A few years ago I wrote a surly little rant in the Spectator magazine about the ubiquitous term “gaslighting.” The piece featured some disparaging remarks about a type of online pugilist who likes to invoke clever-sounding psychological terminology — diagnosing narcissism, personality disorders, etc. — in order to puff up their rhetoric. When I posted it on social media an old friend took umbrage and posted a sarcastic comment to the effect that it was refreshing to hear a take on pop psychology from a “straight white man.” That any one of those traits should disqualify someone from voicing an opinion seemed dubious, but the “white” bit was especially bewildering, given that I am of Middle Eastern heritage and therefore somewhat on the swarthy side, while the friend in question hails from Northern Ireland and is whiter than snow.
Over subsequent years I began to notice other people, in other online disagreements, deploying the same line of argument. A Twitter user in the throes of political grandstanding would invoke the “whiteness” of a particular individual or group whose politics or behavior they found objectionable, with a kind of self-satisfied flourish that suggested they believed they had delivered a knockout rhetorical blow. Two things stood out: firstly, that the matter under discussion often had no racial dimension whatsoever, either explicit or implicit; and secondly, that the person doing the tweeting was very often themselves white.
A standard example of this occurred during the recent Twitter storm over West Elm Caleb, a New York furniture designer who was effectively doxxed by a number of women on TikTok for the fairly commonplace crime of having ghosted them after one or two dates. One of his accusers, Kate Glavan, a prominent TikTok user who has built up a large following on the platform for her videos about dating, bitterly remarked that his shoddy behavior exemplified “the audacity of a straight white man.” It was a bizarre thing to come out with, implying a vast condescension towards both gay and non-white men — cads are amply represented in both demographics — not to mention women, lots of whom tweeted to point out that they were not averse to doing a bit of ghosting themselves.
There’s quite a lot to unpack in this rhetorical gambit, which is invariably deployed by people of an avowedly liberal or progressive political persuasion. It has its origins in the idea that, all other things being equal, it is relatively advantageous for a person to be straight, white, and male, insofar as straight white men are less likely than other people to encounter discrimination. This is, of course, a far from watertight framework — as with so much in bicoastal identity politics, it neglects class — but it was never meant to be an all-encompassing theory, and it undoubtedly contains some truth. Somewhere along the line, however, it seems to have hardened into dogma, and for a particular species of simple-minded zealot the specter of the straight-white-male bogeyman has attained a rhetorical force akin to kryptonite: whatever the argument, whatever the context, the mere brandishing of the phrase — in full or in part; often the “white” alone suffices — will, by invoking a whole welter of social injustices, historic and ongoing, implicitly position the speaker on the right side of history.
A particularly striking iteration of this phenomenon is a widely shared 2021 musical comedy sketch by the comedian Bo Burnham, entitled “A White Woman’s Instagram.” The skit pokes fun at a certain kind of female Instagram user who likes to post lots of photos of herself and various visually pleasing things — avocados, coffee tables, “A dreamcatcher bought from Urban Outfitters / A vintage neon sign” — along with corny inspirational quotes. It’s a relatively gentle send-up: a poignant segment in the middle of the song makes reference to the anniversary of the death of a parent, hinting disarmingly that the therapeutic benefits of social media use might outweigh the cringe factor. But it’s unclear why Burnham, who is white, feels the need to emphasize that the type of woman he is satirizing is white. Many non-white women also post similar content, so what function does the “white” serve here? It appears to be a sort of built-in insurance policy: perhaps anxious that his caricature of vapid, preening online narcissism might be perceived as sexist by the liberals who comprise his target audience, Burnham immunizes himself against this charge by maintaining that he is on about white women specifically, which implies he is in fact performing some kind of racial satire.
To the extent that one can even parse the satirical point being made here, it seems to go something like this: white people, because they are more coddled and complacent than non-white people, are more prone to indulging in vain, shallow and frivolous pursuits, which deserve to be mocked as manifestations of their racial privilege. But the behavior being cited as inherently white – purely by virtue of being banal and stereotypical – is actually fairly universal, which prompts the question: why link it to whiteness at all?
The idea that whiteness should be synonymous with banality is essentially an updated variation on “First world problems!”, a pompous refrain customarily deployed by exceptionally dull conversationalists at parties who feel compelled to observe that whatever is being discussed is existentially superfluous because, if we didn’t have access to running water, we’d have bigger things to worry about. As well as being utterly inane, it was always implicitly condescending, premised on the idea that people in developing countries don’t also have inner lives, and are never prone to neuroses or whimsy; likewise, the equation of whiteness with middle-of-the-road blandness presupposes that non-white people, for obscure reasons connected to their structural oppression, don’t get to be straight-laced — they are inherently interesting, an edgy counterpoint to all that is staid and safe, a cipher for whatever bohemian impulses or anti-authoritarian hangups you wish to project onto them. It’s fetishistic and weird — an insult masquerading as a compliment.
What’s the motivating impulse here? It’s probably a mix of things. On the one hand, there’s a well-intentioned desire on the part of the speaker to differentiate themselves from the kind of white person who isn’t sufficiently aware of, or sensitive to, structural racial inequalities — to signal, essentially, that they’re one of the good guys, and that their awareness of the bigger picture is informing their thinking at all times. But this bleeds into another, rather less admirable motivation: a domineering compulsion to lay claim to the moral high-ground at all costs, even if it means resorting to the manifestly ludicrous strategy of belittling your target on the grounds that they are the same race as you. In political arguments it’s often a sign of weakness, an indicator that the speaker doesn’t have much else to say for themselves; that the bigger point they’re making doesn’t quite hang together.
Like all the worst American things, it didn’t take long to find its way to Britain. I recently happened across a TV documentary recorded in the run-up to the 2015 UK General Election, in which two prominent British politicians, the centrist Labour candidate Jess Phillips and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a right-wing Conservative, were discussing the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left-winger whom Phillips had opposed. Phillips, who is white, earnestly opines that Corbyn is fundamentally incapable of bringing about political change because he’s “a white man from London.” Rees-Mogg — something of a white man himself — replies with a polite ‘Yes’, but his embarrassment is palpable. We’ll never know if Corbyn would have fared better with the British electorate if he had been non-white, but I somehow doubt it. Yet again, it’s hard to discern the point being made, other than Phillips vaguely pitching for her own greater suitability on the grounds of her gender.
And that, indeed, seems to be the general pattern in such pronouncements: more often than not, the language of racial critique is being co-opted in order to bolster some other, quite unrelated critique, sometimes unthinkingly but often cynically and in bad faith. All sense of intellectual coherence dissolves into a nebulous sludge of weaponised sanctimony. It should go without saying that it’s only ever appropriate to bring someone’s race into the conversation if it bears some direct material relevance to the matter under discussion. This silly refrain has been impoverishing our discourse for too long. We are better off without it.
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London.