Finding Inclusive Excellence at Exclusive Research Institutions

In the first few months of this academic year, there have been a number of burglaries and armed robberies near campus, affecting numerous students, and leading to an increased level of alertness (both in timely warnings and crime alerts issued and in student attention to safety). Almost without fail, the alleged suspect is identified as a black or Latino man, usually with a description so vague that it could apply to any college age male. Could it be that men of color, who typically do not live near this college campus, unless they’re students, due to a history of de facto (and de jure) racial segregation in housing in Madison, Wisconsin, are coming downtown to target college students? Sure, this is entirely plausible.

I’m not in a position to debate the veracity of the reports of burglary or robbery victims. However, there is the unintentional impact that this increase in crime has on men of color on this campus. When Latino or black men are singled out as potential perpetrators of violent (property) crimes, the inherent supposition when seeing a young adult male of color on campus is not that he is a student. The heightened alertness to risk of crime is to regard those individuals as a threat to safety or property.

This has obviously been covered extensively in the actual media (and other blogs) in relation to the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD. Racial profiling is an abhorrent crime prevention tactic, not exclusively because of the perpetuation of stereotypes and dehumanization of the victims of stop-and-frisk (or because it is statistically ineffective). On a college campus, the perception of black and Latino men as criminals also serves to reinforce another misperception: that these men do not belong on campus.

Recently, I sat in on our campus-wide Diversity Plan listening sessions, where we discussed the current proposed plan developed by the committee and provided feedback on what it means to have an inclusive campus. Nevermind the fact that the last plan expired in 2008 or that the focus on diversity sometimes gives ammunition to opponents of building an inclusive campus. Instead, I was struck by one particular interaction with a faculty emeritus who is actively and adamantly opposed to the current admissions process at the UW.

While seated in a small group dialogue about what it means to feel included on campus, he branched off in to a critique of the admissions standards and how that affects people from “targeted1 racial minorities.” He articulated information similar to the above opinion piece from Madison’s Cap Times, which may be compelling facts. His economic (or whatever) analysis does not hold water when thinking about the context and environments of the education system. The experiences of students of color, both prior to coming to college and after enrolling, matter, and faculty have a tremendous role in how those experiences can negatively (or positively) impact student academic performance.

What came to light in that dialogue, thanks to the generous sharing of a graduate student and a reframing of the issue, is that faculty members may hold certain stereotypes of students of color, including but not limited to:

  • They need a mentor, and therefore the faculty member should take the time to get to know the student.
  • They did not earn their way in to the institution under the “competitive” admissions process.
  • They may only be there as student-athletes, and the “student” part of that label is sometimes completely ignored by peers or instructors.
  • A faculty member’s teaching style, which has worked for White students for years, should also work for students of color. If they can’t compete in the classroom, then they don’t deserve to be there.

Taking these in turn, we can see that many can impact the academic performance of even the most academically talented students of color.

First, research shows that faculty mentors can be important to the success of students.2 However, if the faculty member has a negative perception about the student’s cultural capital or abilities, then this deficit-thinking will not lead to a quality relationship, which is more valuable to black students than the race of the faculty mentor, for example. Additionally, some students don’t have time for small talk–whether its introversion or other deadlines looming. Perhaps when they stop in for office hours, they just want their questions answered, not to share their life story with a well-intentioned instructor.

Second, assuming black or Latino men did not earn their way in to the university perpetuates “stereotype threat.” Faculty and instructors have no way of knowing if a student of color was the top of their class from the very best private institution, or “merely” top 10% from their urban public high school. To assume that they are not academically prepared, and then treat them accordingly, only serves to reinforce social messages students receive about how their race/ethnicity is perceived in academic environments, and can contribute to underperforming. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color when their grades come in.

Third, while student-athletes may be granted latitude in admissions, there are still expectations (per NCAA eligibility guidelines) that they perform in the classroom in order to be able to compete. Even if a student, no matter their race, were also an athlete, they and the instructor each have an obligation to ensure that they are performing at their very best. Making assumptions about their admission qualifications does nothing to assist this student in their academic (and subsequent) athletic success. Understanding that Division I intercollegiate athletics is both an access point for college for some students as well as nearly a full time job outside of classes, instructors should work hard to encourage their students’ academic success, time management, and balancing of competing priorities.

