I was kindly invited to speak at a very interesting SOAS debate today. I can't make it, because I have a Secret Family Engagement; but here's my remote contribution :)
White, straight men are on the back foot on campus. London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was established in 1916 as the School of Oriental Studies, with the specific remit of training future colonial administrators in the language and culture of the people they were destined to rule.
Nearly a century later, at this institution founded on racist, patriarchal principles, straight white males account for less than 20 percent of the SOAS student body – a fact that has prompted calls for them to be recognised as a minority group by the students’ union, and granted their own exclusive welfare strategy. Today, as part of their Diversity Week, SOAS will debate whether or not to appoint a ‘Straight White Men's Officer’.
University life often comes as a shock to the privileged sons of this country. Higher education is the time in their lives when young men are most likely to experience minority status: white men may dominate in the world of work, in top-level management, in politics, in administration, in the arts, in culture, in the military and in the media, but as undergraduates they make up only 36% percent of the student population. White males are also have less chance ofless likely to graduateing with a first or upper second class degree and of finding immediate employment than their female classmates, where by contrast, less than thirty years ago, white males appeared to dominate every mixed-gender campus. At university, unlike in other environments, straight, white young men cannot pretend that they represent the standard for normal humanity – instead, they are required to confront their roles as members of a privileged minority interest-group on the world stage. Nowhere is this sea-change more evident than at SOAS.
Many have opposed the motion to appoint a ‘Straight White Men’s Officer,’ pointing out that white, straight males do not face discrimination on the grounds of race, sex sexuality or gender – and that to suggest that they do marginalises the experiences of oppressed groups.
SOAS students’ union women’s officer Elly Badcock comments saidthat: “Women have a women's officer because we're fundamentally disadvantaged in society, and liberation campaigns exist for those who have been systematically and structurally discriminated against, specifically because of their sexuality, gender or race.
“ Straight white men have never been discriminated against on these fronts, so claiming that they are an opressed group smacks of whingeing.”
Indeed, whilst white, straight males are now in the minority at SOAS, no evidence has yet come to light of such students facing racist, sexist or heterophobic discrimination on campus. James, 25, who studied Arabic at SOAS, told me that "as a white male in an aggressively diverse environment, I never felt anything other than welcome, really."
Like other white, male students, however, James sees saw the need for a white men's officer to address issues other than discrimination: "Iit'd be useful, if only so that so that we can identify as a minority group alongside other minority groups, and if and when we need slapping down, it can be done by one of our own.
“ That, and they could organise Bruce Springsteen appreciation nights."
At SOAS, straight, white young men are confronted with the truth of their status as a minority group, albeit a privileged one, in every classroom and hallway. That white, straight males are finally recognising themselves as the minority group they have always been is a positive development, and the appointment of officers to oversee this difficult process of recognition could well help the white, straight young men of today identify and position themselves in solidarity with women, queer people and other minorities.
The needs of straight, white males are different to the needs of other minority groups, and should be treated as such. But being born a privileged son does not mean that one deserves to be denied support in the process of finding and exploring one's identity, especially as growing up as a white, straight and male in Britain today is so often a confusing and painful experience.
Today’s white, straight men too often mistake the work that equality activists do to oppose the worst consequences of white, male, heteronormative privilege as active discrimination against themselves as individuals. Attacks on unearned privilege are not the same as discrimination, nor are they something with which any ‘Straight White Men’s Officer’ should waste his time opposing. Instead, such an officer would best serve his community by helping students explore positive ways of expressing a straight, white, masculine identity in a society thoroughly sick of being dominated by straight, white males.
Gay, female and non-white people, at SOAS and elsewhere, have every reason to be wary about allowing straight, white males any more exclusive identity clubs: historically, there are have been few models for such spaces that dido not define themselves violently against everyone who is 'different'. Having fought to create spaces in which our own identities as women, homosexual people and/or BME people are celebrated rather than attacked, it seems disingenuous to suggest that white, straight men might make positive use of such safe spaces.
But in a diverse community like SOAS, where white, straight men are already compelled to recognise and adapt to their minority status, a 'Straight White Maen's Officer' with an agenda to support students in avoiding the pitfalls of prejudice and negotiating their own identities might well be a positive appointment.
The gradual movement of today's young, white, straight men towards a positive identity model deserves all the support it can garner. This Last week, Courtney Martin reported in The American Prospect on a recent conference, led by men, on the fight to build a new 'feminist masculinity': " There are legions of progressive men ... who are struggling to redefine masculinity and live that redefinition every day. They have the opportunity to shed their socialized skin and all the anxiety that comes with trying to be a ‘"tough guy’" and make a happy life defined, not by their paycheck or their size, but by their humanity. Fighting against the world that we don't want is a critical first step, but fighting for the world that we do want is where liberation truly begins."
SOAS was established a century ago to train young white, straight young men in the arts of domination and subjection. With a little imagination, it could well end up training the next generation of white, straight young men - struggling to find their place in a world that orders them to dominate and then blames them for doing so - in the arts of listening, sharing and solidarity.