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Noel Gordon: Unintentionally offensive

BY NOEL GORDON

Published November 8, 2010

This is my second year living in South Quad. And aside from locking myself out of my room every now and then, it hasn’t been all that bad. I’ve made some new friends, found some new places to study and even embarked on some new adventures. But take one look around and you’ll notice some big changes in South Quad. For one, all of the building's lounge areas have been converted into quads. And the entire building finally has Wi-Fi capability. But perhaps the biggest difference is noticeable right as you walk through the doors of South Quad because hanging above the East Side Community Center is a huge, yellow banner. Instead of welcoming you to the building, the banner lets you know just how many days it has been since someone last reported a bias incident.

From what I’ve gathered, residence halls across campus have experienced a significant increase in the number of reported bias incidents — especially incidents that target members of the LGBTQ community. This is especially disheartening to hear given last month’s string of teen suicides that occurred seemingly within a few days of one another. And let’s not forget that much of the campus community is still reeling from the controversy surrounding the first openly gay Michigan Student Assembly president. But after talking to people about some of these issues, I realized that many students on campus have a rather vague idea of what actually constitutes a bias incident.

According to the Bias Incident Hotline Project, “bias incidents are motivated by prejudice against race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, ethnicity, social economic status, gender expression, mental ability, physical ability, immigration status, age, size and shape. Although not all bias incidents are hate crimes, they can cause mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical harm not only to those who experience the incident but to members of the targeted group.” There’s a lot to unpack in this definition, beginning most importantly with the idea that bias can take many different forms.

I think there's a misconception, especially among college students, that bias incidents have to be outright, deliberate attacks on a person’s identity. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue that off-hand comments are perhaps even more sinister than straightforward insults because they often rest upon an assumption that humor somehow makes any underlying prejudice acceptable, or at the very least, less bigoted. Take the dry-erase boards that students hang on their dorm room doors, for example.

Many people (guys in particular) don’t see the problem in drawing a penis on another guy’s door. After all, it’s funny. But why is it funny? Is it because there’s supposed to be something comical about a man being sexually attracted other men? For, if that wasn’t the case, why don’t we see more vaginas drawn on people’s white boards? Could it be because there’s something not as funny about a man being sexually attracted to women?

Simply put, the phallic image suggests that homosexuality and same-sex attraction makes for the perfect punch line. I think that is how most bias incidents occur. They’re not done out of malice or blatant disregard, but rather, out of ignorance and lack of understanding. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been called a “faggot” or a “nigger” to my face. Rest assured that I have, right here in the great city of Ann Arbor.

The way to combat these attacks isn’t with violence, retribution or further intolerance. If anything, we should educate ourselves and others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance. I realize that not everyone will develop a passion for justice or become an ally in the fight for universal human equality. But you can do your part to help stop bias incidents from happening in your community.

Noel Gordon can be reached at noelaug@umich.edu.


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