Finally, I find it particularly detestable, after secondary education preparation and my chosen career as an educator, that instructors would assume that their teaching style and methods would and should work for all students, just because it has worked for decades or worked when they were in college. We have learned so much about teaching & learning–to say nothing of racial and other identity development–over the last half century and for instructors to rely solely on methods that were pioneered in an era when only upperclass White men were enrolled in colleges (and that continued after the GI bill redefined diversity to only include White men from broader social classes) is wrought with White privilege, and both irresponsible and unfortunately damaging. It’s easy to teach the way one always has and chalk up poor grades by anyone to some fault in the student. It’s much harder to acknowledge that some students need different methodologies, different learning assessments, and/or different assistance outside of class, especially when the pressures and challenges for all students have changed so much over time, and to then make the time to engage in those new practices. Even faculty of color can fall in this trap, if that manner of education happened to work for them.

Many faculty like to believe that they are good instructors–and that’s probably true for many of their students. But that does not mean that their implicit biases or negative assumptions about students of color, especially in a community like Madison that has such racial disparities, don’t impact their teaching effectiveness. White students may pick up on these biases and it may reinforce their own negative assumptions about their peers’ academic abilities. It can reinforce stereotype threat. It can decrease student engagement and contribute to the lower graduation rates cited by Hansen. It can reinforce other negative stereotypes generalized to the broader group represented by the woefully few men of color on campus.

Connecting back to the initial point, the reality on this campus (and likely others experiencing similar circumstances) is that black and Latino men are at risk for being perceived as neither qualified for nor welcome on campus, and possibly even be viewed as criminals.

Of course, this is not just a problem for UW students. If affects community members and employees. It extends to other institutions as well. A recent example from UCLA highlights similar trends in elite public higher education. But if Inclusive Excellence is the overriding goal (Inclusion is excellent, excellence is inclusive), then is it fair to say that our institutions fail to measure up to the term elite, since we are reinforcing exclusion, and therefore not excellent? Perhaps this has always been what we’re best at: reinforcing a perceived meritocracy that is primarily about exclusion through competition for grades, degree program admission, and jobs after graduation. 

But hope is not lost! It is imperative that efforts to foster a more inclusive campus focus on helping faculty interrogate their instructional methods to make them more inclusive. Inclusive classrooms lead to greater creativity in problem solving and greater attainment of learning outcomes, to name two examples. But beyond the practical academic benefit, faculty and other instructors can better understand their own implicit biases and use pedagogical practices that have been shown to increase student learning and disrupt social systems of privilege. Research institutions should pioneer applied educational research to foster innovative and effective methods to increase the college enrollment and subsequent success of black and Latino students, with the added benefit of reducing the risk of committing crime.3 Madison and Dane County should be the laboratory in which we work, and if that’s not the Wisconsin Idea, then it’s really just a marketing scheme.

1.Targeted is an unfortunate term to describe their recruitment, since the targeting based on race/ethincity doesn’t stop once they matriculate. Instead many become the targets of microaggressions and even intentional acts of bias or hate crimes.

2.Sources: Lee, W. Y. (1999). Striving toward effective retention: The effect of race on mentoring African American students. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), pp. 27-43. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1493074. and Hernandez, J. C., & Lopez, M. A. (2005). Leaking pipeline: Issues impacting Latino/a college student retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 6(1), 37-60. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/196729924?accountid=465

3.A word on the crime disparities: Obviously context matters. Crime and criminality are not the result of some deviant genetic trait among people of color. Systems of socioeconomic (and behavioral) oppression lead to certain crimes in certain situations, as well as the criminalization of certain behaviors deemed deviant or dangerous. These categories are subjective, determined by people with power, and over time they have had a disasterous effect. Students who are more engaged in school, both K-12 and post-secondary, and feel that they are on a path to legal economic success, have less–no?–incentive to commit property crimes.

Male privilege is…

Male privilege is the ability to step in to and out of conversations and spaces about gender equity whenever I want to. While I have continued to have conversations about social justice and my own personal journey, mostly at work or with Maggie for the last six months, I’m about to jump back in with this blog.

Summers in Wisconsin are too short to not spend as much time outside as possible, another privilege of time and money, of course. My hope is to resume writing in this medium throughout the winter–I can think of few better ways to spend time on cold snowy mornings. And they’re coming–and hopefully become a bit more efficient and better able to write in the spring & summer.

