ORLANDO – Most people who are not straight white men would probably smirk at the idea that straight white men feel alienated in the higher education workplace.
Those who smirk, Sandra Miles said here at the annual conference  of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, are hindering meaningful discussion about race.
Miles, whose dissertation on the professional experiences of black women in her field produced an unexpected sub-study about the alienation of straight white men, made this argument to a couple hundred people who turned up to hear more about her research. The ensuing debate was, unsurprisingly, somewhat contentious.
A comment by one white graduate student toward the end of the session summed it up well. He described a recent discussion about privilege in a higher education class, when he was shot down after offering his own thoughts.
“I couldn’t even begin to have that conversation because it was automatically assumed I didn’t understand,” he said. “To go through that experience in a higher education class – which is supposed to be the safest place to talk about that – was just terrifying.”
The preconceived notions and biases apparent in the reactions of that student's peers spoke to the overall takeaway of Miles, who is university ombudsman at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.
“We’re all unhappy – apparently that’s what equality looks like,” she said. “Every other group feels discriminated against as well, and when having these conversations with people who are members of these other groups, it’s important that you understand that.”
Miles surveyed 671 student affairs professionals, primarily in the South and Midwest. About 230 respondents were black, and 415 were white.
Snippets from the responses of white men suggested many of them feel unfairly judged and at times professionally limited because of their race and gender.
“I feel that being a white male often makes me a target within the higher ed community,” one respondent said, adding that he’s been “accused” of being racist and insensitive. Another said he believed a minority colleague resented him for getting a position they both applied for, chalking it up to “white privilege.”
“White men dominate the field,” one man said. “I fully support affirmative action, but I also recognize that, at times, it makes advancement for white men more difficult.”
Another: “I don’t generally have to think about my race when I do my work. I also don’t think that people think, ‘Oh, he’s white,’ when they work with me, but often consider the race of the person if they are not white.”
Some men said they’d be fired for voicing these thoughts in the workplace.
So, do white men have a point?
“Yes and no,” Miles said.
Three in four black men who responded to Miles were in senior level positions, compared to about 58 percent of white men. Yet white men are about equal with black men in income levels, and significantly higher than the white and black women she surveyed.
Though a fair number of people in the room at NASPA shared their own thoughts, one demographic was silent to the point of getting called out – twice – by Miles: white men. At her encouragement, one student affairs official shared his experience as the only straight white male in his department.
His small, Roman Catholic liberal arts university is looking for a new employee to join the straight white female and two gay white males who work with him. After hearing his department wanted a black female in the position because officials wanted “more diversity,” he countered by asking why they wouldn’t rather have someone who is a good fit.
“He was kind of offended by it,” the attendee said of his colleague. “But in my opinion -- being the minority in my department – we need people who care about the position, regardless of race, regardless of sexual orientation and regardless of gender. We need people who do good work.”
But, a black woman in the room countered, how can you fairly judge merit, when some groups have a much better chance to learn it than others?
“While it can’t be all on what you look like,” she said, “it can’t just be merit. It has to be a marriage of both.”
Of course, Miles noted, “merit and race are not mutually exclusive.”
Those present in a room full of student affairs officials were probably more open than most to hearing different perspectives. But everyone who wants to talk about race meaningfully, regardless of where they come from or where they work, cannot come at it biased against other people, Miles said.
“When you start the conversation with, ‘Well you have privilege and you have power,’” she said, “it’s the mental, ‘Let me turn off my ears and not listen to you anymore.’ ”