Old White Men vs. Young Ambitious Women

Posted by Cerstin Mahlow on March 09, 2019

Some months ago, I had a strange conversation with a woman a bit younger than me. While we talked about a workshop, she told me she had disliked it as she wasn’t willing to have an “old white man” explain anything to her. She used this phrase several times referring to the instructor, addressing herself as “a young, ambitious, but underestimated woman.”

Apparently, as soon as she saw the person giving the workshop she had grown an instant refusal against anything that person would say, as this would in any case be patronizing. Just because that person was a man and visibly older than she. The "white" aspect didn't make any sense here as they both have the same skin color.

But obviously she used the phrase "old white man" as a general fixed expression referring to "the other." And most probably she assumed that I would agree as we have the same age and gender (and skin color). But I'm sorry, my automatic solidarity is very limited and doesn't go along those lines.

I was really upset then and I’m still very annoyed, for two reasons:

First, I had never before heard someone with an academic background (!) explicitly referring to somebody else (not a group, a single person!) by assigning them a label used in a discriminating fashion.

Second, I was too surprised to react properly. I didn’t manage to tell her that what she just did was clearly discriminating—and she could be sued for doing so.

She didn't discriminate against me but against another person; she hadn't said anything directly to this person. I had walked away and hoped that she would probably react that way directly to someone else one day and then that person would speak up. But that’s not the way one stops discrimination, right?

In retrospect, what had happened was abusing feminism, a single person got a label and had been filed under "enemy" on the spot. Any serious discussion of specific issues had been blocked. You don't talk to the enemy and you don't trust what they tell you, no matter what.

Another annoying thought, playing “the feminist card” assumes instant solidarity from other women, maybe even regardless of age. If you don't agree, you are at least suspicious. However, such an atmosphere does not foster any form of discourse, no serious discussion is possible. The only thing left is throwing labels and generic accusations at each other. That's not very grown-up. And it also doesn't help to address and overcome questionable power structures and attitudes.