Awakened to privilege: ‘Rich white guy’ finds the sweet spot

Higher education expert and Flesher Professor Matthew Mayhew believes that college is "the great intervention" that motivates students to understand difference — in race, religion and world view. How did an evangelical Christian who grew up with packaged privilege come to that conclusion?
Matt Mayhew

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Transcript of Podcast

Robin Chenoweth: If we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now. Human connection is critical to our wellbeing and to our growth as individuals. Interaction with people shapes how we view the world and how we see ourselves in it. It can spur us to act, create and learn. The caveat is, if we never interact with individuals who know or think differently than we do, we might do none of those things. That’s why people go to college: to learn from others who know a lot about fields like astrophysics or English literature or human nutrition. They want to gain new perspectives in ways that radically change their trajectories and also allow them to bring to the table things they cherish: their ethnicity, their drive, their values. There are people who study that very process: How students from all walks of life adapt and gain perspective from their college experiences. Researchers in Ohio State University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program are intensely focused on the magical medley of factors that allows all students to excel in college. And here’s the big epiphany that will surprise no college student in America right now: The interaction among students is as critical, or more so, than the learning that goes on in the classroom. That doesn’t surprise Matthew Mayhew, either. He’s an expert on the relationship between college and its influence on student learning and democratic outcomes.

Matthew Mayhew: I like to think about college as a great intervention. Here are these folks coming from all walks of life. They're coming together maybe for the first time. Maybe folks have never met a Muslim student before. Maybe folks have never even entertained the idea of Buddhism. When folks come into college, it's our time to expose them to new ideas, and to new ways of thinking. And I like to understand kind of what that exposure involves and how it actually motivates students to learn in different ways.

Robin Chenoweth: Much of his research focuses on the interaction between students of different faith and ideological groups, and how college can be the “great intervention” that allows them to better understand one another. His realization that peers could profoundly affect his learning happened in 1993, when a classmate at Wheaton College told him and his fellow students that she thought they all were likely going to hell. I’m Robin Chenoweth, and this is Ohio State University’s Inspire Podcast, a production of the College of Education and Human Ecology. Higher education researchers talk a lot about individual and social narratives — how people identify themselves and others according to categories like race, religion, sexual orientation and background. And so at a conference in March, where Professor Matthew Mayhew was in line to accept a prestigious award, he listened as other awardees identified themselves.

Matthew Mayhew: They were describing kind of their backgrounds and their histories, and they were doing so using some of the language that they were used to using. I was toward the end of the list to receive the award. When I stood up to receive it, I remember saying to the audience that I was a rich white guy receiving this award.

Robin Chenoweth: The crowd fell dead silent. 

Matthew Mayhew: I remember the audience kind of just giving me that look like, oh my goodness I can't believe he just went there. And to be honest it was the first time I'd ever used that language to introduce my narrative. And I found it a little bit off putting because I like to, you know, make sure that my audience is following along with me, and I was reflecting on that later thinking to myself, wow, I wonder if the word rich really set people off.

Robin Chenoweth: People who know Mayhew will find this story highly plausible, because he has spent his academic and collegiate career bluntly addressing how personal background shapes perspectives and at times has limited his own understanding of others. It’s not just that he grew up wealthy. Mayhew was also raised a devout evangelical Christian.

Matthew Mayhew: My friendship network was really at church, it was really that place where I nurtured relationships, and I grew friendships.

Robin Chenoweth: In his high school, he holed up in the library during lunch, avoiding others to get his homework done so he could hang out with church friends after school. Those friends didn’t drink. They didn’t do drugs. The worst thing he and his friends did was toilet paper each other’s houses.

Matthew Mayhew: We were really good kids. I mean our parents didn't have a big lift when it came to us going through high school.

Robin Chenoweth: He’s happy he grew up that way and remains devout to his faith. But now, he says, he knows he has what people in the field call “packaged privilege”: identities that have allowed him to advance unhindered in 21st century America – being white, being male, being wealthy, being Christian. So how did a man who came up in Orange County, California, and attended a college that made him sign a faith pledge become one of the country’s most eminent scholars on how college interactions can make all students more tolerant of others’ faith, more accepting and culturally informed? It began with his own experience, and a failed first venture into higher education at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Matthew Mayhew: When I started there I was doing very well academically, very, very, well. I wasn't drinking I wasn't doing drugs I wasn't heavy into sex, nothing like that. And as the days went on and the weeks went on, I wasn't making any friends. You know the people who were in the residence halls with me, they were going out routinely, and I wasn't going out with them.

Robin Chenoweth: Then, on his 19th birthday, someone invited him to a strip club.

Matthew Mayhew: And it was the first time I'd ever gone to anything like that, and I drank a lot, and it was my first kind of foray into that world.

