Remember the University of Delaware’s mandatory activity on stereotypes, when students were required to write down all the stereotypes they could think of about a dozen different groups of people?
Today the National Association of Scholars has posted an eye-opening account of the Spring 2007 version of this exercise by student Bill Rivers. Here are some excerpts from his account, “Never Mind Tocqueville, Let’s List Slurs”:
Residence Life made very clear that we freshmen had been raised in a manner that imbued us with hateful understandings. We needed to be purged and Residence Life was mercifully going to do the purging….
It was about 8:30 on a Monday night and my roommate and I were both at hard work in our dorm room. He was engrossed in a lab write-up that was due the next morning for his one of his mechanical engineering classes and I was inching my way through a paper on Alexis de Tocqueville for my Honors colloquium. Then Lori, our Resident Assistant, appeared in the doorway and gave a quick knock. “Mandatory floor meeting downstairs in five minutes, guys,” she said. “Let’s go.”
We complained—like everyone on the floor—but at the end of five minutes, my roommate and I—like everyone else—tramped on down to the basement lounge. Sometimes mandatory floor meeting notices were announced by bright, colorful pieces of paper posted on bathroom doors, but this one was a surprise….
Lori passed out a blank sheet of paper and told us to number it, leaving spaces for our answers. She announced that we were going to expose our prejudices and stereotypes about other races and in so doing learn more about diversity. To this end, she instructed us that she was going to read off a list of minorities and ethnicities for each number, and that we (working in pairs) were to write down all the stereotypes and prejudices we could think of for each category. After trading incredulous looks with each other (“Really? You took me away from studying Tocqueville to have me write down all the most offensive labels I’ve ever heard? Seriously?”), students then pooled their resources and for the next ten minutes went to work thinking of all the slurs, epithets, and bigoted comments used to demean not only African Americans, Asians, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and Poles, but also, gay and lesbian persons, and persons of other alternative lifestyles. When it was finished, Lori said something to the effect of, “Look how bigoted and prejudiced even us college students can be,” and “isn’t it a shock that even us who are being educated can think of all these slurs and stereotypes?”
I was pretty hot under the collar by this point. I’d lived with these forty kids for about 6 months at this point, thought I knew them pretty well, and really didn’t think that any of them actually believed these prejudices about any of the minorities we discussed…. If the program was intended to show us the light of our own inherent racism, I think it actually backfired. For as my one friend commented, “Wow! I never realized how few racial slurs I knew for Jews before this activity.”
I had that Tocqueville paper waiting for me upstairs, but I was pretty annoyed and was about to say so when my roommate leaned over and whispered, “Don’t drag this out any longer than it has to be. We all want to get outta here. Let’s just do the program so we can be done with it because I’ve got work to do.” Looking around the room, I could see the same sentiment mirrored in the faces of my other friends on the floor….
Apparently this exercise was deemed successful enough (see this PowerPoint presentation) by the Residence Life staff that it was incorporated into the 2007–2008 version of the mandatory ResLife curriculum for 7,000 students in the dorms. The exercise, “Surrounded by Stereotypes,” became one of the “Whole New World Diversity Training” activities.
I am still amazed—and horrified—when I read personal accounts like Bill’s. Fortunately, this exercise does not seem to appear in the 2008–2009 ResLife educational program.