Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Delicate Balance: Developing Straight White College Men as Social Justice Allies

I have recently begun a qualitative study on exploring how to best develop positive social justice ally attitudes and behaviors in heterosexual White college men (hereinafter abbreviated as STR8WCM).  This blog post is about my thoughts and reflexive comments as I begin analyzing the first of many focus groups with an estimated 300 participants at 15 institutions around the country.  I am a straight White male faculty member in a student affairs preparation program.  I am not an American citizen, but outside my resident alien status I benefit from unearned racial, gender, and sexual identity privilege.  As the father of three young daughters and the partner to my spouse, I am committed to reducing White male hegemony and patriarchy in this society.  I lean on the work by Ellen Broido who defined social justice allies as members from dominant groups who work to end the system of oppression that provides greater privilege and power based on their membership in culturally dominant groups. 
At a recent national conference, I attended a session on the apparent alienation of heterosexual White men in higher education administration.  The main presenter was an African American woman and recent Ph.D. graduate.  Despite her best intentions and balanced approach, the topic seemingly polarized the room and tension between attendees was palpable.  Her research findings suggested that White men in higher education administration displayed perspectives of powerlessness and disappointment in affirmative action policies.  The topic had divided the room, not to the fault of the presenter but because the audience failed to see alternative experiences and viewpoints.  On the one side, the polarizing comments stemmed from racial and gender privilege, and speaking for rather than to those perceived oppressed.  On the other side emerged deeply felt pain and perceived oppression even in a session intended to tackle threats to inequality and social justice. As I sat there, I became frustrated at many of my White colleagues (men and women) for voicing their privileged perspectives about “always being blamed for everyone else’s struggle” or for displaying obviously colorblind points of view.  I was also saddened by comments from a few Colleagues of Color in the room who indicated dismissively, “White men will never understand what we go through” (that may be true but developing empathy for the experiences of underrepresented individuals is an important outcome for which all Whites should strive).
I too struggle with creating a balance with this clearly difficult and potentially contentious topic, but I don’t think the discussion on STR8WCM and social justice is a mutually exclusive one.  Certainly, college educators must appropriately challenge and instruct STR8WCM on their unearned gender and racial privilege and the history of White supremacy, racism, homophobia, and sexism.  On the other hand, my training as a qualitative researcher compels me to advocate for the continued exploration and understanding of the lived experiences of STR8WCM with diversity, their perceived benefits and barriers to engaging in diversity discussions, and their sense of responsibility in advocating for social justice on campus and in society.  Contrary to popular beliefs of many college educators, we do not yet know everything there is to know about White college men and new research needs to challenge outdated androcentric notions.  Our target learning outcomes include open and honest discussions among all students alongside social justice and human difference; after all, over 60 years since Allport’s original Contact Hypothesis, intergroup and cross-racial dialogue remain among the most significant predictors of decreasing stereotypes, racial prejudice, and other forms of discrimination.  Judging by the interactions among the attendees of the conference session, we are farther away from that goal than we may think.  White men need to listen to colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds who have experienced racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.  At the same time White men must not retreat when issues of discrimination or hate speech surface on campus.  Our colleagues rely on us to help put a stop to these behaviors that are most often displayed by members of majority groups.  This forces us to speak openly and honestly about topics in which we may not consider ourselves experts.  Yet, muddling through to find a solution is always better than remaining silent and standing idly by.   
Along with the listening STR8WCM must do, they should also be invited to share their own life experiences with diversity (we may be surprised about many of these experiences).  Appropriately developing STR8WCM as social justice allies never means we apply the deficit model as a lens and throw a pity party for White men at the expense of others.  Nor does it mean stopping to serve members from underrepresented groups.  Yet, when college educators utter the words inclusive excellence, we commit to serving all students all the time, regardless of their development along a positive social justice ally continuum.  If STR8WCM display an unbending sense of privilege and seem to lack a sense of empathy for the historical and current experiences of underrepresented populations, we check them on that in the context of holistic learning and development.  Hitting them over the head with education under the guise of political correctness the first chance we get is not a recipe for success.  I have had several focus group participants who have perceived faculty to be biased against STR8WCM from day one, likely due to their experiences with other White men in the past.  While we must never justify discriminatory actions by Whites against people from underrepresented groups, we should also hope that faculty can find more effective ways to reach and teach White men in college than criticizing or blaming them.  I guarantee the confrontational approach does nothing to ignite learning about human differences.  In a way, the blame game reinforces White privilege as White men retreat away from the discussion to continue to live unchallenged existences in the campus community.  Because, as one of my participants noted, “As a STR8WCM I have the advantage to slip into the background and not needing to care about diversity.”  We can no longer afford to give White men reason not to care or to turn off being receptive to or engaging in all things diversity.
In the context of social justice ally development of STR8WCM, I have asked myself the following questions and invite others to do the same:
1)     Do STR8WCM have the capacity to develop empathy for, appreciation and perhaps celebration of people who are different relative to power and privilege?  Further, do we think STR8WCM can become positive social justice allies to women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color?
2)     Do we as educators have the capacity and the will to invite STR8WCM to participate in critical discussions around race, equality, and social justice?  If so, are we willing to engage men meaningfully without blaming or shaming them on their perhaps under- or undeveloped viewpoints that likely display perspectives of unearned privilege, intolerance, or racism?
If you answered yes to any or all questions, perhaps we can begin to think about inclusive excellence as creating a space to hear and engage STR8WCM on all matters of diversity and social justice while checking their conceptualizations of privilege, power, and patriarchy.  A relatively large body of research suggests (along with some of my own) that many STR8WCM are indeed interested and committed to playing a role in inclusive excellence discussions and initiatives.  Further, researchers such as Linda Sax have found that college men actually benefit more from diversity programming and courses than women; however, men also express more discomfort about learning about the topic because of the perceived work they have to do in self-awareness, advocacy of underrepresented groups, and social justice ally development.  Yet, college educators struggle mightily in getting men in the seats where learning can occur.
I close by paraphrasing a brilliant quote by Larry Roper, Vice Provost for Student Affairs at Oregon State University, from an article about perceptions White college students had about diversity programming on campus: Can college educators and their institutions create space at the center for all students they intend to serve? If the answer is yes, I am certain most STR8WCM would love to share that space with all other students and in it engage in critical questions and discussions about social justice.  May men from majority groups already do. However, we should be aware that STR8WCM will not likely flock to us with outstretched arms ready to embrace learning about diversity unless we as educators show we are open to them joining the space and the discussion.
Dr. Jörg Vianden is Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He has taught and published on men and masculinities in higher education.  Jörg invites others to follow him on twitter (@jvianden) or to connect via e-mail ( He would love to hear from readers challenging his assumptions and perspectives.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
            Broido, E. M. (2000). The development of social justice allies during college: A phenomenological          investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41(1), 3–18.
            Roper, L. D. (2004). Do students support diversity programs? Change, 36(6), 48–51.

            Sax, L. J. (2009). Gender matters: The variable effect of gender on the student experience. About
                              Campus, 14(2), 2–10.

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