White Knighting

white knight

In the wake of last Friday’s mass shooting in Santa Barbara and the subsequent #yesallwomen twitter campaign, I’ve been seeing a lot of guys being accused of ‘white knighting’ for standing up for women and calling out sexism. The term is nothing new, I see it in just about every single comment thread in every single article about women in Magic: the Gathering, the video game industry, etc. Here is an example of the term being used just yesterday.

Someone posted a picture on the M:tg subreddit showing off his friend’s planeswalker cosplay at a convention. A few commenters left rude remarks about the woman dressed up as Liliana (these comments have been deleted). One guy responded with:

“Very nicely done!

To the people putting down the Liliana cosplayer, please be aware that not only are your comments disrepectful, and unnecessarily hurtful to that person and other people with a similar body shape who might be reading, but also to people like me (and I’m sure I’m not alone) who think she’s attractive.” 

To which another guy responded with: “Oh my God, white knight somewhere else.”

white knight onsI should also point out that at the time of writing this post, the comment accusing someone of white knighting is more upvoted than the positive comment defending the Liliana cosplayer. That is ridiculous to me.

When someone is called a ‘white knight’ they are insinuating that the guy who is defending sexism is a hypocrite because if he really cared about gender equality he wouldn’t hearken back to an old time when men were chivalrous and had to protect women. Women are empowered enough now to take care of themselves and they don’t need a man to help them protect their self-interests. Calling someone a ‘white knight’ is a silencing mechanism, and a damn effective one at that. Even I experience some self-doubt about my beliefs when I see someone using the term. I can’t help but think about whether or not I am being a good or supportive ally to the feminist cause. I think about how some LGBT allies say things like, ‘I fully support gay marriage and equal rights but I just don’t want to see two guys kissing on TV,” or who proclaim to support gay rights but then continue to make jokes about how Justin Beiber and Twilight are gay.

white knight m11At the end of the day though, you can’t let the term get to you. The people who accuse others of being ‘white knights’ are probably the same group of people who tout Men’s Rights and see Feminism as some evil construct designed to turn Western society in a Matriarchy. They view feminism as if its still about bra burning and women trying to be like men. They fail to realize that feminism has evolved since the 70s. Modern feminism is about deconstructing gender roles and gender expectations for all. It’s as much about stopping people from presuming a woman incompetent when she gets a job in the tech industry as it is about stopping people from presuming that a man is gay or a sissy when he gets a job in the fashion industry. It’s as much about a woman not being ridiculed for playing in a magic tournament as it is about a guy not being ridiculed for playing magic instead of watching sports. It’s about putting an end to what it means to be a REAL man or a REAL woman. That is a cause worth fighting for regardless of your gender.

Next time someone accuses you of ‘white knighting’, just think about this:


13 thoughts on “White Knighting

  1. I think “white knighting” could be problematic–to borrow a term from critical fill-in-the-blank studies–if done in a paternalistic way. One could “white knight” in a paternalistic way if they only ever call out offensive things said and done to women. This is kind of like the “I was trained to open the door for ladies because it’s nice, but I don’t want to be a modern chauvinist” problem. It’s not chauvinistic if you simply open the door for everyone rather than singling out women because they’re uniquely delicate flowers. We’re all delicate flowers, despite the contrary messages society sends to its men, and everyone needs an ally; everyone likes having the door opened for them sometimes (except for me because I think it’s usually inefficient).

    So if you see internet trolls being sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc., please call all of it out. Don’t assume that it’s just women who need an ally. The reality is, of course, that in a predominately male space anti-woman sexism is likely to manifest pretty often. Calling it out repeatedly as it happens does’t necessarily mean you’re singling out women as victims; it just means that some social ills and isms are particularly embedded in certain groups and heavier lifting is required to snuff it out.

    • I’d like to take it one step further and argue that “white-knighting” really does apply when the defense of the oppressed party reenforces the overall oppressive construct. In the example of the cosplayer, the commenter states, “…not only are your comments disrespectful, and unnecessarily hurtful to that person and other people with a similar body shape who might be reading, but also to people like me (and I’m sure I’m not alone) who think she’s attractive.” His defense ends with a) inserting himself as an injured party, and b) that he has the standing do so because he finds her physically attractive. It’s similar to the “What if it was your daughter/sister/wife?” sentiment regarding sexual harassment: men are asked to care because they could be peripherally hurt. But they’re not expected to empathize, not as equals. This is what the continued existence of sexism rests on.

      My other beef is that the majority of his response is addressed to the other commenters and not the cosplayer herself. He patted her on the head for doing a good job, then whirled around and drew his sword against the offending horde. I bet there were some nice, non-rude, non-objectifying comments from guys on there. But those don’t serve any other purpose then to give props to the cosplayer…who probably really appreciates it. Those last bits are speculation, but speculation based on personal experience. I’d rather someone see me and talk to me (again, as an equal) than feel they have some right/privilege/obligation to speak on my behalf.

      There are great pieces that have been written in the past few days by men regarding #yesallwomen that are not white-knighting. They are attempting to engage in dialogue with everyone that examines the knee-jerk things we say and do and think that reveal the systematic oppression of women. They fully admit to their own privilege and failings and the fact that they may be getting it wrong. And that’s my idea of an ally.

      SO, tl;dr I believe white-knighting exists, and it’s kinda the core of sexism. The end.

