "White Knights" or "White Knight Syndrome". Its an actual thing, but it gets widely overused online for a very specific purpose. In principal, its meant to describe men who impulsively come to the "rescue" of women. When it is actually happening, "White Knights" are generally a prelude for "Nice Guys™" where they resent that their constant rescuing doesn't produce fawning women. As an actual problem, its not about respecting women so much as belittling them.

Is this a reason male voices should never come out in support of feminist causes and in opposition to misogyny? Of course not. Usually when you see people start to chide others for being "White Knights", though, that is what they are actually talking about. Its not about shaming men for infantilizing women but silencing men who resist hostility towards women.

I've seen this phenomenon a lot where awful behavior is defended by simply labeling opposition to it as "White Knighting". Its an extremely common tactic in fat sexuality forums where treating fat women with respect is regarded as necessarily suspect by far too many. Not surprisingly, it is also common in discussions of feminism where supportive male voices are simply disappeared by dismissing them as "White Knights". Male allies rarely get engaged when they speak out against rape culture or Men's Rights Activists. We, after all, are not the point. The point is putting women in "their place" and confronting other men would just be a distraction. So there will be a quick mention of us as "White Knights" with the implication that this invalidates what we have to say to people can get back hurling threats at insults at women.

Whatever real problems "White Knight Syndrome" might create pale in comparison to the damage it serves as a tool for silencing male voices who speak out against rape culture, sexism, misogyny, and male privilege. Most male feminists aren't speaking out to "rescue" women or curry sexual favor. Most of us speak out because we recognize that men have a stake in this, too. It would be easier for men to retreat to our privilege and let this be someone else's problems but I think its important that we step up and try to be a part of the solution. Misogyny should offend men. Rape culture should horrify men. We have a responsibility to bring our voices into the discussion. Not because women need us, but because it is the right thing to do. "White Knight" accusations are always about protecting male privilege, but this isn't something men are obligated to do. There is NO necessity that we defend male privilege or fall silent in the face of violence and hatred against women. I believe male privilege is unsupportable. Aside from issues of fairness, I would still fight sexism for purely self-interested reasons. Other men treating women poorly damages ALL men and men suffer from the damage a misogynistic culture does to gender relations and our own identities. It limits us and limits our possibilities as men. That it is wrong should always be enough, but I firmly believe it does serve my interests to combat male privilege.

Speaking out doesn't make me feel like a hero. For true "White Knights", this is the problem. They do these things and expect praise. I don't deserve praise for doing what is obvious. Saying that consent should be the cornerstone of my sexual life is a low bar to have cleared. That this may ever feel significant doesn't make me feel pride. It makes me feel the need to keep speaking out. It makes me feel like we should be able to expect more of ourselves. I've gotten used to people calling me a "White Knight" to silence me, but I'm not shutting up. Fact is, this sort of cursory dismissal is far less reprisal than what women face for speaking out. It does cow some men into silence, though, and that's a shame. Men who want to speak out face so few obstacles, but often than minimal impact is enough to convince some men to just retreat to the sidelines. To any man intimidated by "White Knight" accusations into being silent in the face of hatred, I urge you to take inspiration from the women who are speaking out. Male privilege affords us the unwanted benefit of facing far less hostility when we raise our voices against those systems of privilege. Its not fair to let what little we do face keep us from take responsibility for our own lives and our voice.

16 comments:

withoutscene said...

Who tends to use the phrase white knights? Feminists? Anti-feminists?
Heard of mansplaining and I get the white knight concept, but never heard it used.

Sleepydumpling said...

I don't have much to say other than thank you for being an ally. The voices who have spoken up against rape culture and misogyny, regardless of their gender, have been worth more to me than I could express.

Maverynthia said...

The problem with men and feminism is the reason for feminism. When a man speaks up for a woman, that man isn't being seen as a human speaking up for a human by the woman, he is seen as a man "coming to the rescue" of the woman. THAT is a problem as feminism is about equality as such, men have an equal voice too.

The other problem is the men that DO ruin it for other men. The ones that have been the White Knight and expected payment and thus bungled it for others who are honest.

