Submission: UCLA community must learn from errors, move forward with respect
Last week, a photograph of a UCLA undergraduate making a gang sign went viral. There is much we as administration don’t know about its context, including whether the photo was taken on campus. What we do know is that the student was the former USAC president, and that he is white.
The gang sign, by contrast, has roots in African-American neighborhoods in the heart of Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the photo created pain and concern because in certain places – including the homes of fellow Bruins – flashing those signs at the wrong time could have deadly consequences. The gesture was seen as mocking and trivializing the plight of those who live in communities affected by gang violence and tragedy.
We are glad to see that the student has apologized. Yes, repulsive or offensive expressions are protected by the First Amendment. But as the University of California’s Principles Against Intolerance emphasize, just because one can say something does not mean that one should.
Words matter. Symbols of disrespect have consequences.
While we are all capable of poor judgment, we have a responsibility to be mindful of how our words and actions can hurt others. Furthermore, in our digital age, our missteps may well be caught, be shared, be remixed and live on with unexpected consequences for ourselves and others. We all have a duty to learn by being held accountable, and to grow and heal from our errors – especially in a university, as students explore new ideas, exercise newly found liberties and fulfill new responsibilities. Meeting this responsibility is particularly important for leaders, especially elected ones, who have a duty to seek the well-being of all in their communities.
The well-being of the UCLA community requires us to recognize racial, religious, class, political, gender and other differences that can and will become inflamed if we do not take care, seek justice and exercise compassion. At UCLA and beyond, we are bound to encounter passionate conflicts and even deeply offensive attitudes and actions. But we must respond with our best thinking and a commitment to engaging with ideas and constructive critique.
As university administrators and as Bruins, we are committed to creating an equal learning environment for all where we can work through our differences and move forward with respect, humility and courage. We are equally committed to protecting the physical safety of all in our community.
Finally, it is crucial to use our voices to reaffirm core values, to remind ourselves collectively what’s right versus wrong, what’s thoughtful versus unkind, what’s substantive versus a cheap shot. We must seek to hold ourselves always accountable to higher standards and push ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today.
As Chancellor Gene Block has pointed out, “Communities thrive best when we understand each other’s hopes and have empathy for each other’s fears” and when we are “brave enough to reach across lines of difference, and to understand how we can hurt each other at our worst and how we may heal each other at our best.”
Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs
Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion