Failures in Higher Education: Learning About Racism

July 14, 2013

There is a misconception, held by some in higher education, to the effect that you must be a Republican if you speak disparagingly of “diversity” or of “political correctness.”  In fact, you don’t have to be a conservative to attack those concepts.  You just have to be willing to recognize when they have been overhyped.

For example, racism can be overhyped.  There are people who will call you racist as soon as you open your mouth.  The purpose in such behavior often does not seem to be to achieve understanding or improved communication.  It appears, too frequently, to be motivated by a desire to silence people who hold disfavored views.

The problem with such polarizing behavior, in a higher educational context, is not just that it alienates fellow faculty and impairs faculty civility and communication.  It is that it filters down to the students, who form their own impressions of what is going on.

Definitions will differ, but here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on “Racism”:

Racism is usually defined as views, practices and actions reflecting the belief that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups called races and that members of a certain race share certain attributes which make that group as a whole less desirable, more desirable, inferior, or superior.

In that definition, racism consists of two parts:  the belief in the existence of biologically defined races, and the belief that one race can be better or worse than another.  This can be puzzling:  it can seem that everyone must be a racist.  For one thing, skin is a part of one’s biology, and people from different parts of the world plainly have different skin colors.  As for the superiority issue, I doubt that even the most fervent Nazi ever believed that every single pureblooded Aryan was better than every single person from a supposedly inferior race.  Hitler’s concept did not seem to be that every German was able to run faster than every black person; it was that the best German athletes would outrun the best black athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Hitler seems to have been somewhat correct in that belief.  His athletes apparently did pretty well in those Olympics.  He was wrong if he thought this was due to inevitable genetic superiority; subsequent contests have demonstrated the value of good training for other nations’ Olympic teams.  Nonetheless, America seems largely to subscribe to a Hitler-like way of viewing things.  With or without genetic claims, most people seem to think that African-Americans tend to be superior in a variety of sports, that white people don’t have rhythm, that Jews tend to be high achievers in certain fields, that Japanese culture values perfectionism, and so forth.  It is not clear that such beliefs, correct or not, are in some sense immoral if they merely constitute an honest attempt to state how things seem.  If they are incorrect, the proper response would seemingly be to provide countervailing data, not to impugn the character of the person who stated his/her impression.

Samuel Hendrickson

Wikipedia goes on:

Some definitions would have it that any assumption that a person’s behavior would be influenced by their racial categorization is racist, regardless of whether the action is intentionally harmful or pejorative. Other definitions only include consciously malignant forms of discrimination.

In other words, some people think racism requires a hostile attitude; others say attitude doesn’t matter.  This brings us to a video, widely criticized and parodied, by a young man, apparently named Samuel Hendrickson, reportedly a former student at Indiana University (though he’s actually wearing a Notre Dame shirt), titled “Why I’d Hate To Be Asian. (Totally Not Racist).”

Hendrickson’s video presents his ten reasons for being glad that he is not Asian.  One such reason is that “most Asians look alike.”  Another is “Sweatshops.  They suck.  I’m totally against them.  You should be too.”  One more example:  “Pot-smoking.  Could you imagine how you would look if you were a high Asian?  OK.  It’s called ‘Chink-eyed,’ right?  Well, what if you already have Chink eyes – double Chink-eyed?  Are their eyes just closed?”

As those examples may suggest, Hendrickson does not appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed.  That sort of conclusion seems to evoke divergent reactions.  Some may feel that stupid people say stupid things, and it is a waste of time to obsess on their nonsense.  Others, going in the opposite direction, seem compelled to draw attention to such stupidity.  Their motives for doing so may differ.  Some may consider it important to take such remarks at face value, and to rebut them logically; others may see a way to get some laughs by ridiculing people like Hendrickson, perhaps positioning themselves as smart or entertaining by comparison.

These phenomena raise a number of thoughts pertaining to racism.  The very concept opens opportunities for people who are inclined to ridicule or otherwise draw attention to real and imagined instances of racism.  Doing so can enhance their credibility as knowledgeable sources, can allow them to reassure themselves and/or others of their non-racist goodness, and can exclude stupid, heterodox, and otherwise undesirable others.  These are not necessarily educationally oriented objectives.

