Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Multicultural crisis in Eugene

Oh, please, is my first reaction to this "cultural crisis" recounted in the Oregon Daily Emerald, the newspaper of the University of Oregon in Eugene.

At a conference to teach students how to obtain jobs, a workshop leader told students that for best results they should use a firm handshake and good eye contact. One student said that in her culture, those things were discouraged.

The leader told the student that a small thing like that could distract the employer from her many finer qualities and lead to her losing the job. He called the syndrome "the blemish effect." (I could get started on human resources jargon, but it would be a side trail with no return.)

The student was offended, saying that the workshop leader must have thought her culture was a blemish. And she reported her discomfort to the Diversity Police at the Ethnic Diversity Affairs Committee, who instead of explaining the language of the culture where the student lives, proceeded to list recommendations so that no one (except those who hold traditional values) will ever be offended again.

These magic steps? Create a five-year plan to address the issues. (This is good. It should keep the Diversity Police busy for at least five years.) Develop standardized and enforced procedures for handling complaints. (The complaint form will be 12,010 pages long, continually growing, and computer readable, with such questions as "The workshop leader called my culture a blemish" Y/N.) Require diversity training for staff and faculty. (Now here's the employment opportunity. Only how does one get trained in diversity? The only way to keep from offending anyone is never to say anything. We may as well close down the university now and send those tender souls back to a culture that understands them.)

I love this:
Graduate student Jim Lyda, coordinator of the college's Ethnic Diversity Affairs Committee, said students of color in the college have experienced cultural insensitivity from some faculty members. He said local schools also have raised concerns that the college produces teachers who lack multicultural skills.

"That's kind of what we term a crisis," Lyda said.

It's kind of what they term a crisis. Does he mean it's almost a crisis? Or it fits into a broad category of things that they deem crises? Probably the latter, since I suspect their recommendations come up every six months or so.

What are students of color anyway? When I grew up in the 1960s, we referred to African-Americans as "colored people" (it was the polite term at the time, about four designations ago). But I can't imagine an African-American woman in a university setting being afraid to look someone in the eye. The woman's complaints sound more Asian to me. Have Middle and Far Easterners become "colored"?

Here's the thing: If a simple misunderstanding provokes a crisis, then I would guess that not many professors refer to their students as "ragheads" or "frogs." And if the sensitivity patrol can't help deal with real cultural misunderstandings, but call them crises and propose programs and standardized tests, then who loses?

As far as I can tell, no one helped the "student of color" figure out what her options are when she's job interviewing and some employer reaches across his desk to shake her hand. Have him arrested for insensitivity?

Source: Tongue Tied

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