It's a hard problem as men only seem to respond to another man bringing the issue to the table as women are dismissed outright as a "woman's problem". Some women don't want men to speak for them, when the reality is that they more or less need men to speak for them on some levels.

Brian said...

Its generally something anti-feminists will say to quiet down male feminists, withoutscene. A man voicing support against mysogony will be labeled as such to undermine and dismiss their support. Its a phenomenon which can exist and be problematic, but the accusation has largely been co-opted by anti-feminists (and often fat hostile individuals) as a tool for intimidating dissent.

I wouldn't say women need men to speak for them, but men ought to be speaking with them. Man have to accept responsibility for working to correct a culture of male privilege. Not for "glory" as the true "White Knight" might think, but because feminists are right and changing this culture is the just thing thing to do.

withoutscene said...

Thanks for clarifying, Brian. Clearly I'm in the right circles since I haven't heard it trotted out.

The Fremen said...

Interesting post Brian, just yesterday I was called a White Knight for talking about consent. Most of the time when I hear the "white knight" label it just means "I don't want to examine my privilege, you need to shut up." or something to that extent.

Brian said...

It was bleeding into some of the #Mooreandme discussions on the rare occasions male opposition to rape culture was acknowledged. I gather the attack is common currency in some of the most hostile and immature corners of the web and its starting to spread outward. The themes (you just respect women so they'll sleep with you) are ones I know I've seen in fat sexuality communities, too.

Brian said...

Yeah, Freman, I got it over the summer for talking about women owning their own sexuality. Its definitely used as a shorthand for dismissing male voices so people can get back to their true passion for shaming women.

Anonymous said...

"Its not about chiding men for infantilizing women but silencing men who resist hostility towards women."

This really sums it up. I see this all of the time on Reddit and it's really frustrating. Dare call out the massive amount of victim-blaming sexual assault victims often get? White knight! Try to explain why slut-shaming is fucked up? White knight! Point out that misogynist "jokes" still marginalize people? White knight!

And if you're female, you're still assumed to be a heterosexual guy so you'll get called a white knight anyways.

Samantha C. said...

Huh, I wasn't actually aware the phrase had that connotation. I've only ever seen it in snark communities when person A is clearly in the wrong and spouting racist/sexist/homophobic what-have-you, and the White Knight is Person B, who comes in to say "you all have to stop jumping on Person A because he's brave enough to state an unpopular opinion". I don't doubt that it's used the way you've seen it, that's just the way that I've seen people pull it.

Notblueatall said...

Thank you for this. My husband asked me how he could possibly and actively help prevent rape. I was sort of gobsmacked. I didn't have a specific course of action for him, but I told him that talking about it is great and that the focus should be on consent and how awesome/sexy that is. We had a great talk about it and while he's never been around guys who treat women poorly, he's heard enough of my horror stories to understand it's out there.
Keep talking, Brian...this is awesome!

Brian said...

There are some good resources at this Feministe post and here at Scarleteen. Just speaking out and being willing to stand up to rape apology is a good step in the right direction, but I can understand feeling daunted by it. I know the feeling of being the type who can only preach to the choir, but its still worthwhile. I have tons of respect for men outside of traditionally feminist friendly communities who speak out. Mick Foley, a professional wrestler, has done a lot of advocacy against sexual violence. All men need to make our voices heard, though, in opposition to sexual violence. Its always worthwhile.

Heather said...

this is fantastic- i'm so glad a friend pointed me here! I hope don't mind, but I'm linking to your blog on my own blog :-)

Brian said...

Of course I don't mind. Glad you liked it.

Plop said...

I've mostly seen posts on "white knights" on blogs held by men ! It seems to be a tricky path to holdl but your explanation takes it out : it's about supporting women, not fathering/rescueing them.

Nice post, and nice blog, by the way :)

Brian said...

There are definitely real "white knights", but that hardly means any man who doesn't openly scorn and hate women qualifies. Its a safe bet that the people who toss around the accusation to shield their abuse of women don't really care about actual "white knights".

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