Additionally, I’m hoping to gather real examples of male privilege that you’ve seen or experienced in everyday life (on a college campus would be ideal) for a future post. In the comments here, on Facebook, through Twitter, or via email send them my way. If they’re layered with intersectionality that’s great too, because my lens is White-straight-cis-atheist-able. My conception of male privilege is often limited to that paradigm and I would like to think and reflect more about the other ways it shows up.

Detecting Serial Rapists on College Campuses

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in addition to a variety of others that get lost in our daily shuffle). So for me it’s a time to critically think about the way we’re raising awareness, and if we’re not undermining our traditional efforts (which are clearly not enough) by ignoring some key research, published just over 10 years ago.

This past week at work, my campus hosted Dr. David Lisak, who is best known for his research in to the predatory nature of most men who commit rape. He was the keynote speaker for our annual summit for sexual assault and violence prevention and facilitated a discussion for allegation investigators. While I had previously seen clips of the documentary based on his research with college men regarding the incidence of sexual predation, there was a substantial amount of information that really challenges the way I think about sexual assault prevention.

Often, the research indicates that bystander intervention programs, which enlist men and women as disrupters of sexual assaults before they occur, are effective programs. Rather than framing the issue as one of men as predators and potential rapists, it instead tries to train potential witnesses to take direct or indirect action to prevent assaults by others.

This approach is intended to bring men in to the conversation, appealing to them as men (who’ve been socialized to believe they are responsible, decisive, action-oriented) to step in. It is founded on the premise that we have to appeal to men through hegemonic masculine norms in order to converse with and bring them to action in gender equity work, something that is problematic but requires its own separate exploration.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lisak’s research presents a problem. He has found, in studies that have been replicated in other environments, that among college aged men, only 5% admit to actions that constitute sexual assault or rape. Of those men, 63% are responsible for 91% of the rape behaviors. His conclusion in the study is that 3% of men are serial rapists, responsible for 91% of rapes, among other violent crimes against women and children. In McWhorter’s study of U.S. Navy recruits, the findings were even more startling, with 13% of men acknowledging behavior that constitutes rape or attempted rape, and among them 71% are serial rapists responsible for 95% of all rapes.

“Great!” we could say, “not all men are rapists.” This is true. However, the 3% who commit the vast majority of rapes and other violent crimes against women/children are doing so because they are “undetected” as Lisak & Miller refer to them.

So for me the vexing issue coming out of this campus summit, in thinking about prevention in a college environment, is how to address the serial rapist issue. Bystander intervention programs I’ve worked with often treat sexual assault as a one-off event that likely results from over-intoxication by the potential victim, and requires people to notice and step in to make sure that person gets home safe and unharmed.

But if the vast majority of men who are likely to commit rape are predatory serial rapists, as Lisak’s and other research suggest, they are actively taking advantage of their victims in ways that may evade bystander intervention techniques taught to college students.

Not only will they continue to use alcohol to ply their potential victims in to isolation, advantageous to the assault, but they may choose environments where bystander interventions are less likely to occur–crowded bars, clubs, and house parties where anonymity is easier and bystander intoxication is more likely to cloud judgment, and thereby prevent successful bystander intervention.

They may also work collaboratively with other predatory men. Among the men interviewed, Lisak found that there were groups–notoriously, but not exclusively fraternities–that intentionally used parties and their social capital as party hosts to prey on new college women, with the tool of choice being cups of highly concentrated alcoholic punch to incapacitate their victims.

The interview transcript was turned in to a documentary with re-enactments of the dialogue. The language used is both disturbing and insightful. The way the man described the women as objects whose sole purpose was his satisfaction is key to understanding the way some men are viewing women on campus, and indifferent to (or worse, proud of) their own predatory behavior.

The Unintentional Risks of Bystander Interventions

Bystander Intervention can be an effective tool, but if we elide or omit the nature of serial rape among non-strangers, we are undermining our own efforts. If a serial rapist is thwarted by a bystander, who assumes it is potentially just a consent or communication issue, they will adjust their tactics to be more successful in the future.

Additionally, the potential rapist is not being held accountable. They do not feel shame for having tried to take advantage of their potential victim. They will feel anger or frustration for being prevented from accomplishing their goal: rape. This will be highly motivating for them to learn from their “mistakes” and find a way to successfully rape in the future, figuring out ways to avoid bystander interventions.

