An old white man awakes to his privilege – and its power for good

I’ve become much more prone to analyze daily social situations on the grounds of age, ethnicity and gender

Mike RobinsonBeing older (I’m 67 and increasingly told this is old), white and male is being pointed out more and more these days. In less than glowing terms.

While Donald Trump is arguably the global archetype of the boomer personae I’m describing, the phrase “old white man” is getting more deliberate usage in different parts of society.

For example, in my daily life the phrase is increasingly used to describe certain types of behaviour. Generally speaking, this behaviour includes, but is not limited to, ‘mansplaining,’ talking over other speakers, inattention directly related to incipient (or pronounced) deafness (see ‘talking over’), assumed importance of thought and contribution, slowness of mental uptake, and egregious examples of inattention (e.g. falling asleep).

There are also humorous variants of old white male behaviour. These can include humour at your expense, because what you have just said is patently absurd in the social context of the comment; humour based on self-realization (e.g. you misheard and interpreted a comment the wrong way, because you won’t acknowledge your deafness); and humour that’s based on the shared realization of other old white men of predictably old white male humour.

While I’m now on guard against blatant examples of the above, my social scientist daughter has advised me that I’m not fully aware of the extent that my inherited white male privilege has enabled my career as a CEO. Other younger folk have told me that it would be very hard for me to replicate my career if I started again from scratch today.

So what does this all infer? And is there a duty of introspection? Does my white male privilege require declaration at the borders of my interest?

Certainly the more I’m told about my inferred privilege, the more I’m awake to its presence. As a consequence, I’m much more prone to analyze daily social situations on the grounds of age, ethnicity and gender.

Where once I would enter a boardroom and sit down to wait for a meeting to begin, today I glance around the table looking for what I can only describe as ‘social patterns.’

Last week I attended an all-day staff and board planning meeting. It was very well facilitated by a millennial staff person, the atmosphere was creative and yet diligent, and the outcomes were evident. Our group built an institutional planning matrix for the following year, which grew before our eyes as yellow post-it notes were affixed to a pre-built, task-oriented matrix on a whiteboard. Snacks, fresh-brewed coffee and water were abundantly available. Seven hours whisked by.

Just before we broke for morning coffee, however, I realized that all of the six board members at my end of the table were men – and the majority were old white men. With the exception of one male staffer, all of the seven participants at the other end of the table were women. To be fair, one was a board member and one an aspiring board member checking out the governance culture. But still, the gender split was hugely obvious to me in my aging, questioning state.

I quietly mentioned it to the potential new board member, to ensuing quiet laughter. Our group very effectively got on with the shared task and completed it on time. I simply decided not to make an issue of my observation.

At immediate risk of anecdotal inference, it doesn’t appear that all societal tasks are impaired by the clustering of old white men.

In this same vane of arguing by counter example, I note that I have to restrain myself sometimes when an unpredictable, egregious and generic comment is tossed at old white men in my presence.

While I fully acknowledge that the privilege of old white men has been pronounced in our society, I also know that some of them were enlightened advocates for reform in their earlier years. A progressive friend of mine in Toronto’s Jamaican community recently described such old white males to me as ‘woke men.’ “Some of the people rising in their careers today are there because of the actions of those woke men years ago.”

I’m also privileged to know a few old white men who fit that description.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.


white male privilege

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