Bursting the bubble on BIAS

For most UVM students, there exists an unquestionable protective social impression of safety and acceptance, a comfortable fa??ade that makes this community so attractive. But what happens to those that spend their lives dealing with social exclusions, whether blatant or subliminal, based simply on what race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity or with which religion they align themselves? And what of the students who turn a blind eye to these offenses? Or the ones who just simply aren’t aware? Beneath the veil of inclusion, there lies a more sinister fiend – bias.According to Annie Stevens, assistant vice president for Student and Campus Life, the University began to acknowledge the presence of bias incidents on campus and a gen?erally hushed atmosphere in dealing with them nearly 10 years ago.Stevens indicated that people started talking in the University community saying, “[Bias] is hap?pening to us, or the ALANA com?munity or the LBGTQ community, and nobody knows about it, nobody is talking about it, but these people don’t know where to go for resourc?es about these incidents,” she said. “So there was a real acknowl?edgement like ‘that’s not right if that’s happening and we’re not doing something about it.’ So the term ‘bias incident’ was created, and the administration thought, ‘well we should have a protocol for how to respond.'”Although 10 years in the mak?ing, the protocol for handling bias incidents is an evolving process, now a unified effort between the Dean of Students Office, Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Op?portunity and UVM police services, with an ultimate goal of changing campus culture into an affirming place where everyone can thrive.Under the umbrella of bias inci?dents listed by the President’s Com?mission for Social Change, there are four official categories including discrimination (denial of rights or unfair/different treatment based on prejudice) and hate crimes (any criminal act motivated by bigotry or prejudice regarding a person’s real or perceived membership in a class or group).Bias incidents also include policy violations (any policy viola?tion motivated by bigotry or preju?dice regarding a person’s real or perceived membership in a par?ticular class of group) and “chilly climate” (behavior that is unwel?coming, exclusive or demeaning to another based on a person’s real or perceived membership in a particu?lar class or group).But can’t we all just get along on our own accord? Dot Brauer, director of LQTBQA services for the University, likens the UVM community to any community with philosophical manifesto, be it a kindergarten classroom, a town or a family unit.”[Bias incidents are] about say?ing, ‘Hey, we want the interpersonal climate of this place to be one that values certain things,'” Brauer said. Who is a victim?Bias incidents can happen to anyone, and although the statistics haven’t been organized, UVM Police Chief Gary Margolis indicated that the majority of bias incidents reported to police services are homophobic, followed by racial bias and anti-Semitism. He also noted that there is some necessary debate over violence against women crimes being considered bias incidents towards women.”The campus protocol is that our police officers investigate to determine if a violation of law has occurred to gather evidence, when we can,” Margolis said. “Once we’ve screened for crim?inal intent, we send a copy of the report to the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity for the involvement and classification, if necessary. They are the official office of record for capturing bias incident data. Police Services is the investigative function.”The uniformity of bias inci?dents is debatable. Stevens feels that everyone’s experience is differ?ent, including hers. “For me something about being white, I’m still in the majority, I’ve still got the power systematically more than somebody else,” Stevens said. “The impact and the history is not the same, like if you say some?thing to a person of color. “So yes, can bias incidents hap?pen to everyone? Yes. Does it have the same impact? No. And that’s re?ally what we’re getting at.”Kathryn Friedman, exec?utive director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportu?nity, seconds Chief Margolis’ feelings about homophobic bias in the UVM community. “I think that there has al?ways been a lot of bias around LGTBQ because in many ways our society kind of lets that happen,” Friedman said. Although many incidents hap?pen, “We are very careful around race and ethnicity,” she said. “LGT?BQ is very complicated because its complicated and dynamic and any?one can be a part of it. Anyone from any background could be LGTBQ.”Rachel Rosenberg president of Free to Be, the SGA sponsored LGBTQA club on campus, who con?siders himself “visibly queer” has encountered his fair share of bias on campus, however he is “very aware of the policies here and that they do protect me, and I am very aware of when things are a bias incident against me. So, I feel very guarded by UVM.”In particular, Rosenberg remembers a time when he encoun?tered a bulletin board in L/L queer housing where someone had rear?ranged the letters on the board to say “No Gays.” “That’s a bias incident,” he said. Special Treatment or Necessary Protection?In creating a community that adheres to special guidelines that protect its members, there are always a few toes to step on and bias incidents could run the risk of hypersensitivity. Stevens is aware of this, but ultimately feels that anyone who feels that these protocols and tech?nical terms are unnecessary is still coming from a place “of