So in many cases, bystander intervention will prevent individual sexual assaults. But it will also teach predators the means to continue to avoid detection as serial rapists. The intrepid among them will attend bystander intervention programs to learn how to continue to be “undetected.”

Serial Rape and Student Conduct

From a student conduct perspective, we’re also challenged on how to hold alleged rapists accountable, if they are serial rapists. Dr. Lisak appeared on CBS a few years ago to talk about the basic synopsis of his research and its implications for investigators, and that can be extended to campus administrators in student conduct.

The reality is that we’re constrained by Title IX and due process. It can be incredibly invasive or resource-intensive to investigate the alleged rapists background to find out if this is a one-off or if they are a serial offender who hasn’t been caught, who has been practicing or enabled, who has other victims.

As I said above, if random bystander X intervenes in a situation, that information may never come to the attention of campus officials as a prior indicator of predatory behavior that can inform an understanding of the alleged student’s motivation and the appropriate sanctions if they’re found responsible.

An investigation could turn it up, but given the scope and scale of the party and bar environment on my campus, it’s just as, if not more, likely that there’s not a snowball’s chance in June that we’re going to hear about it. At least not with some incredibly invasive investigation, which may then draw both press and Federal scrutiny–risks not likely to be palatable to University administrators.

Of course the flip side is a Title IX lawsuit and negative press coverage regarding the campus’s failure to prevent sexual assault. Personally (and professionally) I’d rather deal with the former.

This may require the development of Campus Threat policies and procedures that empower campus officials (and University law enforcement officers) with these investigative responsibilities in order to justify it under legislative, judicial, or media scrutiny. Of course, serial rapists going ignored or unpunished would constitute a campus environment hostile to women so I think it’ll likely stand up, given the research.

But the campus efforts should not be limited only responding to incidents that are reported. We should be working actively to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Changing Prevention Efforts

One of my responsibilities this year is in developing some efforts for bystander intervention skill development related to high risk alcohol use. As part of that I’m also reflecting on the ways to incorporate sexual assault prevention in to the program. Student leaders, who are the intended participants of this program, need to be educated on the risk of the serial rapist, without sending the message that all men are rapists.

In my mind this proves to be more challenging.

Sharing the statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a tiny fraction of men on campus may be heartening to some–we who who don’t rape can feel good that we’re the “good ones.” It also may feel daunting to know that confronting a potential sexual assault may not prevent one in the future. Without the expectation to both intervene in the moment, and inform someone in a position of authority, the intervention may only delay the attack to some future victim.

This might conflict with the bystander’s assumptions about the potential rapist: Tarnish an innocent man’s reputation or prevent a potential future assault, without knowing for sure one way or the other.

There may also be a failure to see if group behavior is somehow reinforcing individual serial rape behavior. Like the men in Lisak’s study, there are still some out there who conspire together to use the college party environment as a means to commit sexual assaults (where have prosecutions on that atrocity been?!).

Add in the tendency of college students to distrust authority and resist reporting anyway, unless they’re personally impacted in some way, and you can see the numerous wrinkles to this new way of thinking about sexual assault prevention.

Going forward there has to be concerted efforts to prevent, investigate, and hold accountable serial rape behaviors. To ignore this issue continues to put college women at risk. It can (and it’s only a matter of time before it will) put universities at risk, which may be the interest convergence necessary to start making changes in this area.

For whatever reason, because the research findings have been available for over a decade, it is concerning to me that we unintentionally reinforce rape culture through our lack of resources to fully investigate the alleged offender, our failure to proactively discuss sexual assault with college men in as many avenues as possible, or the meaningful steps to identify “bad actors”: those who have anti-social traits and use alcohol as a means to sexually assault.

These are challenging issues, requiring significant collaboration and education efforts on campus, but to do less would give the message to the predators that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try again.

Pro Tip: Respond instead of reacting

I can’t even recall when I first heard this phrase “Respond instead of reacting.” One example of its relevance to social justice is cited in “35 dumb things well-intentioned people say,”but that book is problematic to me for reasons outside the scope of this post. But if it was something I first picked up as an education major learning about classroom management or if it was a ground rule in a discussion about social justice topics, it remains a good guide for online and interpersonal interactions. With social media and comment sections, trolls function to generate reaction. Trolls want to drag you in to a rabbit hole of back-and-forth tweets or comments, getting pleasure out of riling up the unsuspecting internet novice. Or it could be the knee-jerk tweets that don’t take the time to understand the nuance, parody, satire, or the person who tweeted it.

