Beyond Change on Paper

Following the recent attacks on the LGBT Resource Center, many at UC Davis have sought to demonstrate that they are allies to targeted communities. The Activities and Recreation Center (ARC), for example, has a “Hate Free Zone” campaign going on right now “in honor of Principles of Community Week.” The ARC has “Hate Free Zone” signs posted, and their website offers a downloadable version of the sign “for your dorm or office.”

Though well-intentioned, the campaign is ultimately superficial: declaring a large public space free from “hate” does not make it so in practice. The posters may indicate a sincere desire for a campus free of oppression and discrimination, but the ease with which they imply we might become free from “hate” ignores the deep and pervasive ways that systems of oppression structure our lives and bodies, as well as our campus. More importantly, UC Davis already has a number of programs in place that actually educate students, staff, and faculty about the workings of systemic oppression and about concrete actions that can be taken to confront it. For example, for several years now the LGBT Resource Center has offered carefully constructed Safe Zone and Transgender Safe Zone programs. Unlike the “Hate Free Zone” campaign, these programs ensure that every participant receives the same basic information, and signs designating “safe zones” are linked only to individuals who have participated in the trainings, never to entire offices, dorms, or buildings. Safe Zone trainings used to be offered upon request, tailored to specific groups or classrooms, but the swiftly shrinking budget allotted to the LGBTRC means these programs can now be offered only a few predetermined times each quarter. Perhaps it is less expensive, and less trouble, to simply hang a few posters, but these signs should be understood neither as replacements for Safe Zones nor as guarantees that patrons will not experience oppression in these places. The “Hate Free Zone” campaign may be well-meaning, but its utter disconnection from broader education or structural change renders it ultimately ineffectual, and suggests a troubling failure to grasp the connections between visible acts of “hate,” larger systems of oppression, and the university’s de-funding of anti-oppression programs and departments.

This kind of superficial fix for questions of “diversity” and oppression is certainly not uncommon. Recently, UC President Mark Yudof gave an interview to representatives of various UC campuses. After Yudof cites the need to recruit more African-American students and faculty in the wake of racist incidents at UCSD, a UC Davis reporter asks if he would “look into” an affirmative action policy. Yudof’s reply: “I’m pro-affirmative action. Proposition 209 was a mistake. I’m in favor of giving financial aid to undocumented students. But we have a state law … the new admissions system pushes very hard for comprehensive review — that means your life is not summed up just by your SAT and your GPA. We’re hopeful that that will be helpful. We’re hopeful that more community college transfers [will apply]. … We have to obey the state law even if we don’t like it, and we could be called to task for not doing that, so I feel like I have one arm tied behind my back with these issues.”

Affirmative action policies are a key component in shifting campus climate and a crucial step toward confronting systemic inequality. Yet a retreat to affirmative action alone follows logic similar to that of the “Hate Free Zone” in that it focuses on individuals and superficial visibility rather than structural change. Recruiting students and faculty from historically underrepresented communities while simultaneously de-funding the resources that would support them on campus relies simply on numbers and bodies as representative of change. Certainly, increasing such numbers will create positive changes in the long run, but these changes will require significant energy and struggle from the students and faculty who make them — they will not emerge simply out of numbers on paper. Administrators and allies must strategize ways to take this burden off of marginalized students and faculty, and must think carefully about the logic of recruiting people into places where they are being directly and consistently targeted through racist and homophobic acts. Encouraging people to enter situations in which they are likely to experience violence does not undo that oppression, but recreates it. Individuals may make the decision to cope with racism and homophobia in order to access a UC education, but the university as a whole remains complicit with the barriers these individuals face if it does not take concrete and immediate action to remove those barriers.

Meanwhile, the actions Yudof hopes will get around a ban on affirmative action, such as expanding admissions requirements beyond standardized test scores, are actually more productive in undoing oppression than is promoting “diversity” through numbers alone. Whether or not affirmative action is legally restored, the university should continue to implement these practices and strategize ways to make comprehensive and structural change that moves beyond the limited efficacy of merely increasing numbers or hanging posters. To make these changes on the surface without attending to deeper inequalities in the very fabric of the university belittles the myriad ways that targeted populations experience oppression and obscures the complexity and pervasiveness of power and privilege.

— Cynthia & Toby

1 Response to “Beyond Change on Paper”

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