More to the point here, it is interesting that Hendrickson would think that his remarks were not racist.  He appears to interpret the term in the non-malignant sense:  racism, for him, would apparently entail a hostile mindset.  He seems to mean that he does not personally harbor any ill will toward Asians.  He may sincerely not wish to offend anybody.  It may not have occurred to him that any Asian people would watch his video – surely he was not expecting to achieve Internet notoriety – and if they did watch it, if he thought about the prospect at all, possibly he assumed they would generally recognize the logic of what he was saying.  So in his understanding of the concept, he would not have done anything racist in posting the video.  He did consider the possibility of such an interpretation, but in his way of seeing things, evidently he dispelled that sort of misunderstanding by clarifying, in the title, that his video was “Totally Not Racist.”  That is, it wasn’t intended to offend any Asians who might see it.

I do not know how someone could achieve Hendrickson’s age – 19 or 20, perhaps – without learning that it is commonly considered offensive to refer to people with terms like “Chink-eyed,” knowing (as Hendrickson does) that “Chink” means Chinese.  It may not be as threatening to call a white person a “honky” or a “cracker,” but a white person so called would at least recognize that the term was disparaging and probably not kindly intended.  I do appreciate that Indiana – with areas that long remained friendly to the Ku Klux Klan – still has some surprisingly backwoods districts.  My guess is that Hendrickson came from a small-town or rural environment where his strongest cultural influences featured adults and media that would use terms like “Chink-eyed” in normal conversation and/or would not take pains to correct others who did so.

I suspect, moreover, that Hendrickson comes from that broad swath of the U.S. that assumes we are all more or less well-meaning middle-class Americans.  Especially but not only in the Midwest, there is an emphasis on getting along with people – or, in a less sincere vein, on leaving it to others to speak up if they feel offended.  Just as a person might assume that s/he is a Christian because s/he was raised as one and has managed to avoid reasons to think s/he is not, so also a Hoosier can easily conclude that racism means having a bad attitude, and that this does not apply to oneself because one has thoroughly internalized the tendency to feel mildly disposed toward most people on most occasions.  The words may not always come out quite right, but the heart is ostensibly in the right place.

In short, Hendrickson is plainly a person in need of an education, so as to understand just how alien his perspectives might seem to others, and to begin to see ways in which he might be in error.  Ideally, for example, he would actually get to know one or two Asian persons, at which point he might begin to recognize differences among them.

It is perhaps not surprising that Hendrickson did not continue at Indiana University – if, indeed, the characterization of him as an IU dropout is accurate.  But he should be getting some form of post-high school education, in a place at a physical or at least intellectual arm’s-length from the apparently flawed place that produced him.  And in that education – which, really, should have begun in high school if not before – he would hopefully be exposed to the possibility that not everyone who gets mad about things like race and sex can be fairly dismissed as a nutty liberal or “feminazi.”

By his attitudes and perhaps his academic performance, Hendrickson seems to be in the process of positioning himself as a non-elite member of society.  He would probably not continue long in the expression of such views within the university:  if he did not get the message to think and speak in an acceptable form, and instead retained the style displayed in his video, he would probably invite a potentially excessive hostility that might eventually succeed in driving him out or at least severely impairing his career possibilities.

The university is not known for its skills in outreach to non-university types.  People like Hendrickson tend to form an excluded alternate culture, predominantly but not only working-class, in which the elocutionary niceties of academia carry little weight.  The rejection precedes and in some instances precludes the education:  teaching and learning are often secondary to professors’ determination to maintain the impression of their general superiority, commonly seizing upon opportunities offered by hicks and others who have been insufficiently schooled in approved thought and expression.

No doubt these speculations miss the mark on one or more points where Hendrickson is concerned.  Yet neither are they completely uninformed.  I was a rural Indiana boy who unintentionally offended a co-worker, upon taking a job at a McDonald’s in L.A. in 1975, when I told him how I had been asking $650 for a car but the buyer Jewed me down to $600.  He dropped his spatula and exclaimed, “That’s an insult to my religion!”  My first thought was, what religion would this be?  It took a moment to trace the problem to the word I had used.  Jews?  I knew about them.  They were the people in the Old Testament.  I hadn’t clearly conceptualized that they existed in the ordinary U.S.  The dark, exotic-looking women in my Hebrew class at Indiana University, I thought, typified Indianapolis, which to me in 1974 had been somewhat exotic in itself.  I probably would have learned my way through that issue if I’d stuck around but, like Hendrickson, I dropped out of IU before such subtleties dawned.

