Challenging Straight White College Men (STR8WCM) to Develop Positive Social Justice Advocacy

In recognition of the recent 30th anniversary of the Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities (SCMM), the SCMM has launched a series exploring the concept of intersectionality as it relates to collegiate men.  Contributing authors will explore how dimensions of race, religion, gender, and other social identities converge and shape the experiences of college men and how higher education professionals can best assist these students. 

Where Are All the White Men?

The image of the White man who displays anger, entitlement, and hatred towards individuals who differ in gender, race, or sexual orientation seems ubiquitous in media and society (Kimmel, 2013).  Even in college, men from majority backgrounds frequently express their frustration with diversity or social justice efforts they say exclude them (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014; Roper, 2004).  The perspective that most White college men are apathetic to efforts that foster equality or social justice is well established.  To offer another perspective, this paper explores the productive ways in which White college men articulate their engagement in and responsibility for positive social justice action.

Frequently, White men at predominately White institutions come from mostly White schools and neighborhoods, in which adults have failed to challenge them to discuss what it means to be privileged (Banks, 2009).  In college, the situation often remains unchanged; faculty and student affairs professionals with privileged identities have largely left the diversity education of majority students to people of color, White women, and/or members of the LGBT community.  Unless challenged effectively during college, heterosexual White men may leave college no more adept at functioning in a diverse world than when they entered.  College educators, especially those who identify as heterosexual White men, must understand their responsibility to better engage male college students from privileged groups to see themselves as a part of diversity work and social justice education (Cabrera, 2012).

Student affairs educators, including the authors of this article, have tried different ways to engage heterosexual White college men in diversity programs and social justice education.  One method is to encourage heterosexual White college men to explore what Abes, Jones, and McEwen (2007) called multiple models of identity development.  Specifically, men should consider how race, gender, and sexual orientation intersect and shape identity in the college context.  Men should also be encouraged to interrogate and articulate their privileges based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.  Despite these efforts, student affairs educators continue to lament the lack of heterosexual White college men engaged in diversity work, aside from those who may actively resist it.

If we do not accommodate the social and developmental needs of privileged groups, they may not “make the shift” to acknowledging privilege and working for justice (Goodman, 2011).  Men should also be encouraged to actively explore their role or responsibility in fostering social justice advocacy, or to develop what some scholars describe as social justice ally behaviors (Broido, 2000; Reason, Broido, Davis, & Evans, 2005).  This paper provides a sampling of results from our multi-institutional qualitative research study, at 13 institutions of higher education throughout most regions of the United States, highlighting the voices of heterosexual White college men.  Participants shared tentative thoughts of what diversity and social justice means and what might motivate them to participate differently.

The STR8WCM Project

The Straight White College Men (STR8WCM) Project originated from a simple question that college educators frequently ask: Where are all the straight White men?  Is their absence from diversity or social justice coursework or programs a function of widespread apathy?  Is their absence a form of active avoidance or resistance?  What should college educators do differently to engage and challenge straight White college men to develop a commitment and responsibility for fostering social justice?  And which college educators must assume greatest responsibility for this engagement?

To date, the sample for the STR8WCM Project includes 89 heterosexual White men and an additional 89 students who identify as women, persons of color, or members of the LGBTQIA community to provide counter stories or voices different from those of the men in the study.  The researchers utilized grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2006), which is firmly based in a constructivist epistemology.  Focus groups explored the concepts of power, privilege, oppression, social justice engagement, and responsibility, and they co-constructed meaning in interaction with researchers and peers.


A team of four researchers conducted team coding (Wiener, 2007) to identify common themes from participants across all institutions.  Two themes that speak specifically to productive masculinity (Harper & Harris, 2014) of heterosexual White men emerged from the research:  vulnerability and responsibility.  Men who display attitudes and behaviors associated with productive masculinity seek to disrupt sexism, racism, and homophobia in their communities, which contributes to safer and more inclusive campus climates for all students.


Many of the participants discussed their need to be affirmed by friends, showed angst about attending a diversity event by themselves, expressed desire to belong to a supportive peer group, and displayed anxiety about being “called out” as the only heterosexual White male participant in a course or program.  Yet, several participants also expressed the need for connecting more deeply to the topic of diversity.  For example, Jay (all names changed) shared that a deeper understanding was essential to changing ingrained male behaviors:

I think it’s important, when you learn why things are hurtful to other people…or why things were hurtful when they were happening in the past…because then it makes you actually think about it.  Instead of you just saying a word, it doesn’t mean anything to you.  But when you get the reverse side of it, and you can learn about why that hurts someone, then it makes you understand.

In another group, participants shared how people (both people of color and Whites) assumed a sense of White solidarity (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014).  In this exchange, Peter and Carl expressed concern about how peers perceive them and the effect of those perceptions on their self-identity.

Carl: I have a friend who came out to me after knowing him for a couple years…. He was afraid, since…he classified me as a jock…to tell me at first, because he thought I would take it the wrong way.

Peter: I kind of had the same situation in high school.  A friend…came out to me.  [Well,] he didn’t really come out to me, but he came out to my girlfriend and [said], “Don’t [say anything].”[ He…didn’t feel comfortable telling me, and he didn’t want me to judge him.

