The global pandemic-induced deconstructions (and some new constructions) continue to emerge, fascinate and inform me. One has caught my attention, and that of several colleagues and friends. In telling stories, at some point the speaker refers to an “old white man” or more frequently, an “old white guy” (OWG). Contextually, it is clear that this reference does not focus on all elderly Caucasian males, but to a specific subset. There is an implication that this subset is known and recognizable. Saying “OWG” is a short cut to highlight something far more complex. This blog post is a bit long because the complexity warrants care.
Since OWGs are my demographic peers, and a familiar reference, I have spent some time trying to describe the nature of their new subset currently frequently referenced. With gratitude to the Oxford Dictionary, I have concluded that this subset manifests a syndrome. While most syndromes are medical phenomena, Oxford highlights the behavioral one: “a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions or behaviors”. I think OWGs are a group of people who share a syndrome, one not common to the larger community of elderly Caucasian males. Indeed, this latter group has members who make OWG syndrome references, and it is clear they do not believe the syndrome is a self-description.
Leaving aside the age variable (old), though I will return to it, the other two descriptors refer to ethnicity and gender. Being white and male has been a status ensuring privilege, advantage and entitlement for centuries, though most white males did not consciously acknowledge this and the advantages were mixed in scope and distribution. The European colonization of much of the planet made this status assumption a global one.
In general, it was always better to be white and male than to be otherwise. Implicit in this social structuring was the assumption of superiority, a conviction that white males should “rule” just about everything because they were best equipped to do so. That has changed, sometimes rapidly and insistently, sometimes even violently. For some white males, this loss is intolerable, and they work assiduously to reclaim their lost entitlements, to ensure dominance in all things, to insist we recreate the old-world order. OWGs do this. That is their syndrome.
Early in my life, OWG syndrome seemed widespread, seemingly including all white males. It almost always evoked rage, resentment, condemnation, or despair from those who were systematically disadvantaged so that white males could protect their advantage. Many who were not white males determined it was to their advantage to support the OWG world view and get the gains possible without the white male status. Sometimes white males would make concessions if one “cooperated” with them or mimicked their behaviors and beliefs, embraced their syndrome.
In the emerging references to OWGs now, something has clearly shifted, perhaps another tipping point in the erosion of white patriarchy. OWGs are not to be admired or emulated. Indeed, OWGs are not an enemy but a rather sad, seemingly even pitiful subgroup, suffering from a syndrome that embraces desires not only unresolvable but doomed. Increasingly, Caucasian males of all ages, but particularly the young, actively disavow identification with the OWGs and their syndrome. And, yet, there is often a tone of patience, sometimes even compassion in these references, and that further evokes my curiosity.
Which brings me back to the first variable, age. The OWG, who is by definition old, is nearing the end of his life journey. For many observers, grappling with the often tedious, and sometimes deadly manifestations of the OWG syndrome, they simply see the obvious aging and realize that OWGs days are numbered: they will die…relatively soon. This seems a bit harsh in tone, however it often seems those observing the OWGs seem more aware of this fact than the OWGs themselves. Trying to reclaim privilege and entitlements as you are ending your life seems odd to many. To what end?
I see the delineation of the OWG syndrome as a positive development, releasing large numbers of white males from condemnation by “association” simply due to demographic characteristics that shape their personal identities. I grew up with four brothers, four of the finest people I have known and cherished throughout my life. The remaining three who are living are clearly elderly Caucasian males, and equally clearly, they do not manifest OWG syndrome. I have male friends where I can make the same statement with certitude. I have never liked that they were assumed to be the enemy of equity, fairness, and justice for all.
Conversely, I am also happy for the OWGs, that their syndrome is recognized for what it is and increasingly treated as a syndrome rather than a valid political and social initiative that evokes hatred and scorn. They are indeed “old” and their hoped-for outcome has been deconstructed as they face their imminent death. There is perhaps societal nostalgia, but not regression. I am convinced that regression isn’t even possible.
The OWL part of this blog was a sardonic nod to my status as an Old White Lady. Indeed, my hope is to deconstruct the assumptions about these three terms, all of which carry a burden of societal mores and beliefs that often do harm. I feel I would be remiss if I don’t acknowledge that many efforts of the OWGs do harm, sometimes profound harm.
When we evolve past a fixed societal structure to a mere syndrome embraced (or suffered) by a subset of the prior structure, there is reason to hope. So, as I quietly study the OWG who initiated a criminal war attack on the Ukrainian people, I also watch the world respond, in a myriad of ways. There is a global rejection of that war and the OWG’s agenda, and so I embrace that hope. It is further my hope that we notice that many white guys, of all ages, stand with me in that rejection of war and the OWG’s agenda. They too embrace hope.
Beyond hope, I also feel gratitude. Elderly Caucasian males have more to lose than I do.
And for all of us, death lurks in the wings, waiting to take center stage, the final act in the drama of every story told.
“The act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”
~Madeleine K. Albright