What we don’t need in higher education, in other words, is a convoluted concept of racism that fails to produce an engaged and mutually respected mindset, in faculty and lay people alike within the university’s home state.  It is unlikely that the university can reach out to lead its community, however, when professors (and, in their wake, empowered students) prove as narrowminded as the Hendricksons of the world.

Alexandra Wallace

I decided to write this post when I saw another college student’s video.  This video, by a UCLA student named Alexandra Wallace, likewise expressed negative views toward Asians, but with a focus on just a few university-specific issues.

Wallace’s first complaint was that, in her experience, Asian students commonly brought extended family members to their dorms on weekends to “do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week,” rather than teaching them to take care of themselves, American-style.  She claimed that this no longer bothered her, though her tone suggested otherwise.

It appears that UCLA did not attempt and succeed in any effort to bridge gaps and produce regular and deep cultural interactions among students.  Wallace prides herself on being the kind of “polite, nice, American girl that my mama raised me to be.”  It is unfortunate that she, and possibly her university educators, did not recognize these as manifestations of a valid but in some ways eccentric culture in itself.  Similar to Hendrickson, Wallace considered independence, niceness, and good manners to be highly important.  And on her home turf, in her relatively undisturbed world, that would make sense.  It’s just that the Asians, meanwhile, may have their own reasons for doing things differently.

Rather than value what Wallace and her Asian neighbors could have learned from one another, UCLA (consistent with my own experience, especially at Michigan and Indiana) seems to have been content to let them all live in their own states of mutual incomprehension.  Dollinger (2013), summarizing her own research and commenting on Hendrickson’s video, reports that Chinese undergraduates at Indiana University had “few or no American friends and are often unaware of campus life activities.”  Instead, she says, the Chinese students limited themselves to Chinese student activities.

That finding reflects a deep part of campus culture.  Elsewhere, I have described my experience in which, even in doctoral seminars, professors at Indiana University were content to leave the Asian PhD students (comprising nearly half the class) to sit there in silence throughout the entire semester, while the Americans talked among themselves.  It was the antithesis of respect for other cultures.  What Dollinger is describing is an ambiance in which people might want to break through the walls surrounding large and rather segregated Asian and American cultures at the university – at the very least, they might want to make Asian or American friends – but they don’t know where to begin.  In other words, the universities engage in a setup, leaving people like Wallace to persist in cultural ignorance.  What was different about Wallace was not what she said; it was the fact that she said it.

The second complaint voiced by Wallace, in her video, was that the students did not learn American manners.  In particular, she objected to Asian students talking on their phones in the library.

She said that she was recording her message during finals week, which in UCLA’s quarter system calendar would have been the week of March 14-18, 2011.  More precisely, it appears she was recording on or about the Friday before finals week.  It is understandable that a student would be particularly sensitive to library disruptions at that point in the semester.

I do not share Wallace’s observation that Asian students are especially likely to behave rudely.  It is possible that Asian students at UCLA are different from those at Indiana or Michigan.  What seems more likely is that she was already irked at them for not being cued into her culture (in e.g., the weekend activities described above), and was thus especially likely to be distracted by a flurry of Asian-student phone calls on that particular Friday.  It was March 11, the day of the catastrophic tsunami in Japan.

Wallace knew that the tsunami had occurred; but in her subtype of American culture, it seems to have been more important to mind one’s manners than to call relatives and talk about that disastrous event.  She knew it was happening; it was just that, in her world, it was not as important as keeping order in the library.  It is not clear whether the students in question were Japanese students who were in touch with family members in Japan, in which case it would be understandable if they lost track of their surroundings and focused intently on the conversation, or if they were, say, predominantly Chinese students who felt that it was OK in general terms to disregard the rules in a time of calamity.

Whatever the specifics, Wallace saw a bunch of unspecified Asians on the phone in the library that Friday, and apparently she’d had enough.  She went back to her dorm and produced her video to express her culture’s view that people could take their tsunami discussions outside the library.  It was a narrowminded perspective.  She admits it was lacking in empathy.  But it was not completely crazy.  Wallace was expressing what she thought were the obvious priorities under the circumstances.

The things I am saying here are not terribly difficult to imagine.  It seems, unfortunately, that the university and its people were not willing and able to engage in this sort of analysis.  Instead, what we get from the university’s administration is the magnanimous decision not to punish her for expressing her views; and what we get from her fellow students is significantly worse.  Here is a letter reportedly written by Wallace after the fact:

In an attempt to produce a humorous YouTube video, I have offended the UCLA community and the entire Asian culture. I am truly sorry for the hurtful words I said and the pain it caused to anyone who watched the video. Especially in the wake of the ongoing disaster in Japan, I would do anything to take back my insensitive words. I could write apology letters all day and night, but I know they wouldn’t erase the video from your memory, nor would they act to reverse my inappropriate action.

