There’s a campaign being mounted in South Quad. From the community center to the elevator lobby, a movement is growing.

You may not have known, but the fight against prejudice and intolerance is being waged on Central Campus. From the moment you enter South Quad, you are bombarded with a barrage of some of the best tactics this anti-prejudice campaign has to offer: posters. Some are small with subtle messages like “Spread Love.” Other, significantly larger banners are less discrete. And then, of course, there was (until recently) the infamous banner located in the east lobby of South Quad. This billboard of bias broadcasted to the world just how many days it had been since the last bias incident occurred in South Quad — that way, students and campus tours alike could be constantly informed of just how vigorously the Residence Hall Council was combating prejudice.

So imagine my surprise last month when my resident advisor sent a mass e-mail to my hall informing us of the recent string of bias incidents. How could this be? How did this no-holds-barred campaign to root out intolerance allow for not just one bias incident, but a whole slew? Perhaps it’s because prejudice and deep-seated intolerance can’t be combated with peace signs on flyers or rainbows on banners.

The Bias Incident Hotline defines a bias incident as a targeted affront against a particular group with the intent to cause mental, emotional, physical or spiritual harm. Put simply, we’re talking about prejudice.

Providing a safe environment for all students must be the first priority of the University. I commend the ongoing awareness campaign that seeks to shed light on prejudice. But in the effort to create a safe environment for students, it’s important that we understand the enemy we’re fighting.

Prejudice isn’t just a swastika on a whiteboard or a friend dropping the word “gay” in conversation. Rather, this is the product of years of ignorance with no desire to understand those who are different and a lack of respect for those who lead an alternative lifestyle.

Activists devote their careers to understanding prejudice and searching for methods to combat it. But the tactics employed by the Anti-Bias Committee seem unusual. According to South Quad Hall Council President Valerie Juan’s blog, the campaign developers hoped “that a change in the attitudes of South Quad residents could eventually lead to an even greater impact.” This is truly an admirable goal, but let’s take a look at just how it is being implemented.

Juan goes on to explain, “Using motivational posters, flyers, t-shirts, and buttons, the committee encourages South Quad residents to stand up and speak out against bias incidents.” Slogans like “WTF: Why the Frase?” and “Words have impact: make yours positive” are also at the front lines. I can’t help but think that if stopping prejudice and intolerance were as easy as a one-liner on a t-shirt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve had a much easier march on Washington, D.C.

Then there was the banner counting how many days it had been since the last bias incident. Like a welcome mat, this banner was the first thing most people saw when they entered South Quad. I never saw the count on that poster go more than seven days. All the banner accomplished was act as a constant reminder of how ineffective this campaign is. The campaign developers should take a hard look at their strategy if South Quad can’t go more than a week without some inappropriate whiteboard art.

I commend the Hall Council and “Anti-Bias Committee” for taking on this problem. But in this case, it’s not too difficult to discern real substantive action from painted rust. Ultimately, no clever banner will erase the prejudices of a bigot, nor will my t-shirt push a silly teenager to consider his or her words more carefully.

I don’t know how to stop prejudice — and I think acknowledging that is a necessary first step. Until we stop pretending to know which direction is correct, we will continue to wander aimlessly. It seems the founders of this campaign operated under the assumption that it’s better to do anything than nothing at all. This mindset is dangerous because it creates the illusion that real progress is being made. Until we can acknowledge that we simply don’t know what to do, no real solutions can be developed.

Instead, I say let’s acknowledge that we don’t know how to stop prejudice. Let’s take a look at our society as a whole — not just South Quad residents — and try to understand why we continue to produce prejudice and intolerance. Until we can acknowledge that we don’t know how to solve this problem, I fear the best we will have to offer society is clever t-shirts and good intentions.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

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