I AM READING THE VILLAGE VOICE, the New York weekly, and in a column criticizing the writer Pete Hamill for an article he wrote on homosexuality, I come across the phrase "white-male." The writer is describing the sort of people Esquire is supposedly now edited for: "Increasingly a magazine of moist musing designed to gratify the (orthodox) yearnings of menopausal, white-male credit card holders." Yikes, that's me!
Okay, I may not be menopausal (I'm not sure a man can be), but I am white and male, and my wallet is so stuffed with credit cards I refuse to carry a check-cashing ID from Safeway. But if Esquire is edited for me, moist and menopausal me, then what are we to make of the fact that I agree that it has become a terrible magazine -- sexist and tasteless and, even worse for a magazine, boring? Does that mean that I am not a white male, menopausal or not? A mere mirror proves that I am the person in question.
That phrase -- white male -- grates on me. I just asked my assistant/researcher, Dotty (actually, an IBM personal computer), to find out how many times the term has been used in The Washington Post in the last three years. By pressing the requisite keys, I came up with a total: 856.
Much of the time the term is used descriptively. But here and there, someone uses "white male" pejoratively. I am informed by a letter to the editor that an article trashing soccer was written by "the usual white, American, male suspects," who prefer baseball. The term comes up again in a quote from Karen Finley, whose work was rejected for a National Endowment for the Arts grant: Her critics are "trying to maintain the power structure of the straight white male."
Hold on a minute here. I am a "straight white male" born right here in the good ol' U.S. of A., and not only might I not have denied Finley her grant, but I don't much like baseball. On more issues than I can name, someone comes along and tells me that I am a member of the oppressing group -- this even though I hold contrary views. These people cannot be talking about me, and yet they seem to think they are.
But I am not so much troubled by the reckless and sweeping nature of the generalizations as I am by their implication that I am something I am demonstrably not: powerful. They imply that I belong to something like the Mafia or the Chevy Chase Club -- an enterprise that runs everything and does so for its own benefit.
I think sometimes of my father -- born in poverty, raised in an orphanage, retired on a paltry pension and Social Security in Florida. Here is the white American male in all his glory -- powerless, running nothing, controlling nothing and yet, by virtue of skin color and gender, held responsible and accountable for all that ails society. Some people would even like him to pay reparations for slavery, an American abomination that ended when my father's grandfather (again male and white) was both terrified and zlotyless in Poland.
Of course, I recognize what is being said: The dominant culture is that of white males, usually (but not always) straight. True enough. But it's also true that lots of non-white, non-male people subscribe to the same culture and that, anyway, that culture has lots of diversity. In fact, on a given issue (baseball, gun control, capital punishment), I have very little in common with what might be called the white male culture. That makes me neither non-white nor non-male -- and sometimes leaves me speechless and bored when some of my women friends prattle on about baseball.
Further, the use of the term sometimes puts me on a side of the fence where I do not feel at home. When a gay person refers to me as "straight white male," he implies that I am his enemy. I am not. The same holds when a black or a woman uses the term. I may not have the same perspective as the person doing the categorizing, but that does not mean that I am hostile or, given some time to think, not amenable to conversion. The use of the term is contemptuous, not only of people, but of history. Gays, non-whites, women -- all of these, and their movements, have been helped by card-carrying white males. Why, even Jesus was one.
But it is as a writer -- a straight white male writer -- that I protest the loudest. I am being told to butt out, that since I am a member of the Oppressor Class, I may not comment. I don't know the work of Karen Finley, but let's suppose I did and didn't like it. I just might be told that my criticism was mere white, male bigotry. I happen to loathe the work of 2 Live Crew, find it not only vulgar but artistically immature. Is that because I'm a white male or because I know trash when I hear it? I happen to think it's the latter and, to bolster my position, can produce non-white colleagues who think no differently. Don't tell me I have to suspend all judgment just because I am a white male.
The perspectives of non-male, non-white people are often valuable for the different light they shed on accepted wisdom. For instance, the heroism of Columbus might be called something else by Native Americans. He slaughtered enough of them. But being a victim is not the same as being wise. It affords no one the automatic right to impeach the credentials of a critic just because he was born of the wrong race and the wrong gender in the wrong country. To simply dismiss anyone as a "white male" is just the latest, most trendy, way of making an ad hominem argument -- about as sophisticated as "Your mother wears a mustache." Well, she doesn't, but her son is a white male.