I made a mistake. My mistake, however, has lead to the harassment of my family, the publishing of my personal information, death threats, and being ostracized from an entire community. Accordingly, for personal safety reasons, I have chosen to no longer attend classes at UCLA.

Alexandra Wallace

One might suspect some insincerity in this letter.  Contrary to her claim, Wallace does not seem to have been attempting a humorous video.  Nonetheless, she probably does have some sincere regrets about her video and about her unempathic presentation.  In her defense, I think it took many Americans a while to understand how vast the unfolding Japanese disaster was, and Wallace in particular does not seem to have been very strongly informed about the world at large.  She certainly does not seem to have considered what it might be like to be in a foreign country on a day like that.

Wallace received particular derision for her attempt to imitate an Asian person’s phone conversation.  Her words, uttered while imitating an Asian person on the phone, were as follows:  “Oh!  Ching chong ling long ting tong!  Oh!”  There is probably a definition of racism that would consider this to be racist speech.  But in terms of the concepts sketched at the start of this post, it does not seem to express either an identification of biological difference or a belief in cultural superiority.  She does not seem to be mocking the unspecified Asian language.  To my eyes and ears, she was merely trying to make sounds that her intended audience would recognize as a placeholder for the actual sound of an Asian person on the phone.

I, myself, would not have made those sounds, because I realize that there are people on the lookout for something to ridicule; and that sort of imitation does invite ridicule, because it is not a standard form of expression within academia-speak.  If she wanted to portray herself as being a university type, and thus somewhat protected from ridicule by dint of putative sophistication, she needed rather to use a non-imitative filler, or not to try at all to convey the sounds she was hearing.  Her chosen form of expression was fresher, but as she now knows, it was also riskier.

The really shocking thing about Wallace’s story is not that she was ignorant of the larger world, or that she was unaccepting of foreign cultures.  That much was surely true, as well, of the vast majority of the Asian students of whom she spoke:  as Dollinger notes (above), consistent with my own experiences with Chinese roommates over a period of years, they were unlikely even to be up to speed on campus events, never mind knowing much about important developments in America generally.

What is really shocking about Wallace’s story is, rather, that her college education was interrupted if not curtailed by extraordinarily harsh responses to her brief and fairly mild video.  She was not using slurs to describe Asians.  Her racism, if it was racism at all, was limited to the belief that her culture – her concepts of good manners and of student independence – were superior generally, or were at least entitled to respect on the part of visitors to her country.  That latter expectation is what people generally expect of visitors to any nation.  Indeed, it is not different from the kind of expectations that academics apply to incoming undergraduates.

When people reach a point of thinking that they are right in issuing death threats to a college student who voices a complaint about rudeness in the library, something is very wrong.  The failure of higher education here, as in the case of Hendrickson, is that there is not a concept of outreach, within the university, sufficient to persuade the complaining student, and her attackers, that they could all benefit from reflection on the situation.

Wallace may have come to the university as a narrowminded, overprivileged kid.  At the very start of her video, she acknowledges awareness of another, “politically correct” way of thinking and speaking.  She, herself, does not seem to consider such correctness to be truly correct, much less meaningful for her own purposes.  To the contrary, she brackets it as something alien.  Whatever its mission once was, for people like Wallace it has become calcified.  And this is not news.  Scholars have been able to see, for some time now, that their complex noodlings in areas like race can fail to provide practical guidance.  In other words, to cite one scenario, a mechanic would probably be better advised to try to figure out some kind of race position on his/her own, than to try to make sense of what the eggheads have to say, with their lack of experience in real life.  This sounds, again, like a failure in higher education.

From the moment she arrived on that campus, Wallace should have been unavoidably participating in an environment in which she, her classmates, and her professors were all constantly exposed to and learning about each other’s worlds.  Condemning anyone, including Wallace, for expressing what seems right from her perspective is the antithesis of cultural sensitivity.  What Wallace characterizes as “harassment” and “ostracism” in her subsequent UCLA experience is, unfortunately, the sort of ignorant behavior that too often emerges from higher education in America today.  We can do better than this.


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