Historicity, Race, and Cultural Insensitivity

A pro-segregation rally at the Arkansas State capitol in Little Rock, protesting the integration of schools like Little Rock's Central High School.

A pro-segregation rally at the Arkansas State capitol in Little Rock, protesting the integration of schools like Little Rock's Central High School.

This is an untimely and dated reflection I wrote some weeks ago. I had a half-baked idea that an edited version would be appropriate for submission to UCLA’s Daily Bruin. The version I ended up submitting was awful and didn’t include my trademark academic obfuscation—so I decided to publish this updated version on my website.

On October 15, the Editorial Board of the Daily Bruin argued that the “[absence] of malice does not excuse racism,” referring to a “racist event” held by two Greek-life organizations—Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi. Said event was “a near shot-for-shot remake of the film ‘Dear White People’.” A day before, Chris Tang argued that Bruins need to have more compassion for one another; specifically, “When black students share their hurt and disappointment with something like the ‘Kanye Western’ party, too often we respond with the way we see things, and it’s usually accompanied with criticism about how incorrect we think the black point of view is.”

The racist “Kanye Western” theme party at UCLA speaks to a prescient issue that often remains veiled in the midst of heated arguments between representatives of fraternities and advocates for social justice: the issue of culture.

In March, I argued in a submission to the Daily Bruin that “[racism] is still very much alive in the collective unconscious of the American mind.” When we issue blanket condemnations of these types of events, they often function “[in ignorance of] the deeply rooted history of hate in our country,” and often unintentionally reinforce cycles of hatred by incorrectly diagnosing the source of these socially maladaptive behaviors: a fundamentally broken and systematically oppressive culture—more so than the acts of particular individuals acting spontaneously, without any regard to their acculturation.

The often dismissive attitude with which the feelings of members of targeted communities are dealt points to the urgent need of a more tangible basis of criticism—I believe this can be found in the historical record. In a response letter published in the Daily Bruin, Audrey Yue observed that “[awareness] of [the] black community’s history [is] key in combatting racism.” She adds that we ought “not forget the centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, etc. that have made it near-impossible for the black community to succeed.”

Jane H. Hill, a linguist-anthropologist, argues that “[while] American workplaces and public institutions are increasingly integrated, very few Whites have social friends among people of color.” In her view, “White isolation makes it easy for [Whites] to dismiss the complaints of people of color as ‘whining’ and ‘playing the race card,’” while “Whites do not themselves experience harassment for ‘driving while Black.’” White people do not have “their conversations with family and friends…interrupted by perfect strangers telling them to ‘Speak English! This is America!’”

Perhaps more than these “everyday moments of discrimination,” Hill presents evidence that “[reveals] a consistent picture of gross disparities,” concerning education and health access/availability, employment, infant mortality, and median family income.

Initial awareness for UCLA students of systematic social illness in the broader culture can be achieved through historical instruction. Condemnations of cultural insensitivity and oppression over the past few years haven’t seen a corresponding reduction in their frequency; it is evident that the tone of many of these apologies written in the wake of racist events lack meaningful grounding in the historical and material reality of racism in the nation, and reflect efforts to save face more than they do efforts to build bridges between communities in the University.

If the culture reproduces (often symbolic) acts and gestures of oppression and racism, people of color at the University must be enfranchised and their existence affirmed and supported by the entire student body and institutional structures alike in the face of such a culture. Strategy that will be developed to combat ignorance should reflect a greater precision in criticism, and be especially rooted in the historical memory and experience of a specific community.

Engaging with cultural insensitivity is quite difficult, and will require the initiative of every student to expand their social networks to include individuals who represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. The earnest cooperation of students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike toward a comprehensive program aimed at the critical analysis of culture will be an essential step forward in improving campus climate.

More than reducing the frequency of these events, a historically based introduction to the roots of contemporary systems of oppression opens previously closed avenues of inter-community dialogue. When the evidence of our past is on the table, or on a projection screen in a lecture hall, we have no choice but to look—however distressing it may be.