      • Zach is right that the article is kinda by men for men in a way. The point I was mainly trying to make is that it’s okay for guys for stand up to sexism regardless of what people are going to call you for doing it. That is not to say that only men should read it, however, since obviously Mele brought some valid points and perspective to the discussion. In order to stand up and call out people for doing some of the stuff I mention in the article (as Luke wants us to), you need to know how to do it right, which is where Mele’s points are helpful.

        I think where my article goes wrong is that the example I use is kinda terrible. To be honest, I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, and when I saw Anita Sarkeesian (Tropes vs Women) talk about White Knighting on twitter followed immediately by seeing that reddit thread, I took that as a sign and wrote the article using the most recent example instead of a better one. The problem with this example is, as Mele pointed out, the guy’s response defending the cosplayer is not that good.

        Here is the problem though: I’m not entirely sure (and I imagine most guys aren’t entirely sure) what the best response should be. I saw the thread after the fact, but if I were there when it first went up I would probably say something like, “Can we please stop the fat shaming that is going on in this thread? People (especially women) have to deal with this issue on a constant basis in society and we don’t need those kinds of comments here. All three cosplayers look great and congrats to them.”

        That response is definitely not perfect, but here is the important question then: Is it better to give a response that isn’t perfect or is it better to be silent? Personally, I would rather see someone give an okay response and be accused of white knighting than stay silent on the issue and let the troll run rampant. Even in the initial example I used in the article, the guy’s response was not great but it did serve its purpose: the offender realized his comments were inappropriate and he deleted them. If he didn’t speak up, it is possible that no one else might have (especially given the heavily male demographics of that particular subreddit), in which case, the offender’s comments would still be there and he might not have realized that what he said was sexist/offensive.

        • So, here’s the problem, and the reason why sexism is fundamentally different from a lot of (maybe all?) other oppression: a man coming to the defense of a woman is expected, even required, as part of the structural sexism we’re trying to dismantle. It’s built into the code. This just isn’t the case with racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia. Wealthy straight white men have not been expected, for centuries, to come to those groups’ defenses as part of their domination. They’ve been expected to ignore, deride, beat down, and kill, but no one thinks you’re not a “real man” if you don’t defend the gay next door from would-be attackers. But that’s part of the gender dynamic, and has been for a very, very, very long time.

          What’s the answer? I’m not sure. But as I was reading your response above I had a couple thoughts:

          1) You want guys to be willing to stand up to sexism regardless of the backlash they might receive. That’s awesome. But that’s not the same thing as standing up for a woman. A guy can defend a woman on the receiving end of sexist comments without any awareness of the sexism at play. He might think they’re rude, or cruel, but unless he’s conscious of and actively uncovering the underlying oppressive dynamic, it’s not actually standing up against sexism. In fact, it’s feeding into it. Which leads me to…

          2) You say at the end that “the offender realized his comments were inappropriate and he deleted them”, and without the other guy calling him out, “he might not have realized that what he said was sexist/offensive.” Did he? Did he realize what he said was sexist and offensive? Was there some sort of apology to that effect? Or, was one guy shamed into deleting his comment (without gaining any more respect for women as people) by another guy (who didn’t articulate anything that would have us believe he was standing up to sexism). Assholes who are shamed and don’t understand why tend to become bigger assholes who think the world is out to get them, and I bet that sounds horrifically familiar. You say it’s a bad example, but it’s actually a great one: it perfectly illustrates how a man can think he’s being kind and helpful, the “good guy”, and be so much a part of the problem.

          So, to your question, “Is it better to give a response that isn’t perfect or is it better to be silent?” I have to say that this is a false dilemma, because “isn’t perfect” can sometimes be actively harmful. I don’t have a complete answer, just this: Coming to the defense of a woman or women is not the same thing as standing up to sexism; be aware of which one you’re doing.

          • If I were to try and synthesize this debate, I would propose:

            (1) Men standing up against sexism should not allow themselves to be silenced by white-knight accusations, because discussion should be encouraged, not policed. They should instead interrogate their own position for its inherent sexism and reconsider (or, in the rare case that the white-knight accusation was entirely malicious and manipulative, confirm) their position. And (2) Other people should continue to call out men who seem to play hero only as an expectation of the current system. These people are free to use the term “white knight,” if applicable and applied without malice, in an effort to promote self-awareness, because counter-discussion should also not be policed. Because Fuck the 5-0.


    • And unavoidably, in male-dominated spaces, some of the “calling out” has to be done by male voices. Hence the problem.

      This is the first time I’ve ever heard the term “white knighting.” Why can’t it be called “instant knighting?”


  2. This post – and I think by design – is a post by a dude for dudes. Which is perhaps where Alex went wrong in the first place, probably because he wrote it in the heat of internet-rage? If fourth-wave (or whatever wave we’re on now) feminism is partly about all gender expectations, it’s still about an assumed exclusion from the conversation, which even the most progressive men in America do every five seconds. I’m doing it right now.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment at the end of the post – that the enforcing of roles is something worth fighting against – but equating the gay experience to the “woman” experience, even directly, is dangerous, especially when there are sharks in the water like Mele. But I admit: I do like finding overarching truths. (I’m often guilty of comparing the gay rights movement to the race equality movement, which is also unfair.) And I do believe that a person doesn’t have to be part of a group to analyze or support that group in a worthwhile way. But – maybe deservedly – the outsider is scrutinized more carefully, and on the internet, that isn’t a picnic. That, plus: there’s a big difference between the way “discussion” happens via Reddit vs real life.

    Alex, I think it’s really funny that this is the post you braved right after your previous discussion of “putting yourself out there.” And if the goal is to encourage discussion, it worked.

    Mele, you’re a shark. Love, Zach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.