BY STEPHANIE KIM
Like much of the UCLA community, I was moved by Sy Stokes’ recent video denouncing the lack of diversity efforts in student admissions policies, and outraged over the inadequate responses by administration to reported discrimination against faculty members of color. For many of us, race and racism are part of daily campus life – perhaps the most troubling implication of Stokes’ video and the recent report on faculty discrimination is that racism is not confined to acts by an ignorant few, but is deeply embedded within the institutions that make up UCLA. Both, however, have opened up issues of institutionalized racism into our public discourse in a much-needed direction.
Supposedly in the spirit of this discourse, on Thursday, Nov. 14, students of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies congregated in Moore Hall for what the Daily Bruin reported as “a sit-in … in response to a report released in October outlining how UCLA insufficiently treated incidents of racial discrimination.”
According to the Daily Bruin, 25 students, who claim to represent “most of the students of color in the (Social Science and Comparative Education) division,” filled Professor Val Rust’s class while it was in session. Some of the 25 students were students of his class but most were not. As can be seen in the photograph that accompanies the news story, the 25 demonstrators appear to be encircling Rust and several seated students. A letter was read aloud detailing personal experiences of racial discrimination while the encircled professor and seated students were photographed by both demonstrators and Student Media photographers.
Prior to this act, the organizers of the sit-in did not seek broader support from the division, whether from students of color or otherwise. The organizers never addressed their grievances in our divisional town halls. The organizers also did not share their letter widely with the other students and faculty members.
What the contents of the letter include, as those of us who have read it know, is a naming-and-shaming list of alleged offenses made by faculty members in the division. Rust and those five seated students were not given prior notice of the sit-in directed specifically at Rust’s class. Those five students – all white or Asian – indicated to me afterward that they felt publicly humiliated by what had happened.
On one hand, the demonstrators and Student Media reporters and photographers violated the safety and privacy of the classroom. On the other hand, the encircling of only white and Asian students sends a message that, along with Rust, white and Asian students are those responsible for what the demonstrators call the “hostile and toxic environment for students of color here in Moore Hall and throughout the campus.”
Based on the tension reverberating throughout the division, I believe that the sit-in was a deliberately mean-spirited circus that creates exactly the hostile and toxic environment split along unsettling racial lines that the demonstrators claim to be fighting against.
Perhaps the most tragic consequence is the emotional scars inflicted, not just upon Rust and the five students, but upon everyone in the division. As a student of the division, I am outraged that this one-off act of belligerence was used as a form of activism for a legitimate cause.
As a woman of color, I am deeply saddened that my adviser and mentor for the last five years, Rust, was unjustly demonized as the symbol of white male oppression as a cheap way of arousing public support.
And lastly, I am dismayed at the carelessness of reporting by the Daily Bruin that failed to provide a more nuanced story that includes the perspectives of Rust and those five students, or the perspectives of the larger student and faculty bodies of the division.
Racial discrimination exists at UCLA, and the grievances of students affected by this must be addressed – that is what is at stake here. In the undergraduate writing seminar that I teach, I show a YouTube video of former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace making vulgar remarks against Asian students because it’s an important piece of a larger dialogue on race and racism that I believe all UCLA students should be having. While watching this video, my students and I discuss issues of white privilege and reflect upon critical race theory readings that I assign – and I can see that my students become more thoughtful and engaged members of the UCLA community because of it.
These freshman students, almost 15 years my junior, often surprise me with their insights on race and racism that I can also learn from. It is in this open and tolerant spirit that the demonstrators should share their grievances, and transform what was otherwise a clumsy and disingenuous act into a constructive forum for much-needed dialogue.
Kim is a graduate student in the Social Science and Comparative Education division of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.