I Used To Think Just Like You
I used to think just like you. Growing up in a small community on the outskirts of the GTA I did all the “right” things to ensure I fit in. I played sports (lots of sports), went to church on Sundays, was in the band, studied hard, worked hard, and overall developed into a “good young man”. When I went away to university I was just like many of you. I was unaware of my privilege, I was unaware of the impact of my ideas of gender, and I was undeniably ignorant to a different viewpoint about what it means to be male, white, and heterosexual. I used to think just like you.
At university, I was exposed to a whole new way of thinking, not inside the classroom (let’s face it, a degree in business isn’t exactly the space where you are going to unpack the toxic version of maleness you have been sucked into), but outside the classroom through my involvement in residence. This didn’t happen until I was in my 4th year and I was already 22 years old. Until that point, I stood by and observed the best and worst of the attitudes of my peers toward women—I spent too much time in bars in an effort to fit in, playing the perfect “wingman” and staying silent when things rubbed me the wrong way; I watched music videos and movies without question or objection; I tried to “pick-up”, sometimes out of loneliness, and other times because that’s what I thought I needed to do. I saw nothing wrong with this, but exposure and compassion brought about a change. Through extensive training (the requirements of being a Residence Don) I learned to question those norms, to value people, to see those that the system has stacked the deck against. However, even then, I was in many ways still just like you.
I began working in residence as a professional, live-in, staff member. I developed staff training, built community, and supported student development through programming and one on one conversations. I encouraged my team members to learn about diversity and to be inclusive. But I was still in many ways, my old self. I didn’t challenge or call out behaviour that was intolerant. I picked the easier battles; addressing issues of homophobia or racism seemed easier for me than issues of misogyny. I still had a “work” me and a “private” me. The private me played sports and was a “guy’s guy”, quick to laugh in an effort to fit in, always strong, and never expressing emotion other than frustration or anger. I struggled with my guilt. I still didn’t understand my privilege I would get defensive when it was discussed. I used to think just like you.
I switched institutions, got married, moved cities and started fresh. I took an active part in training on privilege and power, something that a few years earlier I would have been unable to do. I supported students and staff through challenging and life altering situations. I finally started to see things differently. That what I may have previously viewed as isolated incidents and situations had recurring themes and patterns (being a man was about strength, power, pushing winning). That the definition of masculinity that I grew up with, benefited from, and participated in maintaining was in fact a part of a system of oppression and violence. That this system would continue indefinitely if I was not involved in change and so I began to change. I used to think just like you but now I am trying so hard not to.
I have twin boys. They, along with my partner, are my world. They also live in a world that is not of my making, but that I am a part of and in many ways benefit. I have made a vow as a father that they will learn differently than I did. That I will extend what I do on campus to my home. I won’t have a private me and a work me anymore. I am trying. This work is not easy and everyday it takes effort to unlearn and take a different path. It takes further effort to be active, to be unpopular, to be prepared with an answer to a barb or a quip—to be a part of a solution. I was once just like you but what I learned is that when I stopped making it about me and started holding myself accountable to be a part of the change, that I was able to tap into my compassion and empathy rather than closing doors and shying away. I wrote this not out of judgment but because if I can work to change, you can too. I am still in many ways like you but I am trying hard to change and create change.
I wrote this piece while thinking about a new school year and an opportunity for change. I have been involved in Orientation weeks since my own in the late 90s, and I have seen many years of campus programming related specifically to sexual violence. I’d like to say I have seen successes and failures, but unfortunately too often I think much of the opportunity for success is lost because male students just aren’t ready to hear it. They don’t feel they are a part of the problem and they don’t see that they need to be a part of the solution. I also wrote this because almost 20 years ago I was in the shoes of many of our new students. In less time than that, my own sons will be considering post-secondary education and will be entering the world of young adulthood. I am hopeful that we may change that world for the better, sooner rather than later, so that the message my boys receive is heard, appreciated, and acted on.
So what can we do with our roles in student affairs? We need to encourage each other to think differently and be comfortable at being unaware, uninformed, and ignorant. We must create safer spaces for students, student leaders, and student affairs professionals to get messy in learning about privilege and oppression, guilt and judgment free; not an easy nor simple task. (The best results I’ve seen come from smaller group discussions, but how can you take the time to create these groups when we are often limited to large scale learning environments?) As a profession, I think we have to move beyond the metrics of number of attendees and number of sessions and look at how we can create lasting changes in behaviours and outcomes. I was a student leader, and a professional staff member, for which I received training that most of our students are currently not exposed to and I still struggled with my privilege and the need to act and not stand idly by. Speakers, sessions, and campaigns are great—but how can we better ensure that they lead to action?
I can’t iterate enough that this is hard work, for anyone, but it is also incredibly important work and something that we need to actively lead, support, and engage on. As such, this post is just the start of a longer conversation. Over the next few weeks I will be working on a follow-up and more practical guide to working with men on issues of masculinity along with my colleagues Farrah Khan and Jesmen Mendoza. We each bring different experiences and knowledge to this conversation which should add to the usefulness for those who are looking for practical insights to addressing these issues on campus.