In the movie “Groundhog Day,” the main character, played by Bill Murray, is forced to relive February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA, over and over again. At first, he believes it was an odd occurrence, but as the day repeated itself the character sunk further and further into despair. He eventually would emerge – using the time to educate himself, learn new skills, and help people. The day finally ended for him when he got the day right.
I bring up the analogy because a reader this week likened Vanguard coverage of community complaints of racism to Groundhog Day. For them, it was the repeated message over and over again that in the movie was depicted in the wake-up song by Sonny and Cher, “I Got You Babe.” But the lessons of the movie are that the solution is actually to focus on the problem and attempt to resolve it.
Part of the problem, I think, in gaining an understanding is that whites and minorities do not see the world and experience the world in the same way. I think a white person who experiences something like the flyer that we depicted earlier this week is in a position to shrug it off and even treat it with humorous bemusement rather than a threat.
For Eli Davis, it was a great humiliation to have a police officer approach him while mowing his lawn in the middle of the afternoon and asking him if he lived there and then requesting identification.
By all accounts, Mr. Davis was a soft-spoken, unassuming man. And yet something about this incident drove him to anger and indignation. For him, that manifested in his writing a letter to the editor.
A few months ago I became aware of an incident at Woodstock’s Pizza in Davis. A couple members of the Chicano/Latino community ordered pizza at the counter and searched for a place to sit down and eat. They found a few unbussed tables that appeared to be unoccupied and sat down at one.
Suddenly a female customer sat down at their table and accused them of stealing their table. Soon after, a male approached the table and accused them of eating their food and drinking their drinks. Both were white.
The male made the comment, “I hope you enjoy your stolen pizza the way you enjoy welfare.”
The incident escalated when a female staff member in a security shirt came in and accused the group of Latinos of “being out of hand.” Other customers joined in and the room began chanting “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry” in reference to the Jerry Springer Show.
Woodstock employees called the Davis Police Department. According to one person, they asked the security guard why they were being kicked out. The security guard replied, “Because you won’t get out.” They replied, “You never asked us to leave.” They then asked, “What reasons are you asking us to leave?” The security guard gave no reasons and just replied, “You need to go!”
There were also complaints that the police simply came in and ordered them to leave without assessing who was in the right. One of the officers physically pushed one of the students out. After the incident both students called the Davis police department to file a complaint.
These are small incidents, but put together they create a viewpoint that many students of color find this community to be hostile and unwelcoming to people of color. In 2014, UC Davis issued a 300-page “UC Campus Climate Assessment Project,” which found that 24 percent of respondents (4371 people in total) “believed that they had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive and/or hostile conduct,” with large differences based on key demographics such as race and ethnicity.
Part of the problem with attempting to deal with many of these types of problems is the subtlety. At the Breaking the Silence event in February, a member of the public talked about an experience she had with a man from India whom she had gotten to know on a bus in Davis. She had recently seen him and he had moved to Sacramento. When she asked how he liked it there, he said, “It’s much better.” People were not making the kinds of comments to him that they did in Davis.
She then described her experience as a female civil engineer. There was one guy, she said, from whom “I kept getting digs all the time. I talked to the other women in our group and they didn’t see it at all because it wasn’t happening to them.” She said, “The light came on, if it doesn’t happen to you, these subtle things, you don’t see them. But if it’s happening to you, it’s a slap in the face each time.”
After that experience, she said, “I want to make sure I’m not doing that because I think that the guy who was doing that to me and the people that were doing it to my friend on the bus, they may not have even realized that they were doing it because it’s so subtle.”
What she was describing is what is known as microaggressions. Microaggression theory is one form of unintended discrimination. “It is depicted by the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.”
Part of the problem with dealing with microaggressions is that the behavior is very subtle. We could point out an example and most people would say – in isolation – it is not a big deal. The problem I think comes with being exposed to these microaggressions on a regular basis, and they probably just begin to wear on you.
What troubles me is the efforts on these pages by commenters to minimize these sorts of incidents. The sort of thing that happened to Eli Davis is obviously not at the same level as some of the police incidents we have been covering, but for him, it was a source of a great indignity that he would be treated as a suspect based strictly on his race.
For the students at Woodstock’s, the way it was handled by all involved turned the incident from a simple misunderstanding to a degrading incident once it was personalized. And that indignity was escalated by the indifferent treatment allegedly by both Woodstock’s and the Davis Police.
I think we can do better and I think it starts with a restorative justice-based approach. Allow those who feel wronged to sit down at the table and have the offenders get a chance to listen to how their behavior impacted others.
I don’t go so far as some who believe that this is a manifestation of UC Davis and the city being deeply racist. Instead, I think these are largely white communities that suffer from unconscious bias more than deep-seated conscious prejudice and that the best way to approach these issues is by setting up restorative processes that can be utilized whenever such situations arise.
If we can put these new processes in place and address these problems – rather than trying to minimize them, turn them on the victim or denigrate the victim – I believe that the next time one of these incidents occur, instead of waking up in a perpetual feedback loop (i.e. “Groundhog Day”), we can move on to a new day.
—David M. Greenwald reporting