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Negotiating Prejudice At U.C. San Diego

Things have changed at my alma mater, U.C. San Diego since I graduated with a degree in Literature and the required minor in literature in a foreign language (German).

(This spectacular library never fails to deliver nostalgic and artistic chills)

We were a small campus with three “colleges” – Revell for those headed to medical school and able to “do math”; Muir for the artistic non-math/science slackers (no requirements; my kind of college and, in point of fact, my college); and “Third” representing both its numeric position in the University’s development and its subject matter – third world and urban studies.

U.C. San Diego was a small liberal arts college, meant  (as so many colleges yearn) to be, the “Harvard of the West.”  You can’t “do” Harvard, however, when the beach nearest your school is the only nude beach in town and the Pacific is your eyes’ horizon as you study D.H. Lawrence or Bertolt Brecht in small seminar classes in Tioga Hall.  UCSD wasn’t just “small” in the mid-70’s, it also ran counter to the culture.  Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist philosopher, attracted many others of his political bent, including one of my favorite lit profs from whom I took courses in Kafka; German Literature (in, choke, German); and, creative writing.  He was not only sexily European, he was an heroic figure, having “jumped” the Berlin wall to reach “the West.”  Even so, he was no Ayn Rand.  He remained an unreconstructed Marxist, as did most of the Literature faculty.  As taught, Marxism didn’t mean “Communism.”  It was a means of analysis – primarily economic and political – of literature as it affected the reader rather than, say, analyses that found “hidden messages” in literary “symbols” or sought to psychoanalyze the literary characters themselves.

We didn’t have fraternities and sororities at UCSD in the early seventies, nor anything other than intramural sports.  My friends at Revell were learning COBAL and FORTRAN.  My lit friends and I took as many classes as we could from the brilliant and eccentric left-wing Lit God Frederic Jameson (Freud, Marx and Science Fiction – I still have my final paper) and we were all taking classes at “Third.”  We were left-wing nerds.

The last time I visited UCSD was a good thirty years after I’d graduated.  The literature department is now a small chocolate brown building at the edge of campus physically dwarfed by the vaulting architecture of the new bio-med buildings, at least one of which was then under construction.

You get the picture (yes we see).  Literature and philosophy are no longer the leaders of the pack.

That’s the History; Here’s the Prejudice

As the New York Times reports this morning, things are not going well at my old alma mater.  Shades of my late-60’s, early ’70’s campus life, students have actually “occupied” the Dean’s office even though the trigger for the racial dust-up was not University policy but the activities of a few dunderheaded frat boys who staged a “Ghetto Night” to “mock”  Black History Month.  See also the UCSD “Battle the Hate” page.  At the risk of offending all “frat boys,” including my husband who was President of his fraternity at Michigan – Phi Epsilon Pi, since merged with (he says) the far better looking Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau – this is what happens when you let Greeks on campus.

There is my late 60’s prejudice, which has managed to survive more than thirty years of experience and education.  And that’s a particularly personal prejudice, not one reinforced over hundreds of years of American history.

I’d say something astute and original about prejudice but I cannot say it as well as my friend and mentor Ken Cloke has in Conflict Revolution.  In his chapter on Diversity and Self-Determination, Cloke explains how prejudice works as concisely as I have ever seen it described:

  1. pick a characteristic
  2. blow it out of proportion
  3. collapse the person back into the characteristic
  4. ignore individual differences and variations
  5. disregard subtleties and complexities
  6. overlook commonalities
  7. match it to your own worst fears
  8. make it cruel

Conflict Revolution at 115.

How to combat my prejudice against “frat boys”?

  1. develop a knowledgeable, confident self-identity, and appreciate who they are without needing to feel superior to others
  2. experience comfortable, empathetic interactions with diverse people and ideas
  3. be curious and unafraid of learning about differences and commonalities
  4. feel comfortable collaboratively solving problems and negotiating differences
  5. be aware of biases, stereotypes and discrimination when they occur
  6. stand up for themselves and others in the face of prejudice, without becoming biased in turn
  7. experience diverse affectionate relationships that grow stronger as a result of differences

Id. at 116.

That’s how we combat prejudice at the personal level.  How about at the institutional level, i.e., the level that would justify UCSD students “occupying” the Dean’s office rather than the offending fraternity house?

For that, I offer the first in a series of videos taken at the last ABA Dispute Resolution Conference of a talk on the “race blind” admissions process at the University of California given by Prof. Cheryl Harris, author of Whiteness as Property.  Professor Harris is a nationally-recognized expert in race theory and anti-discrimination law who teaches Critical Race Theory, Civil Rights, Employment Discrimination, Race-Conscious Remedies and Constitutional Law at the UCLA School of Law (my step-son’s alma mater).

We are all biased by attitudes and opinions formed in our childhoods, our youth, and our early adult-hoods.  Those biases – said to be implicit – limit our ability to become the inclusive society we wish to be; create resentment among large segments of the society; express themselves in diminished opportunities for discriminated classes; and, eventually erupt into violence and lawlessness.

We can do better.  I can do better.  And certainly, the students at U.C. San Diego can do better.

And we can do better rather easily, by raising our implicit biases to consciousness.

I promise not to diminish “frat boys” ever again.  How about you?  What are your implicit biases?  Wouldn’t it be liberating to free yourself of them?  I know I feel better already!


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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