But there are also instances when someone at the other end of a digital connection is genuinely interested in your perspective, an answer to a question, or even just your reaction, without the intention of dragging you down that rabbit hole. In terms of interpersonal interactions, in real time and space, you’re probably not going to have involved conversations about serious topics with someone just trolling for a reaction. You’re more likely to be engaging in spirited debate about the topic. There will still be statements and questions that are provocative, intended to spur reaction, though the intention is to either make their point, win the argument, or make you look foolish for a lack of understanding, not for falling in to the rabbit hole.

So what does this have to do with masculine norms? One of the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity is the belief that men and our voices or opinions are more valuable, we’re inherently superior in society, and that we’re always right (except when we’re wrong, but then we never have to admit we were wrong), and these become more dangerous to social justice because we’re expected to be competitive. It’s an underlying foundation of “mansplaining.” As men we tend to react because we don’t always have to be right, we just have to say our “truth” with enough emphasis or forcefully enough, and we can win the argument. Often, we just have to silence the other voices that would be participating. And if we choose to, as a person of privilege, we can react to statements and questions with defensiveness, like by withdrawing from the dialogue or adopting combative or resistant body language, telling ourselves that we still won. Why acknowledge that something I did was hurtful or offensive, when I can cry that I was “misunderstood” or that it was “not my intent” and then refuse to actively participate in the conversation any longer, blaming others for an attack on us. We have the right to use or exclude, to borrow language from Critical Race Theory.

As a person of privilege, it’s been ingrained that my voice is valuable and more valuable than others, reinforced through school, sports, and socializing. Being male is one facet of my identity where society has made easier for me to speak, demonstrate competence, and achieve in our purportedly meritocratic society. What I learned, too late in life, was that I am not always right, I don’t know everything, and I can never fully understand the (racialized, gendered, Othered, oppressed) experience of other individuals. But it was easier to act as if I did, as if I knew as well as a woman because I had taken a history course where we talked about the feminist movement or read an article in an academic journal (this specific instance was particularly problematic at the time). I would react to challenges to my privileged world view. I would get angry, try and embarrass the other person, talk over them, remain indifferent to their frustration with my arrogance, or demonstrate my superiority by withdrawing from the conversation, as if it was beneath me to be even discussing it with a lesser being. Any one of these actions is a defensive strategy that I used to (sometimes) unknowingly maintain my masculine identity, and avoid gender role strain–the internal cognitive conflict that arises when our unexamined masculinity is challenged in a way that surfaces a fear of being (or being perceived as) feminine. Unfortunately, this is not isolated to me alone. My experience is universal for men in America.

In addition to being humbled by some fantastic and compassionate people who began to challenge me right back when I played the “expert” card, I slowly learned that there is a better path to dialogue, where I can share my experience and also learn from the individual experiences of others. When I began a more conscious and conscientious social justice journey, expanding on my purely academic interest in historical oppression, I was often challenged to acknowledge my privileged position, the unearned benefits that had come to me, that made my path in life the one of least resistance. By starting with turning down the impulse to compete and the impulse to prove something (that I’m right, smart, well-educated, an ally, anything), I was able to turn up the volume on the words shared by others. I was able to begin to understand what they were saying–never fully, but enough to begin to trust that there was truth in their words and oppression in my past actions. I had to struggle with guilt over past conversations rooted in my lived privilege and fear of screwing up in the future: an outright acknowledgement that I am not meeting society’s expectations by being fallible. And then I learned to respond.

Responding is more than just making statements back after a pause. It involves engaged listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak or thinking about what your response will be while the other person talks. Counselors and psychologists call it “attending:” Behavior and cognitive processes that reflect that the other person has your full attention, building rapport and trust, and facilitating open interpersonal communication. Body language, eye contact, and other non-verbals indicate that they have your attention. Reflective statements demonstrate that you’re listening to the person and attempting to understand the meaning of their words. Your thoughts focus on understanding what they are saying, not thinking about what you’ll say next. Your chosen words don’t take on a tone or volume laced with power, arrogance, or condescension. Responses further the conversation, not win an argument or prove that you’re right.

