Thursday 19 November 2009

A 'Straight, White Men's' officer for SOAS?

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.


  1. Hmm, interesting question. My first reaction (as a straight white male) is definitely "ridiculous", but that may be because the few straight white males I know that have talked about their minority status have been whiny twats who think they're an oppressed minority because of "PC gone mad" or some shit like that. (I guess I'm also not quite a standard white male for the purposes of UK academia because I'm not actually British. Not that I've experienced *any* discrimination for that.)

    But there are some interesting arguments here, this could be great if done properly. However I worry that the position of 'straight white men's officer' quite likely will have the sort of whiny twat I mentioned earlier voted in. Which would be decidedly counterproductive...

  2. it's a huge logical leap to suggest that having a ‘Straight White Men’s Officer’ is a claim that this group is 'oppressed'.

    "no evidence has yet come to light of such students facing racist, sexist or heterophobic discrimination on campus"
    Does there need to be? Not to have an officer looking after an interest group, there isn't.

    But I think it would be a disaster, playing right into the hands of those who want us straight, white males to play at identity politics. We refuse, largely, to do so. I treat others as individuals and not as members of a group and expect the same in return.

    Some commentator pointed out that if white British people start playing identity politics, we are left with the BNP, is that what you want?

    Obviously not. I hope this is, as you say, a positive development, and they do not turn into a bunch of whiners. Or a bunch of self-hating liberals.

  3. Not surprising that "straight white men" would steer clear of this bed of nutters. For someone who aspires to be the next Julie Burchill you don't half write a lot of tosh, and your written English leaves a lot to be desired. On second thoughts, that IS Julie Burchill.

  4. Hmm, as a Straight White Man, I've always thought that one of the more useful aspects of socially constructed masculinity (which tends to affect us all to some extent, like it or no) is the virtue known as "counting your blessings and getting on with it". Hence, I'm with Julius above - the SWMO position is by definition unlikely to be occupied by someone who can act as an exponent of this particular virtue. I'd predict that the SWMO is likely to be one of the whiny twats mentioned by Julius, and they will have ridden into power on a minority 'whiny twat' vote.

    Like nicking traffic cones, singing bawdy songs, or climbing onto the bike sheds when drunk, thinking that the phrse "Hey, we should have a _men's_ officer! Yeah!" is funny is just one of those stages that many SWMs go through. Most of us tend to get over it, though - those who don't join the UK Men's Movement.

    Chris Williams

    PS Not everyone who's been in the UKMM is a whiny twat. I know this one guy who's alright, and there are probably more.
    PPS Yeah, I know that in men "keep quiet and carry on" is adversely linked to mental illness and suicide, but it ain't half better than "get what you can".

  5. I went to university in Bradford, a city with strong representation of several minority ethnic groups (Pakistanis being just the most numerous and prominent of those). Because of the university's reputation in several medical disciplines, it was also a popular choice for many students from Pakistan and the Middle East.

    So, I was a "minority" in some of the areas I lived as well as in classes. But I needed no advocates because as long as I was alert and sensitive to the people around me, I was fine - and if I wasn't then that was my own fault for being a jerk!

    As for "Bruce Springsteen appreciation nights", that would be the proper duty of either the Bruce Springsteen Appreciation Society, or of the Entertainments group.

  6. Speaking as an ex-SOAS student, the only time I have seen somebody abused for their background during an AGM was when a contemporary of mine (a straight white man) had "shut up posh boy/sit down posh boy" shouted at him as he spoke against a motion attempting to ban alcohol from union events. The chair did nothing to stop this.

    This is not to say that I subscribe to the (frankly rubbish) argument that straight white men are victimised in society. They are not. But SOAS is a very strange place with a very unhealthy approach to these issues - I would be wary of writing pieces with conclusions pertaining to wider society based on the examplar of SOAS.

  7. An investment bank of my acquitance tried bringing in US-style diversity trainers: who's concern for working mothers was shouted down by young female employees, Asian staff told them Britain wasn't racist, white europeans nattered behind their backs in foreign... Everyone basically covered the cracks in British society with white lies for a few hours - because you don't let management divide and rule.

    My old uni had a dozen diversity officers, almost none of my non-white friends knew who "their's" was. In the end most of them lost budget and got axed.

