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Old White Men Like Me Need to Shut Up and Step Aside

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

After more than 200 years of democracy in the United States and 400 years of global capitalism, the overwhelming majority of political and economic power still remains firmly entrenched in the hands of white males. This information isn’t news to anyone; it has been widely known for a long time. And while older progressive white males, with the best intentions, often speak out in solidarity with marginalized populations, their voices are still the voices of privileged white males. Therefore, it’s not only older conservative white males who need to shut up and step aside, it’s ALL older white men. And that includes me.

I have not written any articles in recent months, despite the plethora of important issues related to global politics and the US election campaign. One of the reasons has been an ongoing personal struggle with the fact that I’m just another privileged white male pontificating about the kind of world that I believe would be best for marginalized populations. Sure, I am progressive and allied with sectors of these communities, but when I speak I am still an older privileged white male. And it’s the voices of privileged white males that have dominated the narrative throughout US history and continue to do so today.

In more than two centuries of democracy, the United States has never elected a woman president and only one black―although the latter frequently targeted people of color by deporting more immigrants than any previous president and routinely bombing at least six countries in the global South throughout his term in office. In a continuation of that historical trend, the leading candidates in the current presidential election campaign are mostly older white males. On election day, Donald Trump will be 74-years-old, Joe Biden 77-years-old and Bernie Sanders 79-years-old. At least the other leading contender is a woman, but Elizabeth Warren will be 71-years-old when US Americans go to the polls and is privileged in every way except gender.

Such gender and racial bias do not only exist at the federal level. Of the fifty governors in the United States, only six are women. And only three are non-whites (two men and one woman). This means that forty-two of the country’s fifty governors are white males. Our neighbors to the north are not much better. Canada has only ever had one female prime minister and she didn’t assume the office as a result of an election. Kim Campbell succeeded Brian Mulroney when he retired in 1993 and only served 132 days as prime minister. The rest of Canada’s 23 prime ministers have all been white males.

The gender and racial demographic that exists with regard to political power is just as skewed in favor of white males in the economic realm. According to the most recent Fortune 500 list of the richest US corporations, only four companies have a black CEO. There are 33 women CEOs, but only one of them is a woman of color. Just think about that: out of 500 CEOs, only one is a woman of color! Again, similarly in Canada, only one of the top 100 most influential companies traded on the Toronto stock exchange has a female CEO. And globally, according to Forbes Magazine, seventeen of the 20 richest people in the world are white males.

Given this gender and racial reality with regard to positions of power and influence, it is no surprise that systemic sexism and racism exists in our society. The blatant racism inherent in our justice system is a direct consequence of white male privilege; as is the widespread poverty and related lack of economic opportunities in many marginalized communities. Similarly, it is white male privilege that has established and maintains the corporate glass ceiling that represses non-whites and women.

It is privileged white males who are responsible for the climate crisis we now face and the threat posed by nuclear weapons. We are also the ones who have waged countless colonial and neo-colonial wars throughout the global South to ensure access to cheap labor and natural resources in order to further our own political and economic power and wealth. Those wars constitute the direct physical violence that exists in partnership with capitalism’s race and gender-based structural genocide, which results in the deaths of ten million people a year from hunger and from preventable and treatable diseases.

History has proven that changes that infringe on white male privilege are slow in coming in the United States―and in other wealthy nations too. It took almost one hundred years following the Declaration of Independence for slavery to be abolished, and another century for blacks to obtain their full civil rights―at least on paper if not in reality. And it took women almost 150 years to obtain the right to vote under US democracy; and almost a century later a woman still has not been elected president.

These changes only occurred to the extent they did when the voices of marginalized populations came to the fore. It was the voices of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panthers among others that brought about civil rights legislation and the end of segregation. It was the voices of suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony that eventually gained women the right to vote. And it’s the voices of marginalized people that we need to hear today, not those of privileged white males, regardless of how progressive and well-intentioned they might be.

Despite decades—even centuries—of progressive white males speaking out in solidarity with marginalized peoples, very little progress has been made with regard to diversifying political and economic power. While it’s true that there is more space in progressive circles for marginalized voices to be heard, the most prominent progressive and radical voices still tend to be older white men. This is not to say that privileged white males haven’t proven to be invaluable allies to marginalized peoples at certain moments in history, just that their voices too often dictate and dominate the narrative.

The emergence and prominence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in Congress has shown what is possible when young women of color come to the fore and their voices are heard. These women have re-invigorated political debate in the United States and politicized many young and marginalized US Americans. Similarly, Greta Thunberg has galvanized people around the world to protest the failure of those in power to address the climate crisis. Sadly, in the 21st century, these women are still anomalies rather than the norm. The fact that they and others like them can so easily be singled out shows that they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

So, if we older progressive white males truly believe that the voices of marginalized peoples need to be heard, then we need to shut up and step aside in order to provide more space for people like these women to gain prominence in all sectors of society. Accordingly, as a 59-year-old privileged white male, I have decided that I will be an ally of marginalized populations behind the scenes rather than in the public eye. I will gladly provide solidarity, advice and support when people from those communities seek it out.

From now on, when I am asked to write a book, a book chapter, or an article, or I’m invited to participate in a media interview about political, social or economic issues, I will politely decline and recommend someone from a marginalized population as a more appropriate option. The one exception will be when I address mental health issues. This is the only area in which I am marginalized in any sort of way because I have to deal with the stigma of living with a mental illness. Therefore, I will continue to speak out about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and mental illness in general.

So when it comes to addressing political, social and economic issues, I call on my fellow older white males who are not part of a marginalized community to join me in shutting up and stepping aside. Our voices have been heard often enough. It’s time that we actually created the space for a diversity of marginalized voices to be heard rather than keep filling that space with our voices.

 

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Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Ghosts Within: Journeying Through PTSD (Roseway Publishing, 2019), How I Became an American Socialist (Misfit Books, 2016), Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011,  Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006).  He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada.  

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