Is that really an opinion? Or is it an (in)direct act of violence? by Gabby Porcaro

I joined the field of student affairs as a full-time professional a few months ago after completing my master’s program. Like many other practitioners, my program focused heavily on understanding the various ways each educator can contribute to our students’ holistic development. Like many of my peers, I entered this field excited to journey with students as they came to understand the various complex identities, both privileged and oppressed, that formed their “true self.”  As individuals grow to know their identities more intimately, they are able to construct relationships that not only affirm their truth, but challenge them to continue growing beyond their time in college. As educators, we hope to empower our students to use their voices not only to promote their individual values but to call for the betterment of their many communities.

I identify first as a white antiracist and next as a queer cisgender woman. These salient identities, my educational background in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, my prior experience in teaching roles, and my noticable extraversion have led me to consistently be invited to facilitate “diversity” and “inclusion” workshops with many student groups on every campus I’ve worked. My own musings surrounding why I am asked to facilitate these workshops over other individuals of color constitute a separation reflection altogether, but this reality is worth noting for the thoughts I hope to share throughout this post.

One consistent theme found in various teacher or facilitator trainings is to maintain a goal of not seeking to change the “opinions” of your audience. One supposed benefit of living and learning in the United States is the ability to think and share one’s opinion freely. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we as student affairs educators are taught to support our students along their individual journeys towards truth and authenticity. Recently, I’ve found myself wanting to go rogue and abandon parts of these ideas. One thought that I’ve wrestled before I entered the field as a full-time professional and even moreso today is whether or not I am I allowed to tell a student that their opinion is not only wrong, but a(n) (in)direct statement of hate promoting systems of violence throughout our world.

When I facilitate conversations for groups of students with the learning outcome of “promoting diversity and inclusion,” I tend to have white students challenge the existence of white privilege, which is not shocking. I wholly believe that my whiteness allows white students to feel more empowered to share these deeply problematic “opinions” because they assume I will simply respect their individual “opinion.” Typically, educator trainings tell you you should allow conversations to grow organically while ensuring you achieve your main objectives for the session. However, when these moments occur, I typically choose not to engage the student(s) in a group setting and rather find a subtle way to ask them to speak with me after the session.

My hesitancy to challenge the widely shared “opinion” that white privilege does not exist comes from various facts and personal values. First, and most important, I do not believe in taking up time and space in a group setting to allow a system as violent as white privilege to be defended since our students of color are forced to face these conversations in almost every other space. Additionally, Sherry Watt’s (2007) work on Privilege Identity Exploration introduced practitioners to the eight Defense Modes individuals with salient privileged identities showcase when they are asked to acknowledge their privilege. Watt’s work has informed my professional practice significantly, particularly with students who choose to defend their white privilege. I do not believe a productive conversation could take place in a group setting since most white students are apt to respond from a defense mode that would prohibit actual learning from taking place. And, lastly, I choose not to engage with this “opinion” because I do not believe this is an opinion. I see the defense of white privilege, even from our college students, as an act of violence.

Many times, when I engage these students in conversation at the close of my facilitation, I am met with common thoughts like “why can’t we just agree to disagree?” or “why can’t you respect my opinion?” Many conversations I’ve gone on to have with individual students have seemed relatively productive, and I believe the student gained a different perspective. However, I’ve left some of those conversations deeply troubled by how aggressively students will defend their “opinions.” My social justice education as an undergraduate student leader was situated in the Social Change Model of Leadership – particularly the notion of understanding that there can and should be Controversy with Civility. We should act in a manner that challenges the harmful status quo while ensuring we protect the dignity of those with opposing views. This particular component of the model resonated with me deeply when I was 18 years old and still does to this day. However, while I still believe in and strive to treat each individual I encounter with respect and dignity, I cannot and will not affirm one’s “opinion” if their “opinion” is merely defending violent systems of oppression.

I share these thoughts with you to invite you all to join me in my (re)commitment to engage our students in more meaningful conversations surrounding “opinions.” Yes, we want to encourage our students to grow closer towards their own authentic selves. We want our students to feel empowered to share their thoughts, particularly those that align with their individuals values. However, if we recognize problematic and violent thoughts surrounding their “opinions” and we simply “agree to disagree” or choose to not engage, we are not living up to our own professional standards surrounding social justice. By not challenging our students’ “opinions” we are enacting the same forms violence many of us seek to combat each day.

One thing I value about CSJE is our commitment to collective learning. I want to continue this conversation especially with others who have found effective ways to engage in more meaningful conversations surrounding “opinions.” Please feel free to connect with me at gmpor90@gmail.com.

Gabby Porcaro serves as the Student Affairs Case Manager at UNC Asheville. She earned an M.A.Ed. in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Virginia Tech and a B.A. in Interpersonal Conflict Analysis and Resolution with a minor in Sociology from George Mason University. Gabby is the current Scholarship intern for the Commission of Social Justice Educators and hopes to continue promoting and producing scholarship that interrupts harmful policies and traditions throughout the institution of higher education.

