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Dead white European male

Parent categories: death - Europe - Eurocentrism - white - male

Related: canon - European culture - Western culture


Dead white men or DWEM (an acronym standing for "Dead White European Male"), is a pejorative racial epithet used most commonly in reference to noted European males from the past. Particularly implied were such figures as Plato, Dante, Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton.

Other typical "dead white males" include:

  • Ancient Greek philosophers
  • European philosophers, scientists, explorers and political figures
  • European and American authors (especially those in the traditional Literary canon)
  • Founding Fathers of the United States --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_White_Males [Sept 2005]

    History and usage
    DWEM is a rhetorical device used to deride the emphasis on Western civilization in schools (especially those in the United States), as the majority of figures considered "significant" in Western civilization are white males who are usually dead. The term was used pejoratively in the early 1990s by those advocating multicultural studies. The term finds widespread usage among members of the educational establishment who see students as agents of social change.

    It began as an off-hand reference used to protest a perceived bias in favor of such figures in the curriculum of the educational system of the US. It had a more specific reference, to the content of compulsory early college courses, which were seen to defined civilisation too narrowly. Critics of the traditional curriculum argued that it enshrined a particular world view and that it valued older European history, for example over more recent American achievements. They also often implied that it was subconsciously racist and sexist. A form of history viewed in a similar view is the "Great man theory" of history.

    Critics of the term
    The term DWEM was subsequently adopted by defenders of the traditional curriculum. Such supporters saw the "dead white European males" in question as being obviously more worthy of study than any rival figures. Critics labeled this as eurocentric.

    Defenders of traditional curricula are often supporters of the accepted canon of English and European-language literature. They often characterise proposed curriculum change as largely motivated by political activism. They argue that to dismiss any thinker or writer as a DWEM, and solely for that reason, cannot be a valid comment on the actual content.

    This is because DWEM is employed as an ad hominem argument. This approach has joined the repertoire of calling criticism 'political correctness', or defending a historical figure or event as being subject to academic attacks by "liberal intellectuals". It strengthens those points, since it speaks to the fallacious nature of ad hominem, rather than itself relying on fallacies.

    Popular culture
    The term has gained widespread enough currency that it can appear in mass-market media. For example, in the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), an African-American high-school English teacher performs a rap version of a Shakespearean sonnet. Afterwards, he remarks that although Shakespeare is a "dead white guy", he "knows his stuff" and is still worth the attention. Harold Bloom has made the same argument, in a more academic style; see his book The Anxiety of Influence [1].

    Australian playwright David Williamson also satirised this apporach to education in his biting play Dead White Males. In the production, the ghost of Shakespeare is shot by a radical post-structualist lecturer. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_White_Males [Dec 2005]

    See also: West - white - Eurocentrism - Europe - bias - canon - ethnicity - death - men

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