    The real question isn't should you have a Team Whitey Lead Co-Coordinator, but would anyone even notice? And if they did, is this a good or a bad thing for SOAS?

    Anon of Not Searched

    P.S. "train young white, straight young men in the arts of domination and subjection" *raises eyebrow* :-)

  8. I don`t like straight white men and don`t have any particular desire to be associated with them. The only reason I`d join such an organisation is if I had some desire to engage in racist violence and burnings.
    Otherwise I think I`ll base my identity on a rather more broadbased morality than simply *what`s good for straight white men* (all the other straight white men fucking off and leaving more women for me?) and choose my friends on a basis other than the colour of their skin or gender.

  9. Firstly down with identity politics. Secondly I don't think sexuality, gender and 'race' are necessarily the things you need to be looking at if you're looking at who's at an unfair disadvantage, I was just hearing about the poor performance of white working class schoolkids
    Just cos you're ticking the wrong reductionist 'race', gender and sexuality boxes doesn't mean you're automatically in the privileged elite. Maybe it's time to send those old pigeonholes to the bonfire and start looking at people as individuals?

  10. Christopher Jones20 November 2009 at 11:06

    I think this is a really interesting development. If the post is used to help give support where it is needed and, where appropriate, trying to negate some of the streotypes that have developed about what a "Straight, white man" should be. At the same time, if the "wrong" candidate is appointed/elected then it could make it so much more difficult for anyone else to try something similar at a different institution.

  11. Yeah those straight white men - horrible aren't they? Che Guevara, Adolf Hilter, Joe Stalin, Terry Waite, Bruce Forsyth, Roy Keane. Can't you see the utter stupidity and puerility of defining people in that way. Grow up.

  12. Last I heard Che Guevara was Latino (Argentinian)...?

  13. How does that 20% constitute a minority? I mean, beyond the actual lack of discrimination... We're talking across 3 factors - sexuality, race, gender - whereas generally the minority aspect is calculated upon one factor: eg gay are in a minority versus straight; black are in a minority versus white... what are Straight White Men in a minority against? I mean, if we're taking it as against Everybody Who Isn't a Straight White Man, then yeah... but that would make every single 3-way (or 2-way) combination of factors in a minority against everything that isn't that combination... They're hardly in a minority against Gay White Men, or Straight Black Men, or Gay White Women...


  14. "Last I heard Che Guevara was Latino (Argentinian)...?"

    Latino's not a race, it's an ethnic label used by Americans... Racially there are white (European-origin) Latinos. There are black (African-origin) Latinos (especially in Brazil). And everything in between. Argentina is one of the whitest South American countries. Che's family had Spanish, Basque and Irish ancestry.

    I'm white and there are a lot of people from Argentia who are whiter than me, in the sense that they're blonde and blue-eyed. Look -

  15. I really like what Mark said above, and I happen to think one of the reasons straight white men don't participate in identity politics is that nobody on earth is less likely to offer a helping hand to an alpha male than another alpha male!

    "Che Guevara was Latino"
    talk about pigeon -holing people!
    Spanish people are white, aren't they? Argentines are more European than most other South Americans.

  16. I'm not really seeing the case for womens officers in HE, you appear to demonstrate than women aren't disadvantaged at HE institutions in your first paragraph. Probably uni's the last place many women will be given the exact same money and opportunities as a man without even having to fight for it. I think the problem for straight white males is that some of their loan is being spent on HE womens officer jobs that are of no practical benefit to anyone simply on the grounds that 'gender theory' demands women are being horribly disadvantaged *at college* hopefully this whiney white heterosexual officer campaign is a cunning trojan horse for attacking the assumption that womens officers are needed in HE with.

  17. Actually I think it is far from the case that straight white males represent a minority, even if they only make up 36% of the student body.

    I would go further and say that straight white males don't even *exist*. It is essentially an empty, unmarked category, i.e. a negative category based on the denial of difference. Every concrete individual deviates from it in some respect.

    So in that sense, 'straight white males' have always been a minority in the numerical sense but that doesn't stop them being the majority, i.e. the dominant (fictional) standard against which everybody is judged.

    Another way of making the same point would be that Labour are in government because they got a majority in the general election. But they were voted for by only 22% of the electorate. Which is less than the percentage of white male students at SOAS.

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