The Age of White People and Masculinities Studies

white peopleWhat does it mean to have privilege?

Many of us have never really had to ask ourselves that question—hence the privilege. As a result, we can choose to go about our days and ignore or reject those who are not men, white, cis or straight.

But could the times finally be changing?

Last month, MTV released White People, a 40-minute documentary in which Jose Antonio Vargas visits multiple cities across America to talk to white people about what it means to be white. Unsurprisingly, he finds that because most white people haven’t thought critically about their race, they can cozy up to the myth that race, in general, is no longer an issue in our society, and that therefore it is they who face discrimination when faced with policies like affirmative action. As Vargas reveals in the film, nearly 50 percent of young white Americans think that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, despite the fact that white students are about 40 percent more likely than students of color to receive private scholarships, according to finaid.org.

Despite its plethora of cringe-worthy moments—such as when a young white woman says, “I feel like I’m being discriminated against,” when Vargas tells her that she is in fact more likely to get a scholarship for being a white womanand its tepid execution, the documentary does something novel: It asks the privileged to step up, take responsibility and do some of the work for once. Just last week, activists from the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter interrupted a Bernie Sanders rally to do just that—to ask Sanders and his overwhelmingly white constituency to speak up for black lives. Shortly after, Sanders’ camp adopted a comprehensive racial justice platform and hired Symone Sanders, a young black criminal justice advocate, to be the candidate’s national press secretary.

We’re seeing this phenomenon extend beyond issues of race and into gender politics, as well. Stony Brook University will soon offer the first Master’s degree program in masculinities studies. Before you choke on how self-indulgent that may sound—why do men need a class on men, isn’t that what history is?—consider this: While movements like #HeForShe merely call on men to “help” women, this degree, like White People, will ask men to critically examine what it means to be a man in our society.

Michael Kimmel, executive director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at SBU and a Ms. Blogger, will be asking his students to question the traditional and often arbitrary constructs that define masculinity—what it means to be a “good” man versus a “real” man, for example. For many, being a “real” man means being strong and self-sufficient, so it makes sense that many men find it difficult to feel vulnerable–to ask for help when caring for a child or dealing with a mental illness, for instance. By examining how race, sexuality and outside factors like the media shape masculine identities, students may be better equipped to address these issues and more. Just imagine what such an analysis could do for feminism; allowing students to break down arbitrary standards of masculinity and pressures to be powerful, confident, dominant, etc. could do wonders for reducing street harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general.

As Kimmel told The New York Times, “We have a mass shooter in the U.S. every few weeks. And every time it happens, we talk about guns. We talk about mental health. But we don’t talk about how all of these mass shooters are male. We need to understand how masculinity affected their experience.”

Women’s groups are joining in the effort, too. This fall, according to the Times, Kimmel and U.N. Women will offer workshops for men across multiple college campuses to address issues like sexual assault and reproductive health.

Minorities have been fighting, often alone, for centuries to have their voices heard. In 2015, when attacks on women and black lives are still far too prevalent, perhaps it is time to tap into the blissfully unaware bubble of the privileged and call on them to join the fight.

About

Julia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. Follow Julia on Twitter @julia_robins.