Blog Topics, PGF Blog

Making social justice advocates of straight white college men, Jörg Vianden

The 21st century in the United States continues to be marked by persistent disparities between members of different classes, races, genders, and sexual orientations. Influencers of this society seem bent on polarizing citizens along their diverse identities, often blaming those already disadvantaged for the nation’s apparent plights. Elite white men still benefit from a political, economic, and social hegemony, and some ardently resist an egalitarian society. Preserving American democracy rests in the hands of young Americans committed to equity and social justice. 

In Got Solidarity?, I report findings from my qualitative study of 92 straight white male collegians at 10 different U.S. institutions. The study focused on how the participants experience campus and community diversity issues. Using a sociological perspective, I chronicle their upbringing in families and schools, their perspectives on race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as their trepidations on challenging oppression they notice taking place around them. The book is written especially for straight white male college students, as well as for white educators at all levels. In college, few white men tend to engage in majors, discussions, or courses on diversity, inclusion, equity, or social justice. In fact, many white men say that they have “no place” in these discussions, and more commonly, assert that “diversity is not about them.” Thus, the main goal of the book is to challenge but also support straight white college men to develop solidarity with minoritized people, to identify with issues of social inequities, discrimination, and oppression, and to pledge their responsibility to positively affect social change now and in the future.  

In this blog post I offer a few of the specific strategies college instructors and administrators, coaches, counselors, advisors, and teachers can use to change the way they reach today’s straight white male students on issues of diversity and social justice. We as white male educators have been most ineffective in this work and have too often passed the baton to our already-minoritized colleagues. We have to stop abdicating our responsibility for the diversity education of white college men and I hope the following strategies may help white educators.  

Create Proximity to Activate Empathy 

How do we increase the proximity of straight white college men to daily injustices and inequities faced by their peers from disadvantaged communities? Bryan Stevenson (as cited in Fernandez, 2016), American social justice activist, calls this getting proximate; that is, we must get closer to and learn to understand the suffering of people who are oppressed. Feagin (2013) presented several strategies educators may use to engage white men. First, we must appeal to their moral obligation toward other human beings. This morality may stem from tacit religious beliefs that have been fostered by American families for generations. Love thy neighbor as thyself, as well as moral ideas from other faiths, are cornerstones of prosocial human attitudes and behaviors. Calling on spiritual or religious men to evoke these principles when reflecting on systemic oppression may be a way to engage them more directly. 

We must also appeal to the liberty-and-justice frame Americans tend to use to make sense of the world around them. We are interested in fairness, equal treatment, and justice, specifically concerning ourselves and our loved ones. We must remind straight white men of their better values when they seem to have forgotten that the fairness afforded to them should also be afforded to every other human being. 

Finally, we must foster the identification we versus they. For centuries, the American white male ruling class has propagandized especially people of color and immigrants as the “other” who should be avoided. For college students, “we” are likely not the white elite rulers but peers on similar rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. “We” includes college students who are people of color, people with different genders and sexual orientations, and students with different abilities, ages, national origins, and religious beliefs. Classrooms are a suitable venue to have such discussions about identification across privileged and oppressed identities.  

Join, Don’t Disassociate  

One of the biggest problems in social justice advocacy work are whites who deem themselves too evolved to engage with those of us who are not as far along, or who may display racist, sexist, or homophobic attitudes and behaviors. I cannot afford to distance myself from today’s straight white men who may act the way I did when I was their age. That would not only be hypocritical but detrimental to the education of young people, because in my interactions with them they might learn something that allows them to avoid making the same mistakes I made. Instruction, advising, or supervising are appropriate contexts for this continued reaching and teaching.  

Facilitate Disorienting Dilemmas 

disorienting dilemma is an event that makes individuals aware they are viewing the world through a limited or distorted perspective (Mezirow, 2000). Disorienting dilemmas trigger transformative learning when we examine the limited view critically and accept the possibility of alternative ways of thinking. The result is action informed by more discerned thinking and understanding. Today, many men may be uncomfortable with traditional male gender role socialization (e.g., independence, aggression, competition, being in control, acting tough) but falsely perceive that other men are indeed comfortable with these attributes (Berkowitz, 2004). Education is the key to help men unearth these perceptions and explore their peers’ true feelings around power, privilege, and oppression.  

Watt (2015) established the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) model to increase disorienting dilemmas for people with mostly privileged identities and how they may move awareness to advocacy for social change. The PIE model includes four assumptions, including the interrogation of privilege as an ongoing and never-ending process; the need to involve learners in “self-awakening difficult dialogues” about oppression (Watt, 2015, p. 43); the fact that learners put up defense mechanisms as a normal reaction; and that an intersection of oppression and privilege resides in each learner. Educators working with straight white men should be aware of these tenets and help learners navigate the difficult dialogues, defense stimuli, and the intersections of their identities. 

Listen and Follow  

In my experiences of teaching in a college environment for more than 20 years, white men tend to be the most confident, vociferous, and frequent speakers in classrooms. This is also the case, by the way, with white male faculty and administrators, even when women and people of color share the space. Building solidarity won’t happen unless whites learn how to listen and follow rather than to speak and lead. The results may include straight white men who admit they aren’t the experts on everything, who let others lead, who work with people rather than trying to be their savior, and who are non-defensive when receiving critical feedback. 

Villalobos (2015) coined the term white followership to focus on whites assisting or following people of color who work to bring about racial understanding. The model asks whites to “actively center the experiences, sensibilities, interests, methods, critiques, and vision offered by peoples and communities of color who are invested in making racial justice” (Villalobos, 2015, p. 167). Those who experience racism, sexism, and homophobia should speak, and those who don’t should listen, support, and follow. Listening and following can be practiced in secondary and post-secondary classrooms, athletic teams, and student organizations.  

I shared here a few of the strategies mentioned in Got Solidarity? If we are successful in reaching and teaching more straight white college men in diversity efforts, the outcome will be a more socially just society, one from which all citizens benefit, not simply a chosen few.  


Jörg Vianden is Professor and Chair of the Department of Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, USA. Originally from Germany, he has lived in the United States for 25 years and received his doctorate from Indiana University. Vianden’s scholarship focuses on men and masculinities in higher education. Jörg can be followed on twitter at @jvianden.  


References 

Berkowitz, A. D. (2004). The social norms approach: Theory, research, and annotated bibliography. Retrieved March 10, 2019, from http://www.alanberkowitz.com/articles/social_norms.pdf 

Feagin, J. R. (2013). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Fernandez, L. (2016, April 21). Empathy and social justice: The power of proximity in improvement science. Retrieved July 6, 2018, from http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/blog/empathy-and-social-justice-the-power-of-proximity-in-improvement-science/ 

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Villalobos, J. (2015). Applying white followership in campus organizing: A leadership tool for Latinx students working for racial justice. In A. Lozano (Ed.), Latina/o college student leadership: Emerging theory, promising practice. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 

Watt, S. K. (2015). Designing transformative multicultural initiatives: Theoretical foundations, practical applications, and facilitator considerations. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

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