not really understanding what the impact is or could be.” In the ongoing development of bias incident protocol, the Univer?sity ran into resistance. Brauer said that all too often student responses would be “oh they don’t mean that, they were just hav?ing some fun” or “that’s just some drunk kids.” “There would be this dismissal about it,” Brauer said.This dismissal, Brauer feels was never simply harmless “mis?chief.””Our thought has been ‘you know what, this isn’t middle school, people aren’t discovering sex for the first time, people shouldn’t be thinking that diversity is optional in the world,'” she said. “Maybe it’s OK for us to be trying to hold our whole community, students, staff, faculty to a higher standard of respect and to realize that that stuff isn’t funny [or] lighthearted.” In policing incidents of bias, particularly hateful speech, the Uni?versity has and may run into issues of free speech. Allen Gilbert, executive direc?tor of ACLU-Vermont has not dealt with any particular instances stem?ming from bias incident protocol on UVM’s campus, but does feel that there may be some limitations on free speech that could arise from policing views that hold bias. “The ACLU generally has a policy upholding free speech rights, and we’re critical of speech that is harmful or that is offensive to other people but we don’t think that justi?fies the restriction to free speech rights especially on college cam?puses where free speech rights and inquiries should be encouraged,” Gilbert said.Although it has not happened yet, the real threat to free speech would come if a student were ex?pelled for expressing their views. “I would say that’s pretty extreme if you can lose your ability to continue your education based simply on offensive speech, that’s pretty drastic,” Gilbert said. Rosenberg feels that there is a staggering difference. “I think there is a very clear difference between someone’s opinion and freedom of speech versus being restricted on what you say or do because it’s threatening an entire community of people,” he said”I feel like a lot of people can get angry and be like ‘why are there special laws for certain people,'” Rosenberg said. “I think that needs to come through education and understanding privilege and op?pression, and how many levels they occur on. “So, I think education would be one way to improve.”Though it is an option, Stevens thinks that expulsion is never the first choice. “[Students] don’t have to be here if they feel like it’s way too much on them of an expecta?tion,” she said. “I mean, I’d rather have them want to stay and get engaged.”Ultimately she feels that the university setting is a perfect set?ting for dealing with bias and open?ing students’ eyes to other identi?ties. “I think that college really is fit to have these kinds of conversa?tions, like you know; there are vast differences on how people experi?ence the world. And that’s really what we are going to find out,” Ste?vens said. How do we match up?Bias incidents are in no way unique to the UVM campus. This type of practice is being handled on campuses across the nation, in the corporate world and in federal and state courtrooms. Where does UVM fall among the ranks in the way it handles bias? Brauer, who chairs the Bias Incident Committee of the President’s Commission on Social Change has recently begun to look at how other campuses are handling bias incidents and she feels that UVM falls right in the middle. There are some campuses that do “absolutely nothing” and there are others that have established de?partments with five staff members solely for the support of students in handling bias incidents, Brauer said.In comparison, Friedman feels that UVM’s atmosphere is much more tame than other places, but nonetheless inexcusable. “We have a lot of graffiti,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of people shouting foul things out of car win?dows but there are campuses across the country where there are actual assaults and things like that. “And in actuality [bias] is on the rise. The U.S. government just put out data and discrimination and bias has increased in the last 10 years. And so I think we’re right there with where America is, unfortunately.”How can it be stopped?The ambiguous nature of bias incidents lends itself to complica?tions, what’s offensive to some, may not offend others. However, Fried?man said, “It’s not the intent of a person it’s the impact of a person.” Friedman feels that it’s possible for different views around identity to exist on campus. “People don’t have to agree,” Friedman said. “We don’t have to agree — no one’s asking for agree?ment — just be respectful. That whole thing is so true — if you only treated other people the way you want to be treated.”The solution is at once simple and incredibly complicated in Fried?man’s eyes. “If you wouldn’t say it to your mother, your brother, your sister, your partner, your lover, your friend, why would you possibly say it to someone else? And that will forever baffle me. I can’t wrap my brain around it,” she said. Rosenberg stresses the importance of inter?personal communication. “One-on-one per?sonal interaction is really great, just talks, anything like that,” Rosenberg said. “Especially because you are not being lectured at so it really takes away that intimidation factor.”Chief Margolis agrees that awareness and education are impor?tant. “The best solution to ending bias on our campus is awareness,” Margolis said. “We have to share what happens and seize the opportu?nity to spark a conversation neces?sary to enlighten. We have to make very public statements that it isn’t ‘OK’ and then rally behind those who are affected.”