March 23, 2013

RACIAL ALIENATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION: The case of straight, white men.

Most people who are not straight white men would probably smirk at the idea that straight white men feel alienated in the higher education workplace.

Those who smirk, Sandra Miles said here at the annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, are hindering meaningful discussion about race.

Miles, whose dissertation on the professional experiences of black women in her field produced an unexpected sub-study about the alienation of straight white men, made this argument to a couple hundred people who turned up to hear more about her research. The ensuing debate was, unsurprisingly, somewhat contentious.

A comment by one white graduate student toward the end of the session summed it up well. He described a recent discussion about privilege in a higher education class, when he was shot down after offering his own thoughts.

“I couldn’t even begin to have that conversation because it was automatically assumed I didn’t understand,” he said. “To go through that experience in a higher education class – which is supposed to be the safest place to talk about that – was just terrifying.”

The preconceived notions and biases apparent in the reactions of that student’s peers spoke to the overall takeaway of Miles, who is university ombudsman at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.

“We’re all unhappy – apparently that’s what equality looks like,” she said. “Every other group feels discriminated against as well, and when having these conversations with people who are members of these other groups, it’s important that you understand that.”

Miles surveyed 671 student affairs professionals, primarily in the South and Midwest. About 230 respondents were black, and 415 were white.

Snippets from the responses of white men suggested many of them feel unfairly judged and at times professionally limited because of their race and gender.

Well, you can only call people the enemy for so long based on their race and gender before they start to notice.

And note this, from the comments: “When I started in the student affairs field in 1975, there were slightly more men than women in the student personnel graduate programs around the country. Today, go to virtually any school and take a look at the gender breakdown either in student development graduate programs or in the student affairs division at that school. You will find that the gender scene has changed dramatically since the 70s. In fact, the field is probably closer to 75% – 80% women. That fact should have us take heed and explore what has changed. The pay is still education pay and lousy so that hasn’t changed. Men have fled from the field for some reason.”

If it were any other race and gender fleeing, it would be a crisis. And if student affairs offices were 75-80% male, it would be seen as creating a hostile environment for female students.

In truth, of course, an increasingly feminized higher education world is, in fact, hostile to men in many ways, and that’s one reason why male enrollment is falling, exacerbating the higher education bubble’s bursting.

Related item here:

Men don’t join the conversation now for the same reason that women didn’t in the 50′s.

In the 50′s if a woman complained about her sexist boss then the entire weight of the organization and society came down on her for not playing her part, and being uppity enough to challenge the real power.

Now after decades of the government and corporate legal counsel’s actively stamping out sexual harassment a new paradigm exists. If a woman complains about a sexist man then the man is presumed guilty until he can prove his innocence. (usually because the company would rather fire him on the spot rather than risk a lawsuit or government interference in their operations) In other words, “the entire weight of the organization and society come down on the uppity man for questioning a powerful woman.”

Maybe someday we’ll achieve that actual equality we’ve been seeking, but for now it’s just safer and better for the man to move on to a less dangerous place and continue his career there.

Coming soon in response: A wave of “Black Knights?”