My DEI Experience: Successful Accidents and Failed Intentions

This photo is from a protest following the Compton Cookout in 2010.
Photo Courtesy of Serena Lee on Flickr. Link to license.

Last quarter, I audited ANTH 21 on a day when the class had a discussion about privilege. The professor asked, “Can someone experience white privilege without knowing it?” My first thought was that some people could experience it without knowing, but I wasn’t one of them because I was aware of my privilege; therefore, I wasn’t the target audience of this discussion.

But after hearing others from different backgrounds share their opinions, I got a little uncomfortable. One student cited the controversy over a white student attending prom while wearing a qipao dress, a traditional Chinese dress reserved for formal events. She explained that if she, as a Chinese American, had worn a qipao dress to her prom, she’d be uncomfortable because of the exoticization from others and the numerous questions she’d be expected to answer about its cultural significance, whereas the white student would not have been expected to know anything about the dress she was wearing. Other students also brought up instances from their pasts in which they knew that they weren’t receiving the same benefits as their white counterparts, while the white people in their stories were completely oblivious.

As a “woke” liberal, I didn’t un­derstand why a discussion about white privilege—of which I assumed I was already aware—could leave me feeling unsettled, especially when I had thought of myself as an ally to people of other identities. After I spent a day trying to figure out why this class had made me uncomfortable, I realized that it had broadened my understanding of what it means to be cisgender, straight, and white in a way that none of my other classes had. On so many occasions, I had been that white person—oblivious to my privilege because I’ve never experienced oppression.

UC San Diego requires all students to take a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) course in order to graduate. A DEI course is a class that encourages a safe, inclusive discussion in which students can share experiences and listen to the perspectives of others from different backgrounds with the intention of ensuring fair treatment and an equitable future. In order for a class to fulfill the DEI requirement, the faculty who support it must submit a response form that defends its encouragement of the DEI principles. In other words, the questions only require the basics: a structure that is relevant to DEI val­ues, a focus on one historically marginalized group, and a method of teaching that encourages students to better understand their identity in relation to others.

UCSD instituted this requirement in response to the notorious Compton Cookout, which took place in 2010. Given the origin of this requirement, the qualification for a class to be considered a DEI course should do more to promote the crucial discussions about white privilege that would best work to eliminate the kind of ignorant, exclusive thinking that allows events like the Compton Cookout to take place. However, the qualifications for a class to fulfill DEI credit don’t require active discussions about privilege.

In Winter Quarter 2018, I enrolled in LTEN 29, Introduction to Chicanx/Latinx Literature—a class which I later learned fulfilled my DEI requirement. In the class, I read books written by Mexican American authors who discussed their experiences, such as Shaman Winter by Rudolfo Anaya, The River Flows North by Graciela Limón, and Watsonville by Cherrie Moraga. The lectures mostly consisted of plot clarification, such as when Anaya’s novel introduced magical realism, and real-world context that helped to define the historical significance of class readings, such as the cannery strike in Moraga’s play.

The premise of bringing attention to the struggles of a marginalized culture and shedding light onto the work of marginalized authors apparently delved into the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion enough that the class fulfilled the requirement.

I was surprised to learn that LTEN 29 counted as a DEI course. During lecture, we discussed the events that charted the complex relationship between Latin America and the United States, from the Jones Act to the Immigration Act to the Bracero Program. I also remember feeling thankful that times had changed enough that harmful policies such as the Immigration Act and Bracero Program could never exist today. I believed that, now, the Chicanx and Latinx communities at least had allies within the United States like myself.

The reason that I didn’t realize that this class fulfilled the DEI requirement was that it didn’t require me, a privileged white American, to dismiss the assumption that I understand the extent to which marginalized cultures and minorities experience discrimination and disadvantages.

When done right, as in ANTH 21, a class that fulfills these qualifications can challenge privileged students by introducing perspectives from people who don’t experience the same privilege and provide a safe space for students of all backgrounds to openly discuss uncomfortable racial issues. Oftentimes, the classes that fulfill these qualifications don’t advocate for DEI values to the extent to which they were intended. Students who have never realized the effect of privilege in their lives may not be required to question their privilege, even when taking a DEI class.

I didn’t realize I needed to take a class that forced me to examine my privilege until I was auditing a class that did exactly that. As a cisgender, straight, white person, I shouldn’t have been able to accidentally fulfill my DEI requirement. Instead, I should have been required to take a class that would have forced me to ask the difficult questions that ANTH 21, a class that I attended by chance, forced me to ask myself.

Students who experience privilege on a daily basis without realizing it are the type of students who most need to take a class that forces them out of their comfort zone on the matters of race and privilege regardless of how progressive they think they are. UCSD should require that DEI classes explicitly address issues of privilege so that students like me realize their privilege, regardless of how “woke” they think they are. Requiring a space for discussion about privilege and racial issues offers these students the opportunity to hear from varying perspectives and learn from the experiences of people from different backgrounds in ways that they might otherwise never have.

Alyssa Phillips is a Contributing Writer for The Triton.

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