Robin Chenoweth: He started to make friends. Going out on Fridays extended into going out on Thursday nights. Then Wednesdays. Then Tuesdays.

Matthew Mayhew: And I would consistently go out and I'd consistently drink too much. And it got to the point where one of my professors called me into his office and said, ‘Matt you were a straight-A student. You were one of the best in class. What you've produced recently has not been very good; it's not the caliber of work that I'm used to seeing from you. What's going on?’

Robin Chenoweth: Mayhew went home during winter break and touched base with his church friends. They came to a decision. He needed to transfer. He enrolled at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical institution. To attend, he had to sign a pledge, a statement of faith. No drinking. No dancing. No overt sexual behavior.

Matthew Mayhew: And there were some theological tenants in the document, too, that we had to kind of agree that we all basically believed in as a community, so yes, I did have to sign a statement of faith going in.

Robin Chenoweth: And yet, with all its rules for conformity, Wheaton became the spot where Mayhew first delved into the concept of difference. During an Old Testament class, something mind-bending happened to him.

Matthew Mayhew: There was a person in the class that raised her hand. And when called upon she stood up and she said, ‘I don't believe that anybody in this classroom is saved, unless they've spoken in tongues.’

Robin Chenoweth: Being saved – ensured entry into heaven — was something everyone had entered the class thinking they were. This was a conservative Christian college, after all. The woman was telling them they would go to hell unless they spoke in tongues. This jarred Mayhew.

Matthew Mayhew: My background was as a North American Baptist and I had never spoken in tongues before, and she was going right to the heart of every person in that room who identified as an evangelical or a Christian.

Robin Chenoweth: The conversation in class continued outside, into the dining hall and then into the dorms. And though the student body at Wheaton was not exactly diverse, the incident sparked a discussion about difference that has never quite ended for Mayhew.

Matthew Mayhew: That's my first story of going to college and really being exposed to something that cut to the core of who I was, a kind of a different way of approaching salvific faith, and something I really had to wrestle with and reconcile. We all agreed that the Bible was sacred text, but we all interpreted it very differently. And so, there were so many conversations, more than I can offer in this in this time, about issues for example of free will versus predestination, and how to think about those issues in light of salvation and in light of how we express our belief in daily life. That was a conversation that my roommate and I had all of the time because we disagreed vehemently.

Robin Chenoweth: On a post-graduation car trip, their friends told Mayhew and his roommate to settle their argument about the doctrines of free will and predestination, once and for all, during the drive from Memphis to Dallas. Then, they said, they never wanted to hear it again. Mayhew went to Brandeis University, a predominantly Jewish institution where he had more philosophical discussions with classmates as he earned his master’s in psychology.

Matthew Mayhew: We had a common goal of trying to contribute to the welfare of society through using our brains. But we have very different perspectives on what life was about what calling should look like.

Robin Chenoweth: He became a residence director at a small, nearby college and loved the work. But he had a problem…. The GRE scores he earned while studying at Wheaton were set to expire. If he was going to go for his PhD, he had to do it soon. He stumbled upon a major that intrigued him: Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs. He’s a numbers nerd, and the field applied a lot of statistical analysis. So, Mayhew applied and was accepted into the University of Michigan, the first public school he’d ever attend. And that’s when things got really interesting.

Matthew Mayhew: Well, coming to the University of Michigan was a huge change. I was the only straight white male in my entire cohort.

Robin Chenoweth: The first Friday after their classes began, they all went out for pizza.

Matthew Mayhew: We were all sitting around, and we were introducing ourselves and I kind of introduced myself as, ‘Hi my name is Matt and I love Jesus.’

Robin Chenoweth: Everyone looked cryptically at each other and at him, as if to say, ‘Who is this guy?’

Matthew Mayhew: That was kind of the seed from which there was a lot of kind of conversations and some of the people around that table are still some of my best friends.

Robin Chenoweth: The course work was good. The cohesion of the student cohort was even better. Two in the group took it upon themselves to immerse Mayhew in scholarship about students of color.

Matthew Mayhew: They gave me books to read, written by people like Drew, McLaren, Ferrari, and I read them, and I actually started integrating those ideas into my empirical work. They made it into my dissertation, not because of any courses that I took at Michigan, not because of the professors that I had, but because the students in my life, my peers who identified very differently than I did kind of opened my eyes to a new way of thinking.

Robin Chenoweth: Their influence was profoundly shaping him, in ways that integrated with his faith and his professional goals. He tells a story that underscores how deeply impacted he was by them. It goes something like this.

Matthew Mayhew: And it was one of the first times I was ever called out as a white person having to look at his privilege.

Robin Chenoweth: A student newspaper published an article about two Latina women, and the reporter misspelled both of their names. Online chat boards blew up. A male student in the program, who was white, sparked indignation with his comments.

