Never Mind Tocqueville, Let's List Slurs

Bill Rivers

In fall 2007, administrators at the University of Delaware launched a now infamous experiment aimed at indoctrinating students who lived in the University’s dorms with “progressive” political ideology. Much has already been written on this, but not that much by eyewitnesses. I was a student at UD at the time, and was most struck by the odd condescension of the Residence Life administrators.  They acted as if everything incoming freshmen students thought about the world was fundamentally wrong. Somehow we 17 and 18 year olds who were smart enough to get into UD weren’t smart enough to have any valid views of our own on society, politics, the environment, personal behavior, sexuality, or anything else.  The Res Life view was that the students would have to start over from scratch.

            Residence Life made very clear that we freshmen had been raised in a manner that imbued us with hateful understandings.   We needed to be purged and Residence Life was mercifully going to do the purging.  Our salvation lay ahead through nine months of programming in the college dorm. Pervading every activity, every program, was this notion that we could not think for ourselves about important issues such as race.   We were incapable of doing so because of our deep bigotry.  And only by first admitting that we were bigots would we have any hope of escaping our benighted condition. 

            This view struck me then as deeply insulting to Residence Life’s ultimate bosses— our parents, who were shelling out to send their kids to a residential college.  Those parents, in the Res Life view, were the ones who implanted wrong-headed social attitudes.  The Res Life dogma was also remarkably offensive to the students. In essence, what Residence Life was saying to its charges was, ‘You can’t be trusted to think for yourselves. We have to show you how.’

            One of the best examples of this kind of offensive thinking happened early in the spring semester of 2007. It was about 8:30 on a Monday night and my roommate and I were both at hard work in our dorm room. He was engrossed in a lab write-up that was due the next morning for his one of his mechanical engineering classes and I was inching my way through a paper on Alexis de Tocqueville for my Honors colloquium. Then Lori, our Resident Assistant, appeared in the doorway and gave a quick knock. “Mandatory floor meeting downstairs in five minutes, guys,” she said. “Let’s go.”   

            We complained—like everyone on the floor—but at the end of five minutes, my roommate and I—like everyone else—tramped on down to the basement lounge. Sometimes mandatory floor meeting notices were announced by bright, colorful pieces of paper posted on bathroom doors, but this one was a surprise. To this day, I don’t know if it was intended to be that way, or if Lori simply forgot until the last minute. Regardless, forty irritated freshmen collected down in Lane Hall’s basement lounge to participate in one of the more jaw-dropping of Residence Life’s programs.

            Lori passed out a blank sheet of paper and told us to number it, leaving spaces for our answers. She announced that we were going to expose our prejudices and stereotypes about other races and in so doing learn more about diversity. To this end, she instructed us that she was going to read off a list of minorities and ethnicities for each number, and that we (working in pairs) were to write down all the stereotypes and prejudices we could think of for each category. After trading incredulous looks with each other (“Really? You took me away from studying Tocqueville to have me write down all the most offensive labels I’ve ever heard? Seriously?”), students then pooled their resources and for the next ten minutes went to work thinking of all the slurs, epithets, and bigoted comments used to demean not only African Americans, Asians, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and Poles, but also, gay and lesbian persons, and persons of other alternative lifestyles. When it was finished, Lori said something to the effect of, “Look how bigoted and prejudiced even us college students can be,” and “isn’t it a shock that even us who are being educated can think of all these slurs and stereotypes?”

            I was pretty hot under the collar by this point. I’d lived with these forty kids for about 6 months at this point, thought I knew them pretty well, and really didn’t think that any of them actually believed these prejudices about any of the minorities we discussed. (My floor was comprised of blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews, and was by all accounts already the most diverse place I’d ever lived.) I couldn’t see how making us write these offensive words was actually going to help us combat racial prejudice in our own lives. I also felt embarrassed on behalf of the minority students on the floor with whom I was close. I don’t think anyone was comfortable writing down the slurs, but it was especially uncomfortable for the minorities. The activity focused our attention solely on the differences between students, and the worst kinds of differences at that—prejudiced labels. If the program was intended to show us the light of our own inherent racism, I think it actually backfired. For as my one friend commented, “Wow! I never realized how few racial slurs I knew for Jews before this activity.”

            I had that Tocqueville paper waiting for me upstairs, but I was pretty annoyed and was about to say so when my roommate leaned over and whispered, “Don’t drag this out any longer than it has to be. We all want to get outta here. Let’s just do the program so we can be done with it because I’ve got work to do.” Looking around the room, I could see the same sentiment mirrored in the faces of my other friends on the floor.

            And so, because we all had work to do, because it felt like too much of an inconvenience to argue with Lori about the activity, I kept quiet about it. After all, that Tocqueville paper was waiting upstairs, as was my roommates’ mechanical engineering project for him, as was everyone else’s homework for them. We sat there in Lane Hall’s basement lounge for another ten minutes while Lori read off from a script how making an effort to eat different ethnic foods and going to different ethnic club meetings was going to help us forget about racial stereotypes. When it was over, we all scrambled back up to the 3rd floor to try to get back the lost last half hour from the evening.

            Much later in the evening, a few of us sat around before bed and discussed the program. I remember feeling angry at the presumption that because I was white I automatically harbored racial prejudices against minorities. In what kind of light did that place me in the eyes of Residence Life? How must minorities on the floor feel about me? One of my friends asked, “what about the four years of high school we just went through? Did they think that college was the first time we’d ever come into contact with people who looked and thought differently from us?” Students were also mad that Residence Life denied any ability on our part to get along well with one another, to make friends on our own, and to discuss our thoughts on race, sex, politics, the economy, the environment all by ourselves without their oversight. Instead of bringing us closer together as a floor, the Residence Life programs focused student attention solely on the racial differences between us and not on our commonalities.

The theme of diversity was everywhere apparent, but one poster especially stands out in my mind. Hanging in the hallway leading to the dining hall was a handwritten poster which read “The most universal similarity is DIVERSITY!” One of us quipped that technically for living organisms the most universal similarity was the element carbon and that Residence Life had gotten it wrong again.

 But thinking on it to myself, Residence Life really had gotten it wrong. The message of the poster, and Residence Life as a whole, was that each student’s worth is premised on their differences from every other. To me, each of us has inherent value because each of us is a member of the human race. To do away with our common humanity as the base-line for all human worth and dignity is to invite the worst kinds of discrimination, the kind that swept Europe in the early 20th century and which required major wars in order to defeat. Doing away with simple membership in our human family as the standard by which we, all of us, blacks, whites, and anyone and everyone, are seen as valuable persons, is to undermine our whole system of international human rights, and indeed the very core of our society. People count because they’re people, and as such everyone of them is worthwhile! Residence Life did not take that approach, did not appeal to mass commonality. Residence Life focused on differences, and I think that is why, in the end, they failed.

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