Students Air Their Views About On-Campus Racial Attitudes

WITH all the shouting about multiculturalism and political correctness on college campuses these days, student voices often get lost in the din.

Intellectuals and pedantic college administrators drone on about the need for multicultural programs and the pros and cons of speech codes. Meanwhile, student views are generally simplified and polarized.

``Battling Bias: The Struggle for Identity and Community on College Campuses'' sets out to give voice to those students and display the diversity of views among college students today.

Ruth Sidel, a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York, interviewed 100 students, faculty members, and administrators at 17 public and private universities. Despite the broad-brush approach, there is a disappointingly heavy emphasis on East Coast schools, and Sidel's didactic tone mars portions of the book. But she succeeds in providing a platform for students to express a range of perspectives.

Sidel suggests that political correctness existed as far back as four decades ago when she attended Wellesley College. ``Academics and other observers of the college scene didn't talk about political correctness in those days'' she writes, ``but in the fifties most students made sure they held the `correct' opinions and behaved in highly acceptable ways. Assimilation - at least as far as was possible - was the goal.''

Having established that it is merely the term ``political correctness'' that is new, Sidel devotes many more pages to cataloging the ``bias incidents'' and ``hate crimes'' now plaguing many college campuses. For more than 100 pages, Sidel strays from the original agenda of turning the lectern over to students.

Once the book moves on to student interviews, however, it offers some interesting insights. The students chosen had either experienced ``intolerance'' or been active in dealing with ``bias incidents'' on campus.

Many of the students complain that their schools expend more effort recruiting a diverse group of students than creating an inclusive climate on campus. Sidel points out that ``admission is often a far cry from acceptance.''

Students often have advice for the college administrators who are struggling to bring their institutions into the multicultural 1990s. ``If they bring students from different backgrounds to the campus, it is their responsibility to make them feel like every other student,'' says Pierre, a black student at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, who is frequently stopped by campus security guards.

Along with other minority students, Pierre complains about being used for college public relations - his picture is displayed on the cover of the college magazine and in recruitment catalogs, for example. ``This year I'm a Vassar poster child,'' he says.

Maintaining their identity while fitting into the campus community is a struggle for many students. Asian-Americans at the University of Washington in Seattle confess that the stereotypical image of the model minority ``really hurts.'' Many Asian-Americans feel like ``bananas or coconuts - yellow or brown on the outside and white on the inside,'' one student says.

The ``burden'' of being a minority on campus is clearly articulated by these students. Being asked to represent the views of your entire race in class or feeling torn about whether to question a professor's racist comment, for example. ``It falls on every one of us to become politicized,'' says a black student. ``It's a tremendous burden. If we don't do it, it doesn't get done.''

Sidel is most impressed by the students who become politically active. ``[A]ctivism has enabled these students to turn hurt and anger into action and connection with others...,'' she writes.

Activism is often motivated by the desire and need to be heard. Sidel helps place a megaphone to the all-too-often muted voices of today's college students.

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