Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
A panel of male college staff members convened in the Matchbox on Monday to discuss the issue of masculinity at “Real Men: Real Talk.” Amer Ahmed, Dean of Sophomore Class and Director of the Intercultural Center, Joshua Ellow, Alcohol and Other-Drugs Counselor & Educator, and Isaiah Thomas, Assistant Director of Residential Life, talked about their respective upbringings and how they shaped their view of masculinity. After their talk, small group discussions were held as refreshments were served.
Ellow started the panel discussion by talking about his childhood. As the youngest of three siblings, he was taught the underlying view that men had to be tough, and had to engage in habits like drinking and smoking. He recalled a childhood incident where he lit the carpet on fire, and was scolded by his parents. He cried, but was simply told to wash his face.
As an adult, Ellow described his willingness to be different. He had wanted to have a “values based decision” on how to define his masculinity. Self-definition and self-worth were to be determined by yourself, he said. Rather than conform to the image of stoicism, Ellow declared that “I am happy to say that I cry.”
The second speaker, Thomas, recalled deviating from the masculine culture he was brought up in. Because he had multiple siblings who were much older, he considered himself a single child who was “seen as a prodigy” due to his willingness to engage in academics. None of his siblings or family graduated college, and his peers were generally more interested in football and basketball.
For Thomas, “masculinity and being African-American is very linked.” He said the media promotes an image of African-American success as tied to success in sports and music. But Thomas was interested in school and video games. Along with his parents, “teachers embraced me because I liked school, but not my peers”, Thomas said. He later graduated from Colorado College and earned a Masters’ degree at the University of Maryland.
Amer Ahmed spoke last. He discussed the unique features of masculinity in the South Asian Muslim community. Growing up, gender norms were clearly delineated, with men and women often separated in social gatherings. Dating was taboo. Instead, families advised their children to be “married to someone from a good family.”
Men were seen as the provider, in a “competition of who has more stuff,” whereas sex was never mentioned. Learning about women was from usually done by observing his peers in high school. He learnt more about dating culture in college, and eventually was able to engage in the culture itself in monogamous relationships.
After the panel, further discussion was conducted around groups, so each person had an opportunity to express their feelings. This was a unique experience, especially as a way for men to explore concepts of masculinity. One participant, Harris Hoke ‘15, said that “I think this was good, and people have definitely remarked that there is a lack of an all-male space on campus dedicated to talk about the harm that masculinity can cause. ”
Dean Ahmed also reflected on the panel afterwards, saying “I thought that we had a good turnout, I thought that people were very engaged, were very interested in the topic. It gave me the impression that we should use this as an entry point to further or deeper conversation.”
The diversity of the speakers were intentional. “I think there was a desire to have a diversity of experiences and background, and experiences that students can relate to or allow students to be reflective around their identities in relationship to their masculinity,” Ahmed said.
While female gender norms have been often questioned in Swarthmore, the Real Men talk brought together like-minded people interested in questioning male norms. “I came here because I was interested in who else was interested in talking about masculinity,” Hoke said.