Racist comments and threats to the Black student community could easily have sparked stereotypical male responses, but many at Lewis & Clark College thought outside the ‘man box.’
November 17th, 2015 is a day I’ll never forget. At Lewis & Clark College, I was sitting in the office suite where the Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement and International Students and Scholars departments are located. At first, it was another day in the office where I was engaging with students, answering e-mails, and figuring out the structure of final papers for class. Later that day, a student informed me there were racist remarks posted on Yik Yak that were perceived as threats toward the Black student community. One post stated “I just want to hang you ignorant black people,” while another stated, “that black people think just cause their ancestors were slaves they deserve more … well in that case let’s give them something to whine about #BringBackSlavery.”
From that moment on, things got more complicated. Later on in the week, there was another racist post on Yik Yak that stated “I still want to hang them … You lot just made me want to do it more.” Additionally, there were students protesting and advocating for specific initiatives to be undertaken such as diversifying the academic curriculum, increasing campus security, and increasing the amount of lights on campus. Lastly, there were student sit-ins at the President’s office, and three white males attacked a black student on campus.
In the midst of this happening within four days, the relationship I had with my male students further developed. During this time, my male students expressed themselves in ways that do not fit within the “man box” as indicated by Paul Kivel (1992). They developed cultural competency about how issues are affecting their colleagues from other marginalized communities, they were reminded of their privilege as males, and they were challenged to evaluate where they fit in terms of supporting their female counterparts.
In the “man box”, it is the expectation for men to not be weak, to not cry, or show emotion. Due to the recent events that have affected students at my institution, my male students were in a place where none of that mattered. These young, educated men expressed their anger, frustration, and their sadness. These men were not afraid to be vulnerable and shed tears during this difficult time; they were not afraid to be regular human beings. The atmosphere they placed themselves in was filled with nothing but support. There was no fear of being negatively judged, there was no concern of feeling less of a man, and there were no “man box” norms being implemented. These men took off their masculine masks and expressed the emotions they had been trying to hide from their colleagues and peers.
Many of the male students I work with are men of color, specifically Black men. The incidents that happened on campus were clearly affecting the Black community the most. However, these gentlemen took initiative to learn how the incidents were affecting other communities. They reached out to males from other ethnic minority groups, women, white allies, international students, etc. Although this was a difficult time for the Black community at Lewis & Clark College, these men took it upon themselves to gain a different perspective of how the recent events were affecting other people than themselves; it was a great opportunity for building community.
While building community, these men were faced with another challenge: checking their male privilege. During a student gathering, these men were called out on their efforts and how it aligned with their male privilege. They were called out on how much they spoke over women, how much they would not listen to women, and how they would not acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of other women.
These gentlemen were making an effort to build a community with their non-Black colleagues, heal the community they already had with their Black peers, and establish deeper relationships with staff and faculty. However, during all of this, they were not aware of how their actions and efforts were being perceived. Because of the conversation where their female counterparts were calling them out, they managed to take a step back and address the privileges they have as men.
Granted, this is not an overnight process, which is why still to this day, they are slowly, but surely navigating through the process of understanding their privileges as men, understanding how to be male allies to their female peers, and developing a competence on how to collaborate with them to build community instead of taking charge by default.
The students I work with are always developing and growing as individuals. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t see each of my students becoming a better version of themselves. Frederick Douglass once said “if there is not struggle, there is no progress,” and I honestly wish that was not the case. My students are still hurting, but they are highly resilient. They have been equipped with the necessary tools and skills to be successful. Because of their strength, I manage to continue navigating through the field of student affairs. With the amount of hope they possess, I continue to advocate for them. Due to their willingness to excel in all of their personal, academic, and professional endeavors, I strive to do the same.
The occurrences of racist posts on social media, the power of student protests, and the visibility of social injustice is not something new and is not something solely specific to Lewis & Clark College; this is happening everywhere. Nonetheless, I hope this piece resonates with other professionals in the field. I hope other folks in this field are having their male students acknowledge their emotions and actions, as well as addressing the privileges they have. The students I work with have a long journey ahead of them, but through their efforts, they will see progress.
Image credit: Kevin Wright