To the extent that "White Knighting" is a real thing in activism, it's being called in an unfortunately specific context that invites an overly easy dismissal. For those unfamiliar with the term, it's usually used to criticise those who engage in activism on behalf of someone else, noting that they're essentially seeking to serve some (maybe disadvantaged community) with their activism and that they're doing it in a way particularly in need of such approval. The topic is almost always feminism.
I rarely use the term, because I think it's really, when a valid criticism, just a special case of a bigger problem. That problem being doing philosophy with the intent of seeking approval. Philosophy is an unavoidable part of life, whether done consciously or not. It is also not an activity that should be done for the approval of others, nor the sake of others; it is instead one of self-actualisation. When someone takes up a charitable cause, they do it because the harms in the obverse of the cause offend their values, not because they feel some special duty towards others. A good male feminist, or a white anti-racist isn't acting on anyone's behalf, nor do they need or particularly desire the approval of the communities they target; they in fact will have to deal with disapproval of some parts of any such communities; there are women who oppose feminism, or are of another flavour than theirs, just as there are movements of non-white ethnicities that are separatist, or who otherwise do not wish to aid such causes. Also, as those seeking to self-actualise rather than acting in the service of others, they can remain critical and fully engaged in communities rather than act as "allies" who seek mainly to "listen and aid", and they can take part in reasonable pluralism in a healthy way.
For those who would engage in activism, I tell you, be willing to argue with everyone, defer to nobody, don't be bothered by disapproval of other activists, don't be just an "ally", and if someone either says:
- I'm in such a hostile world that I don't have time to explain my views or give you the benefit of the doubt
- Always accept criticism as valid
- My theory is objectively valid and yours is oppressive (unless yours comes from ill-will)
None of this is meant to suggest that activists must work alone; far from it. Many of the achievements of activism have been reached through working together, and the advancement of ideas within activism require communication. It is meant to suggest that the form of collaboration and communication must be among fully equal participants aiming for ideals commonly held though, and this collaboration must be among equals who are all fully qualified to an opinion, rather than any group deferring to another (even a historically disenfranchised group). Problems of privilege must not be solved through creation of conversational privilege; they will be solved with new values giving rise to new ideals that people decide to fight for together.
Finally, and this is another reason not to use this term, we should not create an atmosphere hostile to people participating in movements that are not designed around them. Both the subservient activist (which I have been writing to discourage here) and the principled activist are valuable in getting things done. When a principled activist criticises a subservient activst, they should do so in a way that explains the broad problems of activism-as-being-about-a-group as opposed to the ideal of activism-as-being-about-values, and the term "white knighting" as a criticism doesn't lead them to a healthier position; it tells them to stop caring. That's not healthy; making someone a better activist means leading activists caught in unhealthy movements out of those movements without disconnecting them with a valuable cause, so even if someone is in activism because they seek the approval of some disadvantaged group of people, let's steer them away from crowd-pleasing and towards a better way of thinking about things.