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What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Challenging Masculinity? by Drew Terhune

If you haven’t seen the new AXE body spray commercial, you should do that before you read any further, not because of spoilers, but because I’m going to talk about it a lot and it probably won’t make sense if you haven’t watched it at least once:

In 2002, when AXE body spray launched in the United States, I was a 13 year old boy, and AXE was a big deal. I bet if we polled people who’ve worked in residence life from 2002 to now, we’d find that the smell of AXE body spray was a permanent fixture in the varied odor profile of their residence halls.

This commercial was all over my newsfeed when it came out. And I get why; it’s pretty obvious, really. There are men of color, gay men, men with visible disabilities, all in an AXE commercial; it’s a welcome change from the days of women chasing men like zombies down the streets, immediately dumping their current partners for a better-smelling option, and minutes-long innuendos about shower habits. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “AXE Clean Your Balls”; they’re talking about sports equipment, at least explicitly.) Clearly, they’re going a new direction with the brand.

What interested me more than the commercial itself was the commentary that accompanied it. Ad Age said AXE was “shedding traditional notions of masculinity” the headline at Mic.com was “New Axe Body Spray Ad Dumps Macho Schtick for a New Type of Masculinity.” And in countless commentaries offered by friends on Facebook, many of whom are current or aspiring student affairs professionals, the same two words: “challenging masculinity.”

Sorry, but we need to pause the music for a second and talk about what’s really happening in this commercial, and what challenging masculinity really means.

First, we need to talk about marketing. This is a commercial, and any analysis of the commercial as discourse has to keep that in mind. In other words, you are supposed to see this commercial and want to buy AXE. It’s not a coincidence that products that consumers read as being “masculine” or “feminine” sell better than products that don’t seem gendered. Purchasing things, especially within a capitalist framework, is an avenue for us to perform our gender identities. And I mean perform here like Judith Butler means perform; that is, buying the things I think a man like me would (or should) buy is a way that I can actually be the man I think I am. This process is often not explicitly conscious; as a personal case study, I was doing laundry last night and I realized that I bought my usual brand of dryer sheets, but in a new scent, “for men.” I don’t even remember deciding to pick something new.

In the context of marketing, why would a company want to widen the category of “men”? To sell more product to more people, obviously. There are probably concomitant social and political beliefs that accompany the decision, but those beliefs have to also be profitable to be broadcast like this.

Second, we need to practice our close reading on this commercial. The general reaction to the commercial has been positive; overwhelmingly so, in fact. It’s not common to see a brand with such global recognition, especially a brand so wrapped up in masculinity, to include men of color, queer men, and men with physical disabilities. And that is certainly better than nothing. But let’s take the long view: there are twelve little vignettes in the commercial, not counting the four men at the end of the commercial. There is a scene with a white man in a wheelchair (with a woman on his lap), a scene of some men of color voguing, and a scene of two white queer men making awkward eyes at each other in a bookstore/record shop. Of the remaining nine, six involve men interacting with women in ways that range from flirtatious to actively sexual. In the actual sex scene, there’s no man visible; we see only a woman in bed, gasping and clutching pillows.

The prevalence of flirting makes sense, though, because the entire ad is about being sexually desirable. The narrator lists a number of “things” that men can have instead of abs to make them desirable to sexual partners, a majority of whom are explicitly suggested to be women. But the contradictions start immediately. Though the narrator says abs are not necessary, everyone in the ad is somewhere between slim and muscular, and every man who appears shirtless has abs. (Except maybe the white guy who is naked and running from riot police; the camera angle makes it hard to say definitively.) As we move through the list of things men can use to get sex, we first get to the white man in a wheelchair, spinning around with a woman on his lap. His thing? Wheels. His disability is the thing he should use to get sex.

The representation of the queer white men is interesting because of its subtlety. For an ad that features a woman gasping in sexual pleasure, the queer couple making awkward eye contact at each other across a store is meaningful. Queer people have sex, and social acceptance of queerness necessitates our willingness to depict queer sex just as often as we depict straight sex.

As for the men of color who are voguing, they’re just voguing. That’s the end of their story. The most substantial departure from hegemonic definitions of masculinity, with makeup and heels and blouses, they have no story whatsoever, besides that they’re very good at voguing.

Third, identity is not all there is to social justice. The function of this ad, ideologically, is to widen the category of people who are generally agreed to be “men.” (For any Gramsci fans out there, this is how “common sense” gets constructed.) More people using the term “men” to describe themselves also means more intersections with other identities, but neither of those things addresses the structural harms of masculinity. They don’t address the sexual entitlement that men experience, nor the fact that men are extraordinarily more likely than any other gender (or agender folks) to perpetrate sexual violence.

It’s important to widen categories like “man” to include more people. But we can’t confuse that for the (also important) work of challenging masculinity as a structure. We have to train ourselves to see that structure, and to consider the ways it is constructed socially and in our students (and ourselves). Mistaking inclusion for challenging social dynamics is common, but they are not the same. We have to get comfortable with the differences between them.

Drew Terhune is the Strategic Communications Manager for the Division of Enrollment Management at the University of Oregon. He earned his B.A. from the University of Oregon in Classics and History. A reader in his bones, Drew is particularly interested in the historical roots of social justice activism, and in the way the alternate realities of literature, film, and video games can be used to explore and teach social justice.