This opened up a conversation about why, as a group, White heterosexual men are perceived as less open and more reticent to support people from diverse backgrounds.  The men seemed genuinely hurt that they would be perceived as racist or homophobic until proven otherwise.  Rather than seeking to distance themselves from each other, they sought connection through conversation.


Several participants sensed their responsibility in fostering social justice but were unsure about how to proceed.  Blake discussed how choosing teaching as a profession helped him learn more about the need to be a positive role model:

I’m trying to look for what to say…but just going into education, you have to respect everyone’s backgrounds, and I’m a lot more tolerant [and] humble about that.  I [have made offensive] jokes…like everyone else growing up, but now looking back…I just [think] that was stupid.

When he entered college, Blake was not sure how to interrupt unacceptable peer behaviors like joking and feared his peers ostracizing him if he expressed a different opinion.  However, throughout his college career, he learned the importance of humbling himself and not reinforcing stereotypes through active participation or silent acceptance of others’ behaviors.  Sense of responsibility also emerged from several other focus group conversations:

Barney: I think that, absolutely, there’s a responsibility.  It begins with even just recognizing that these things are happening every day.  I think it also begins with seeing racism or sexism, just realizing that it exists…[and] calling it out when you see it, just if someone is saying something racist, just let them know that, “Hey, that is hurtful.”

Jim: I feel like we’re focusing a lot on race here, or forgetting about sexuality… I’d love to hear what you guys have to say about it.

An unscripted conversation about sexism, racism, and homophobia followed.  Focus group participants expressed how much they valued having these conversations in small groups with other White men, and how they wished they had those opportunities more frequently.

For Jay, these conversations occurred in a gender studies course.  He expressed how his thoughts on gender changed because of the class:

[I] share[d] in class one of my experiences walking home from a social gathering.  I was just walking down a street and there was this woman, 100 to 200 feet in front of me.  [And] I could see far in the distance…a single male approaching.  And…right before she was about to cross his path, she angled off to cross away to avoid him.  So…I never thought in my mind people would actually do that to actually avoid possibly being raped. Because it was like 1:30 in the morning.

When Jay met the woman at a traffic light, he asked her whether she needed someone to walk with her.  She looked at him as if not sure she could trust him, and replied, “No.”  Taking the class helped Jay develop a sense of responsibility that emerged from his growing awareness and considering the experiences of others—in this case, women on campus.  Jay is working to understand how his approach may be viewed as paternalistic, but sought greater consultation with his peers about how to enact his responsibility.

Implications for Student Affairs Practice

Engaging STR8WCM is Men’s Work

Focus groups conducted by researchers who identified as White, heterosexual men seemed a natural setting for participants to be open and vulnerable about the topic of social justice and diversity.  The connection deepened when focus group mediators were open and empathetic, and participants responded favorably and honestly.  While individuals of any race, gender, or sexual orientation can engage college men in dialogue, the primary responsibility of developing social justice advocacy in straight White men should rest on college educators who identify as members of dominant social groups.  Educators should explore spaces on campus inside and outside of classrooms that allow White college men to explore identity, to interrogate and challenge privilege, and to develop responsibility for acting in solidarity with marginalized peers.  Which men’s spaces on your campus might be appropriate to begin these conversations (e.g., fraternities, single-gender residence halls, athletic teams)?

Compassionate Challenge is Necessary

STR8WCM Project participants are undoubtedly privileged, but they may not feel powerful, indicative of the paradox of masculinity, or the paradox of men’s power (Kimmel, 2013).  Men as a group have power over women and other less dominant social groups.  Participants expressed genuine pain when others considered them racist, sexist, and homophobic.  Some student affairs professionals may not relate to these feelings, and may feel triggered by privileged or potentially ignorant comments White men make.  Still, we should approach men from majority groups with a stance of critical humility and compassion (ECCW, 2012).  If college men have not experienced diversity in the predominately White settings they occupy, they may struggle to understand oppression in any of its forms.  But the STR8WCM Project is beginning to show that heterosexual White college men are ready to begin this discussion and accept responsibility for showing solidarity with marginalized peers on campus and in society.  College educators who belong to dominant groups must answer the call and engage, challenge, and develop more White college men to actively advocate for diversity and social justice.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are you, particularly if you identify as a heterosexual White male, role modeling responsibility for college men to act in solidarity with marginalized groups?
  2. How might meeting the emotional and developmental needs of heterosexual White college men function to reinforce their privilege and/or disrupt it?
  3. How do you, as practitioners, find a stance between harsh judgment (villainizing heterosexual White college men) and excessive empathy (approving of their withdrawal or demands for “safe” spaces) in your social justice education with men who identify with a dominant social group background?  How does your own identity impact your ability, interest, or responsibility in the work?


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Banks, K. H. (2009). A qualitative investigation of White students’ perceptions of diversity. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2(3), 149-155.

Broido, E. M.  (2000). The development of social justice allies during college: A phenomenological investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41(3), 3-18.

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About the Authors

Victoria Svoboda, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.  Her research interests include the fluidity within and intersections between class, race, and gender.  She is focused on social class issues and equity/inclusion in higher education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Victoria Svoboda and follow her on Twitter.

Jörg Vianden, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and the principal investigator for the STR8WCM Project.  His research focuses on college men and masculinities, as well as student persistence. 

Please email inquiries to Jörg Vianden and follow him on Twitter.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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