As a white man of the left, I have observed mixed reactions to members of my tribe among subaltern groups. On the one hand, they are often appreciative, at least in principle, of white male allies and very willing to engage with them. On the other hand, white men’s participation in left-wing causes is often found to be problematic in a variety of ways, often having to do with the ongoing effects of white male privilege. There is a tendency to want to be in charge, to pose as the neutral arbiter, etc., and many white men of the left are characterized by a prickly defensiveness when critiqued by members of subaltern groups.
At this point, I feel constrained to issue a disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of these negative behaviors, and though I hope I have gotten past some of these issues, I’m sure I have fallen and will fall into my old white male ways periodically. I do not believe that any of the behaviors I am discussing are inherent to white men or incapable of being changed — hence this post does not necessarily represent a performative contradiction, etc., etc. White male defensiveness is such that this disclaimer will probably be found to be inadequate, but I have to try, for the sake of my own sanity.
To resume: I think we should be good materialists about this and ask, “Why would a white man, qua white man, affiliate with the left?” I understand immediately why a woman who is conscious of her situation in a patriarchal society would be drawn to the political left. Similarly, it is utterly clear to me why a black person would have left-wing political convictions. The same goes for sexual minorities and, well, everyone in our racist, patriarchal society — except for one group: white men. Here I don’t mean to deny that white men may also belong to other subaltern groups, such as the working class. Yet the white male leftists I’m thinking of are normally not current members of the working class (even if, like me, they come from a working class background), but have at least some form of cultural capital if not monetary capital. Why not be reasonable pragmatic centrists?
I think there are two factors at work here. The first is that such men are typically going to be those who are uncomfortable with typical modalities of white male privilege and/or those who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to participate in that regime. They may lack the peculiar social graces necessary for glad-handing and back-scratching. They may be very uncomfortable in all-male environments, or have a temperament incompatible with callous disregard for one’s inferiors. Hence another route to feelings of belonging and purpose becomes appealling — particularly one that can take feelings of isolation and marginalization and transform it into a defiant opposition to the status quo. This likely accounts for the extreme defensiveness of many white male leftists when they believe their leftist bona fides are in question, because their sense of belonging and purpose are in question along with their leftist identity.
None of this is to say that the convictions of leftist white men are less sincere simply because they are also getting some form of emotional compensation and social prestige from their affiliation. Active participation in a social movement should provide emotional satisfactions in the present as well as promises for the future. Further, I count myself as falling into this category. Due to accidents of my temperament and a childhood surrounded constantly by strong women and submissive men, I simply am not good at male bonding, for example.
The second factor is perhaps less flattering. I suspect that for many white male leftists, part of the appeal of leftist ideology is an affinity for conspiratorial thinking. I’ve written previously about the appeal of libertarianism for intellectually curious young white men, who thrill to the prospect of belonging to an intellectual elite that recognizes the simple but essential truths everyone else rejects. From that perspective, many versions of Marxism — especially the class-first, class-only variant so strongly favored by white male leftists — are a perfect fit. The romance of the lost cause surely factors in here as well.
Once again, I have to plead guilty here. Conspiracy theories seem to be in my genes, as my grandfather once took me aside to tell me about the Federal Reserve’s role in the Oklahoma City bombing and my father has been seduced by the siren-song of right-wing radio. In the link above, I confess that I bought into something similar for a time. Now, of course, I’ve figured out the correct conspiracy theory — but I can’t pretend the intellectual itch that’s being scratched isn’t fundamentally similar.
These two factors are complimentary. Both show us that our patriarchal, racist society isn’t even working for all white men. The first shows that it’s failing to provide social and emotional satisfactions, and the second that it’s failing to provide intellectual satisfaction. Neither point is especially flattering, and I anticipate some people will be really pissed off at me for writing this. But the very fact that these factors drawing one to the left are closely associated with adolescent immaturity indicate that it’s possible to grow out of them — and many white men manage to do so. It’s possible to learn that solidarity and belonging actually requires openness to criticism or else it’s too rigid and fragile. It’s possible to give up the insistence on simplistic answers by taking seriously what other subaltern groups say about their experience and being open to things like intersectionality.
In short, it’s possible to grow up — and I would even go so far as to say that only by taking the left-wing route of genuine solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed can a white man find anything like an adulthood worthy of the name.