knight, armor, beard

Why I’m Not a “White Knight”

I want to write about identity, racism, class, empire and more. Author’s note: This piece includes descriptions of people of color from my past who have influenced my thinking.
From the time I was a young child, fantasy has been a fascination of mine.
I love the trick of making familiar subjects seem exotic and intense by peeling back the layers of our own language.
One such exotic subject is “white knight,” a moniker that I first encountered in an email from an anonymous “white knight” to a friend. The author/whiterhawk’s email began:
“Yo man, how’s it going? I haven’t been online much but I kept hearing good things about your piece about white knights and am curious as to how you found me. Any truth to the ones you quoted? I can’t find much about me except that I’m a PhD candidate in Urban Studies at a large university. I’m from the Midwest, not sure if that’s an asset or a liability. Any time changes everything.”

The author then went on to recommend a book he’d read (I’m looking at you, Brown Girl in the Red Dress) and offered additional insight into his identity. The white knight referred to himself as a PhD candidate, a reference to the title of an Old English poem belonging to the Tanaiste tribe of Natal, South Africa. Although the title of the poem has been disputed, the poem does in fact depict the highly complex interactions between identity, culture, and class in the context of a particular social and economic structure.
The poem’s protagonist, Tanaiste woman Margetu, is a member of a lower-class Natal tribe who is tempted by a prince who promises her return home. But her impulse to return is mediated by her relationship with another lower-class member, Dhillon, who is tempted by a more equitable economic structure. In this way, the prince and Tanaiste are caught up in each other’s narratives. In both cases, the promised land is situated in a space that is both differentiated and interchangeable.

The poem calls to mind the images of the white knight in the story of Luke Skywalker and Yoda, who is caught up in the stories of his fallen homeworld, and is ultimately overcome by the stories of his own heroism. Luke is captivated by the beauty and power of the Death Star, and its immense power allows him to overcome the planet. Similarly, white knights are seduced by the promise of identity politics and identity politics are seduced by the stories and narratives of white knights.
The struggle for racial justice continues for all of us, black and white. Luke and Yoda are enamored with their own whiteness and its privileges, and despite its contradictions, remains unable to transcend these contradictions.

The author of the email linked above shared a list of racial justice issues that were of interest to me, including this one: “Why is it that Luke and Yoda are so invested in racial justice, but we are not?” Luke and Yoda are caught up in racial justice because they are caught up in history, in the stories of other people’s histories. As Luke said about the white knight:
“He’s a visitor, a dreamer, a man who sits in a dream, who remembers nothing. But I was here all the time, even though I didn’t realize it.”
It is this complicity that is critical to understanding the appeal of white knights. We are all visitors, dreamers, memory makers, and enablers of one sort or another. But what is distinctive about white knights is that they are white. We are all implicated in the stories and narratives of others, but the reason that we are all implicated is that we are all constituted by and through the stories and narratives of other people.
Luke and Yoda are enablers because they are complicit in the very story they are telling themselves about themselves and their history. We can all be complicit in the story of our own history as well. What we are interested in is how we can move beyond our own stories and narratives and arrive at a point of view that is more reflective of what the other stories we tell ourselves are, what our own stories are, and how we are constituted by those stories.

In the case of Luke and Yoda, their story is that of redemption and overcoming our own self-hatred. They are enticed by the promise of that redemption, and they believe that they can overcome their own self-confort by overcoming others. The problem here, however, is that redemption is what they want to buy into, it is not a real solution to the problem that they have created for themselves. And while it may be tempting to think that white knights will entice us to redemption through stories of redemption, this is not going to help us

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