Bias Incident Reflects Poorly on Our Campus

Last Wednesday at lunchtime, I was minding my own business at the Motley, headphones on and a cup of French roast by my side to motivate my study for a dreaded Macro Theory quiz. I could not, however, help but overhear snippets of an open meeting between the co-chairs of Scripps’s Diversity Committee, students, and faculty. Gradually, I took my headphones out and looked up from my labor supply graphs: students and faculty were speaking so earnestly that I found myself listening in to their conversation.

The subject of the meeting was Scripps’s latest “bias-related incident,” the spray–painting of various offensive phrases throughout campus on Sunday, Apr. 5. The e-mail sent out to students the next day stood out for its frank and specific description of the vandalism. It noted the phrases that were spray-painted, including “Scissor Me Scripps,” “Wannabes,” “Every Lash,” and “dick-tation.” In a particularly explicit section, the e-mail read, “‘Scissoring’ is a colloquial term for a form of non penetrative sex. Most often the phrase ‘scissoring’ or to ‘scissor’ is most often used in the context of lesbian sex.”

A theme that was heard over and over from students in the meeting was some variation on, “I feel like the 5-C community has let us down.” Students, the majority of whom went to Scripps, expressed frustration with the other colleges and what they perceived as a casual attitude toward the incident. Twice, students specifically referred to Pomona’s seeming unconcern and lack of support.

I think back to my immediate response when I saw the “Bias Related Incident” e-mail in my inbox, and I admit I was less than outraged. I thought something like, “What a ridiculous e-mail. I can’t believe they just defined scissoring.” Indeed, the prevailing response at Pomona, at least among the students I spoke to, seemed to be, “Have you seen the latest bias-related incident? Isn’t that e-mail great?” Or alternatively, students seemed unperturbed by the e-mail and didn’t think it was worthy of mention in conversation at all.

By and large, Pomona students like to present themselves as happy-go-lucky kids who manage their schoolwork, sports, and activities while still having a blast. The problem with this image is that it does not represent our student population in its entirety, and moreover, often breezes by the problems of those less-contented students. Surveys have shown that Pomona students who are in minority groups show a disturbingly less-contented attitude toward life at Pomona. Sadly, this latest bias-related incident seems to reflect this disparity. As a whole, there is certainly value in learning not to take ourselves too seriously—it can be good to laugh off minor mishaps—but this quality fails us when it comes to treating serious issues with the gravity that they deserve. I hate to imagine those students who are made uncomfortable by the derogatory spray-painted phrases, and how they must feel when surrounded by the many who do not take it seriously.

Something about the “bias-related incident” tag can trigger ridicule and a light-hearted brush-off by students at Pomona—and I admit that I sometimes react no differently. Perhaps these incidents could be framed differently to invite more serious consideration. An overbearing February bias-related incident e-mail comes to mind. After reporting a racial slur in Harwood directed toward the Latino community, it continued with a reference to the play, “Zoot Suit”: “Faithful to the tradition of a liberal arts education, the College community was able to learn about past racial injustice and societal dynamics through the arts…It seems those lessons were lost on the person(s) responsible for the bias-related act.” Such a pompous, moralistic statement denigrates the campus population as though they were schoolchildren.

Defining “scissoring” also comes off as unnecessarily condescending and dictionary-like; if we do not know what scissoring is (and I would venture that many of us have come across the term before), we at least know enough to look it up on Wikipedia. I’m all for the latest e-mail’s full disclosure of the specific, offensive phrases; we don’t need to be protected from hearing details about what happened. But we do not need to be told that “there are many pop culture references about scissoring” to know that it should not be spray-painted on Scripps’s campus.

Additionally, Pomona’s presentation of Scripps’s latest bias-related incident was rather aloof. At the least, the administration could stand to compose a more concerned introduction to the e-mail than “As per our 5C protocols, I am forwarding a message from the Associate Dean of Scripps College regarding a bias related incident.” When they forward e-mails about discriminatory acts on other campuses, a brief expression of support might encourage students to read the e-mail with a thoughtful rather than a dismissive mind. Even better, offensive acts would be quickly followed up by a forum, as per the February incident involving a racial slur.

When I heard the grievances of the Scripps students at the meeting, I felt ashamed—as a representative of Pomona’s student body, and for the sometimes less-than-tactful treatment of sensitive issues through our notorious “bias-related incident” e-mails. As students, we need to consider the way we react to incidents that, even if they don’t offend us, may offend other members of the 5-C community. The way we are notified of bias-related incidents also has to be framed in such a way that the incident is communicated honestly and specifically, but without preaching or condescending to students. It’s a delicate and difficult balancing act, but we owe it to other students and other colleges that are rightfully upset by our poor response.

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