This story, about a male student who took his professor to a human rights tribunal because the thought of being in a class full of females made him anxious, is amusing. Thank you to the folk at Southern Masculinities for bringing it to our attention. Finding it ‘very funny’ too, Professor Lindsay Clowes observes that ‘it raises all sorts of questions around pedagogy, about the obligations of learners and teachers as well as for the broader aims of social activism and the production of graduates who are critically engaged citizens.’ She goes on to ask:
How important, for example, is face to face contact and interactions in this age of chat rooms discussion forums and so on? Should the student have discussed his anxieties with the teacher at the beginning of the course? Should the professor have alerted the young man that his continued absence from class would compromise his ability to pass the course? I wonder what my own students think about all this in relation to their own experiences at university. Is he a chancer of note or does he have a point? And more broadly, what does a young man’s anxieties about sitting in a women’s and gender studies class mean for the broader project of gender equity? There are very few men in my undergraduate classes. How – and even whether – we should engage with their absence is an important issue for the feminist professors teaching in women’s & gender studies departments.
However weird, I also find the story rather sad. I am disinclined to think him a chancer. If you were to pause for a minute and think back about the group-related experiences you have had so far, you may recognise how it touches on some of your own well-concealed anxieties about gender and other social categorisations. Or maybe they are not concealed at all. ‘Others’ make us panic. And if you are the only self-identified ‘non-Other’ in a room you perceive to be full of ‘Others’, it can be terrifying. No, of course I am not encouraging prejudice.
Think about it. How many groups do you belong to that are heterogeneous? How many friends do you have of another sex, sexual orientation, class, race, or nationality? Chances are, unless you have learned to embrace Others, to stand on the margins of the groups that have claimed you as part of them, many of the groups you belong to are largely homogeneous. On a more general plane the story of the story is therefore about group belonging, or its opposite, whether that group is along gender, sexuality, race, language, national, or class or any other lines. With a sense of group identification or disidentification, the sense that you belong or don’t belong, comes feelings of unease or repose.
That group-related sense of unbelonging and attendant feelings of anxiety seem to have been the case with Wongene Daniel Kim, a University of Toronto student. The Canadian newspaper The Star reported online that the student ‘accused his professor of discriminating against him as a male when she docked him marks for not coming to class because he was too shy to be the only guy’. He took the professor to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. His complaint was dismissed.
The story reminds me of a remark first said to me by a friend when the Makgoba Affair raged at Wits University a year after the first racially inclusive elections in South Africa. The deputy vice chancellor and most senior black staff member at Wits at the time, William Malegapuru Makgoba had been head-hunted for the position. But things didn’t quite work out not too long after and a nasty racialised public battle ensued. Apropos the affair, my friend wondered whether white men who used to sit in white male only university councils and senates ever looked at around the room and said, ‘Look at that, it’s only us (white males) in here. We rule.’ I think he might have also said that the men who ganged up on Makgoba would then slap each other’s back and said ‘We like it just like that.’ Or perhaps it was someone else who added that part.
In any event, what I was struck by even back then is that groups tend to, blindly or deliberately, perpetuate their own group culture, including who is acceptable to be a member. Individuals learn about this from the groups to which they belong, the first group being their family.
Many of us like the exclusive groups we are part of precisely because they exclude others who are unlike us. This is not necessarily at the level of full awareness. We simply go along with the fact that we are comfortable, at least not uncomfortable, with the group. We like that we are like the rest. It’s not only whites or males who are blind to their own prejudices. Heterosexuals too are usually unaware they enjoy coded or unwrittten rights. So are homosexuals and other Nigerians. The able-bodied, Zulus, Americans, and drinkers. In short, being among those with whom we identify is much more enjoyable.
Thus, when confronted with the fact of those whose presence disturbs our dearly held biases, we get knotty inside. Sometimes we get violent. In fact, if we feel we don’t belong we literally go into a panic. And if we believe our view of the world will be seriously challenged, we want to avoid that space where that is going to happen or people who will question us.
Can you imagine how women, lesbians, blacks, disabled persons, and other minoritised persons who have to brave spaces run by men, heterosexuals, whites, able-bodied persons, and other hegemonic groups feel?