In praise of some old white men
I met an old white man at the weekend. He's a relative by marriage and it was the first time I had met him. He's had a career doing something I’m interested in and has received international acclaim.
He's also not very well - getting to grips with the onset of dementia. That's not my story to tell, but I will say that to observe a brilliant mind faltering is profoundly moving. This old white man's eyes lit up when I expressed interest in his career. He shared insights and encouraged me, saying he'd be proud to see me follow in his footsteps.
Old white men have been responsible for many of the opportunities I've been fortunate to have. Most of my jobs have come courtesy of mid-vintage and well-cellared white men. They’ve been generous with their support, encouragement and importantly their willingness to push me forward into leadership positions.
I have felt uneasy about our Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter’s, comments that “old white men” should make way for others since she uttered them. Nobody in my circle of friends is going to cry in sympathy for the old white men, but I do think of some of the mentors I’ve known and how they might feel hearing something like that.
In fairness to the Minister, the comments have since been put in context by a student who was present, a young person who wrote to The Press:
I don’t have a problem with the sentiment of her speech – that the leadership of our country is skewed towards a specific group which no longer reflects (it never did) our diverse population. My problem is this: it’s now acceptable to publicly disparage someone if they have a specific trifecta of age, gender and ethnicity.
Among the old white men that I know who are ‘on the kaupapa’ – by which I mean they are actively working to correct the inequities of power in their workplaces and homes – there is a sense of responsibility and excitement about being part of generational change. They understand that the decks have been stacked in their favour since forever. They get that adequate representation isn’t about shifting from a merit-based system to one that puts ‘identity politics’ above competence. It’s about making the most of all our people, for everyone’s benefit.
That's all very well and good, you might say. But is this just a column about how some old white men have been kind to me personally and am I missing the point.
I believe we undermine the opportunity to bring everyone on the journey towards a more equitable society when we negatively single out anyone based on their skin colour or gender. If we believe that correcting harmful inequities lies in asserting an inherent malice and/or obsolescence in all people with a specific combination of age, gender and ethnicity then we have already lost the fight. The real enemy is the unchecked and uncontested power exercised through institutions, social norms and structures which privilege one group over another.
And in my experience your best allies – speaking from an indigenous perspective - aren't always the ones who preach the most about being allies. Occasionally the people who make loud noises about diversity don't practice it or, they do only to the extent that it doesn't jeopardise their own position. The people who are happy to have Māori on their team but who will block Māori from stepping out of the brown box marked ‘diversity project’ and surpassing them. Making space for others if you really care about diversity is not a subtle, difficult to grasp concept. You open up the space and then get out of it. I know some old white men who do this very well, mostly very quietly.
I'm certain there are people out there who would think my perspective on this shows I'm 'colonised' and maybe blinded by privilege. That I'm invested in the existing system because it's delivered for me and that I don't get it. Kei a rātou tēnā - that's up to them and we can have that debate. They’re criticisms I regularly test on myself.
Here’s the thing though. I'm telling my Māori daughter that nobody should ever judge her for her gender or the colour of her skin. How do I then turn around, and in the same breath, encourage her to look at her father who's not far off being an old white guy, and tell her that she can judge him and everyone else like him for exactly those things.