In digital exchanges of information, it can be even more critical to respond, not react, because there are not the non-verbals that can indicate authenticity or trust. Nuance is lost as in the Jamie Kilstein tweet linked above or as we’ve see in anything sarcastic we’ve ever tried to send via tweet, email, or instant message. Responding in digital formats can take a few different forms, among many others:

  • Taking the time to re-read an email before drafting a response
  • Pausing and reviewing a draft before hitting the send button
  • Adopting the other person’s perspective to better understand their intention
  • Asking for clarification to ensure that you fully understand the context of their statement or what they were trying to convey
  • Taking the time to gather your facts and compare them to the information shared by the other party–though citations in non-journalism communication has gone the way of MySpace
  • Presenting information that expands the scope of understanding for both parties
  • Acknowledge that lived experiences are valid, there is truth in the counter stories that reflect a different understanding of the issue at hand

With Internet 2.0 it can be easy for men to feel like they “win” in a digital exchange. We can sit behind our keyboards, typing out our attacks and reactions, without really reading or understanding the context for the statements. We can remain emotionally detached, or lash out in anger (exacerbated by relative anonymity), and continue to exhibit stereotypical masculine behaviors. We go back and forth trying to present the most compelling information, without the nuance of tact or tone or non-verbals, and then assume that the other person just doesn’t measure up to our intellect or rhetorical ability. Lately the blogosphere (do people still use that word to describe this media environment?) has exploded with explanations of rape culture and refutations of the theory of false rape accusations, and men, from our privileged positions, can just ignore all that commentary, no matter the references or citations to sources, journalism, facts. Like other social justice movements struggling to garner mainstream support, feminism is marginalized because the dominant group they are actively working to change is in no way invested in what feminists saying. It’s a game that men can leave any time they want, declaring victory the moment they choose to walk away.

There are men out there who are actively countering this narrative. Instead of retreating to the relative safety of hegemony, men are starting to find that they can act in the interest of building a culture and community that is actively seeking inclusion and mutual support. Rather than reacting in any situation, men can benefit from learning to respond. We are trying to develop the interpersonal communication skills that build trust and understanding of other perspectives, key components of ally development for those of us in privileged positions. We actively interrogate the ways in which we have been held back by the social pressures that empower us through privilege and oppress us through restrictive gender roles. We engage in authentic dialogue with others about how gender has shaped our experiences. And we put in the hard work, eschewing the path of least resistance, to develop authentic relationships with others rather than competing to be right or louder.

My favorite poem, as much as I dislike poetry generally and as cliché as it might be, is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has long resonated with my conviction that life is best experienced by charting a course that allows exploration, creativity, new experiences, and challenges. For a few years now on our refrigerator has been a magnet that has the last line of the poem:

The Road Less Traveled

It continues to serve as a reminder that although the path of least resistance is always open to me, I make a difference in this life, when choosing the road less traveled. Responding isn’t as easy as reacting, but each day I grow through my shared learning with others, rather than by trying only to prove that I’m a man.

Breaking through gender roles: Creating conflict to change ourselves

One of the most ground breaking pieces of scholarly literature that spurred my introduction in to gender identity exploration was Voices of gender role conflict: The social construction of college men’s identity, written by Tracy Davis of Western Illinois University. Through a constructivist qualitative inquiry with ten college men, Davis described the phenomenon of identity foreclosure, where there is an absence of crisis that leads to identity self-exploration. In lay terms, Davis posits that college men in some environments were not being challenged to think about what type of man they were and how they were acting as a result of the ways they were and are socialized to be men (and in this case, also white). The absence of racial and gender identity exploration refers to other research that Davis cites:

The lack of gender awareness may also be explained by Jones and McEwan’s (2000) multiple identity model. According to this model, privilege and inequality are least visible to those who are most privileged by cultural systems.

For me this article was especially powerful. By raising my awareness of my gender identity and the way I was socialized to perform a male gender role, I was starting to experience the type of crises necessary to begin a process of connecting with feminism and supporting gender equity. The male gender role identified by O’Neil (1981) and explored by Davis highlights a fear of femininity at the heart of male gender role conflict. Homophobic statements/behaviors (which were rarely said, but also rarely challenged when witnessed), pressure to limit emotional expression, and impacts on open and honest communication are all symptoms of the way I was socialized to “be a man.” This created stress because it combined with my own personal feelings of inadequacy for not fitting the physical “type” of man–I was thin, lacked muscular definition, and was academically-oriented, not intent on sexual or romantic prominence–both in high school and in college.

