Can straight white males be progressives?

It’s a question that as a straight white male, I have struggled with. Not to mention adding in the additional layers of being a parent, a veteran and a regular “church-goer” (to those outside UU, we are typical church). There are several lens with which to view this question. (Leave it to a philosopher to correct his own question.)

First, can I overcome my straight white maleness to see the issues of people that are historically marginalized by a society run by straight white males?

I think I’ve tried. I don’t know that I will ever be perfect at it. I don’t know that anyone is ever perfect at overcoming themselves and their own experiences. I read, watch, and listen to feminist, GLBT, and racial/ethnic minority perspectives as well as attempt to include them in my thinking. I agree with them most of the time. I’m historically literate and know that there is bias in history that leads to present-day issues.

Second, if I use my straight white male privilege to amplify the voices and perspectives of marginalized persons, am I not invoking the very privilege I’m trying to dissolve?

For instance, a couple years ago, a group of older white males were repeatedly dismissing the issues my twenty-something female colleague was bringing up in a patronizing sort of way. I fired off an emotionally charged email (rarely a good idea) about their unwillingness to deal with the problem because of who was voicing the concern. After some chastisement from my supervisors, the issue was immediately addressed and resolved. They have since listened to her repeatedly but at least initially, it was more out of fear. (They seem to listen now out of both habit and respect.) But often I don’t have the longevity to see if my use of my privilege has a lasting impact.

Third, and maybe the toughest, when it comes to employment, when I do I allow my career ambitions to take a back seat to the promotion of historically underrepresented persons?

It happens that I work in a field with a strong collection of women, racial minority, and GLBT persons. So when an opportunity for promotion comes open, there have always been candidates from these groups also applying. When I am selected over them, regardless of qualifications, I hear remarks about the persistence of the straight white males in positions of power and privilege and how it is a shame I was hired over an equally qualified person who was not a straight white male. At times, knowing a qualified colleague who was not a straight white male was putting in for a position, and wanting to support them, I have chosen to not apply and openly supported them. But how often do we expect, encourage, or accept, straight white males who are willing to do such a thing? Even when it means passing up a career opportunity or a financial incentive for a working-class family. And has mentioned in the previous question, how you do such things also has career ramifications.

Last, is the question of voice. Is my voice less valuable in the diversity conversation?

When I work with people from marginalized groups, I find I am often shunted into a role of limited agency. When I write about the history of women or African Americans, there is the inevitable question “Why is a white guy doing this work?” As if straight white male historians are limited to only straight white male history. Isn’t that the problem?

I don’t say this out of seeking some pity or “woah is me” attitude. I say it out of answering an earnest question from a colleague about why aren’t more straight white male allies of women and minorities.  There are still more straight white males in this country than any other single group. And as a whole, they are more conservative and hold more power than any other single group. It isn’t easy for a straight white male to try to offload some of that either philosophically, physically, or financially. Hence, the limits to what many are willing to do.