Matthew Mayhew: Said something to the effect of, ‘Well I don't understand why this is a big deal. People misspell my name all the time.’ And to that a lot of folks were responding oh my gosh, you know, this is how privilege is expressed it's not about you, you're centering yourself in a story that has nothing to do with you.

Robin Chenoweth: The man retorted that he was sick of everything being turned into racism. And so the dialogue went back and forth, with many in his cohort responding. To which Mayhew decided to… remain silent.

Matthew Mayhew: I was like I'm not stepping into this, there's no way I'm getting near this because I don't want to put myself out there and I don't want to, you know, state my opinion or even get near it because I don't want to people to get angry with me or I don't want to say something incorrectly.

Robin Chenoweth: His cohort took him out for pizza again. And then they confronted him.

Matthew Mayhew: And they said you know here's the problem with this Matt, your silence is deafening in the space. Of all of the people in this cohort and in this program, you are a white guy, and you can take on this white guy. The rest of us, we are taking him on or putting ourselves more at risk than you could ever put yourself at. So where is your voice, what are you doing and why aren't you responding? And if you're getting a terminal degree in something so important as higher education administration, and you want to move into the professorate and you want to teach students, and you want to have those students teach other people, then you need to really check your privilege and understand more about it.

Robin Chenoweth: Checking your privilege. It’s an uncomfortable proposition even for the most secure person. What does that really mean? It means slowing down and listening, Mayhew says.

Matthew Mayhew: Take a pause. When something is said in a racial context or political context, and you're upset by it, you need to take a pause before you respond, you need to think about why am I upset by this, and you need to think about are part of the reasons I'm upset because of how I identify? Would somebody else who identified differently be as upset as I am in this moment? And even by taking a pause you're able to really reflect upon how your own narratives — being white, being male, being Christian — are interpreting the information that's being presented.

Robin Chenoweth: So Mayhew went back home and thought about the times he didn't speak up. And the times he did and said things that were based on his own interpretation, without really listening to the people around him. And he took his cohort’s advice to heart. Later, he began to focus on that transformation in himself, and how others could be similarly influenced. Much of his research now focuses on what colleges can do to help students have proactive encounters with people of different faiths — checking their assumptions and developing understanding of one another. One study is changing the way universities teach students to approach religious difference. It’s not a chat and play nice proposition.

Matthew Mayhew: It's incredibly important that you don't just say, we're going to have a conversation about religious difference. For students, you need to say we need to have a conversation about Islam and Muslim students, and we need to have a conversation and unpack how you think about people who identify in that way, and why you think about people in the way that you do and having that conversation about Islam is very different than maybe having a conversation with students about atheism. You have to really think about specific worldview identifications or religious identifications in order to have very fruitful conversations.

Robin Chenoweth: This research also shows that challenging students, but not trying to change them, creates the most provocative experiences.

Matthew Mayhew: They're challenged to think about their own religious identities; where those identities came from, how they think about themselves in light of their religion, how they think about religious expression, how they think about how their religion may have oppressed folks over time or not oppressed folks.

Robin Chenoweth: When students are supported in that process by a professor who can deftly provide guidance for them to struggle openly, then the students come out of that struggle more informed — not to mention more tolerant and more engaged.

Matthew Mayhew: That's what students value. They value that challenge, and they value having the space to talk about those things and not being judged in that space but rather pushed to think and rethink what kind of dimensions of their own religious selves, but also to do so in a way that the students don't feel coerced to take on a new faith that maybe they don't want to. And also students don't feel like the professors or anybody else is trying to get them to abandon their faith tradition.

Robin Chenoweth: Fostering understanding is a sweet spot, he says, of challenge and support. Just like his cohort gave him around the subject of racial sensitivity. That’s what a good college experience can provide. It’s what Mayhew tries to impart on his students and what he endeavors to provide all college students through his research.

Matthew Mayhew: So, if that cohort had not been put together in the way that it had with me being one of the only white guys in the cohort of seven. I don't know if that experience would have ever happened. And had that experience never happened I can tell you that some of my research trajectory and what I was interested in and how I thought about issues and how I frame issues, how I think about problem solving in higher education, would be very different. When I study things like the interaction with diverse peers, It really is meaningful for me, on a lot of different levels.

Robin Chenoweth: He's still evolving, in his faith and in his understanding of racial and cultural difference. He tells his students that he’s probably going to ‘step in it’ from time to time.

Matthew Mayhew: I'm probably going to use words or terms that are not words in terms that I should be using. You know, language evolves over time I try to stay up to speed with it. But sometimes I do make mistakes, and if I do, please feel free to let me know about it feel, feel free to call me out.

Robin Chenoweth: And that’s ok, because it’s all about challenging and supporting, understanding who we are in light of our personal histories and how that affects others. Even for an accomplished researcher who grew up in Orange County, California, and still loves Jesus.

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