The fear of femininity carried this perception that I did not measure up to society’s expectations of how I should act or appear–how I should perform my gender (see Judith Butler for more on gender performance). I am still unraveling the impact of this socialization and failure to confront my own gender socialization until I was 25. It continues to offer challenges to my personal relationships, approach to friendships and connecting with others, and feeling comfortable with developing the counseling skills necessary to do my work in student conduct. This is problematic for me as a partner intent on fostering an equitable and interdependent interpersonal relationship, and as a student conduct administrator, as the counseling skills are necessary to my work; yet, I still feel an underlying discomfort because the helping skills are socially constructed as feminine and it requires a huge mental shift to acknowledge this and still embrace the practice of these skills to normalize them in my own communication methods, role modeling this for the young college men that I work with almost daily.

Because I did not begin this exploration until I was in my first year of graduate school, at age 25, I am struggling to unlearn negative stereotypes from more than one fourth of my life expectancy. It’s imperative that we start to develop avenues to spark the developmental crises necessary for boys and young men to explore their gender socialization and performance as early as possible. We also have to be sensitive to social factors and intersections of class, race, and ability, among others, which influence the power dynamics that contribute to men’s feelings of powerlessness, despite the social power of masculinity. We are at an opportune time in this country to do this. There are numerous issues related to masculine gender norms that are regularly in the media–sexual assaults among high school and college students, gun violence, the rape culture that pervades American society, and the conservative party line about individual responsibility, to name but a few. As educators, parents, friends, and colleagues, we need to identify meaningful opportunities to challenge boys and young men to join us on a journey of identity exploration, and avoid foreclosure to the possibilities that can benefit our shared humanity. As adult men, we can open ourselves up to the conversation, to the idea that we have more to gain by taking that journey ourselves and making informed and conscious choices about the way we perform our genders, rather than a lock-step adherence to patriarchy and fear of all things feminine.

How could I not?

In graduate school, while doing an internship with an anti-violence program on campus, I came across the article How can I not? Men’s pathways to anti-violence against women work published in the journal Violence Against Women. Granted I was already on my path, but this article reinforced some of the reasons that I was doing that internship, exploring my own identity, or encouraging others to challenge gender norms and confront violence in their lives. I began to trace the thread through my experience: an interest socialist thinking as a subversive and progressive force for good, studying history; especially focused on civil rights and oppression in the United States; teacher preparation and the exploration of privileged positions in the K-12 education system; gender identity development theory and the relationship with student misconduct and systems of oppression in higher education. By the fall of 2010 I had fully committed myself to try something–anything–to do what I felt was right for me and for the community I was in.

What I have gained–as nothing is purely selfless–has made every step worth it. I have a greater understanding of who I am and the person I am ever-evolving in to. My partner and I have a stronger relationship, built on interdependence, trust, mutual support, and cooperation, where we can challenge each other on gender roles and norms, expectations, and our behavior. I regularly think about what type of father I want to be to my future children and what kind of son I am to my parents. And I consider how my male identity, intersecting with my other identities, influences my worldview in a multicultural Midwestern city and my work at a large and diverse university. I didn’t know what the benefits would be at the outset. I just knew, from the moment the issue was laid bare before me by some very gracious women in my life, that this path was the right one. That women’s rights and men’s liberation from hegemonic masculinity are inextricably linked, and for the betterment of society, I have a responsibility to undermine inequality at every opportunity. Women have been working at it for decades, centuries. Sure I didn’t build the structure of society that has often privileged men and now that I’m aware of their efforts and sacrifices, it would be sexist of me not to join the movement and challenge the status quo.

Contrary to stereotypes about women’s liberation or radical feminism, men do have a place at the table and a stake in this effort. We may not be always invited, but we can do things together that advance equality in our society, liberating us all from the shackles of sexism. Together, men, we can build a middle way that helps men break free of the restrictions of a narrowly defined masculinity and realize our full potential as loving, caring, and responsible men who support a social fabric of equality across gender, race, sexuality, social class, and ability. The first step is the hardest, but together we can make vast changes with men in our lives.