Case Study on Bigotry: Is Dan Harris of the China Law Blog a Bigot? A Response to Dan Harris’s Post “Chinese Students In America. It’s Bad Out There”
After reading DeWang’s recent post on Dan Harris’ post titled “Chinese Students In America. It’s Bad Out There”, I couldn’t but help to saunter over to China LawBlog to have a look – and boy, was I in for a shock! Here is what appears to be an intelligent person – a practicing lawyer (ok, I may biased, maybe most lawyers aren’t that intelligent, after all) – spouting what looks to me to be hate epithets towards a specific group of people.
Dan started out the post by quoting from a MSNBC story on the skyrocketing number of Chinese students applying to study in American schools. But then without analyzing any aspect of the story, he turned around to say - hey, that got me thinking: I’ve heard many bad things about students from China, such as:
- “They don’t come here to learn. They just come here for the grades.” I have heard this one at least a half dozen times.
- “I am convinced that if our teacher asked the class what 2+2 equals, and nobody spoke up who is not from China, not a single student from China would answer.” I have heard some form of this one at least a dozen times.
- “They are killing class discussion. They never contribute.” One student told me of how all the students not from China agreed not to speak one day to see what would happen. There was no class discussion and the teacher asked them not to do it again.
- “I cannot even stand having to listen to them give presentations. Their English is terrible and they don’t even try. Somebody else must have taken the tests for them.”
- “The school is going to regret having admitted them. They will never donate money to the school as alumni. It will be like they were never here at all.”
- “You will never see any of them at any school function. Never ever ever. Unless it can help them with a grade.” I am constantly hearing this one.
- “They never make any effort to talk with anyone other than those who are also from China.”
- “They cheat all the time. It is pretty unbelievable how often I have seen them cheating. I am always complaining to my professors about this, but they usually just act like they are too important to deign to deal with something like this. Just come watch a test being adminstered and it will be obvious. They are allowed to get away with it because they pay the foreign tuition rate. It isn’t fair.” I hear this one constantly as well and, needless to say, it is the one that causes the most anger.
- “My friend with a 3.8 GPA and 650 SATs didn’t get in and had to go to ______. I know he/she would have contributed far more to the school than these students from China.”
- “I’ve heard that most of them cheated to get in.”
- “The school claims they contribute to diversity. That’s a complete lie. How can someone who never says anything contribute to anything? Everyone knows they are here only because they pay the foreign tuition rate.
- “I tried to speak with some of them, but they clearly had no interest.”
- “This is a great way to ruin relations between China and us.”
- “Why do they even bother? They come here to study, but since they never interact with anyone who is not from China, I don’t even see why they come.”
What amazes me is the level comfort at which Dan seems to in launching broad-stroke generalized attacks at a large of people – a myriad of “bad” things – ALL BAD – that applies generally to all Chinese students studying in the U.S. - some 157,000 students according to the Washington Post. But what really ticks me off is the guiltless, arrogant way by which Dan then goes about justifying those attacks. No – I Dan Harris did not have any firsthand evidence of any of these damning accusations, but I have certainly “heard” about them or “heard” from people who have “heard” about them. I don’t think these are just rumors: I hear these things “often” and “constantly” – maybe even “half a dozen times”! Importantly, the people I hear these things from are not bigoted ”red-necks,” but people who are “sophisticated, intelligent, and well-traveled.”
I wonder what people would think if I were to write a racist post like this:
I read today a report on how more and more African Americans are enrolling in college. Oh yes – that got me thinking (unrelated really, but so what), I’ve heard many bad things about African Americans attending college. I warn you: it’s bad out there. For example, many students and their parents believe the following:
- “A large majority of black students cheat to get in to my school. I mean once they get on campus, they get private tutors, and many still fail! I don’t see how any of these people can get in without cheating.” I’ve heard this at least half a dozen times.
- “Most black students don’t care about learning. They only want to get the grades needed for athletic or some other affirmative action scholarships. They do the minimum in class to get the grades they need.”
- “I have heard that black students cheat all the time at school. I am not talking about a few sporadic cases, but everyone I know say it. It’s really bad out there.” I also have heard this many times.
- “Black students are different from us. They don’t mingle with us. What the f__k? Why should we make space for you if you don’t make any effort. What’s the point if you are going to enforce segregation yourself?”
- “Black students kill class discussions. They don’t seem as inquisitive as us about Shakespeare, European history, and Western civilization. They only care about studying about race and slavery. I don’t see why they should take up space that my friend – who was recently rejected – could have put to better use.”
- ” I don’t understand why my school keep admitting black students. Most black students won’t be that successful. They will never donate money back to the school once they graduate. It’s all a waste of resources to teach them anything.”
I have heard the above often, consistently and constantly from many people. Everyone seems to have heard something or know people who have heard something. These things about black students are all consistent. Before you accuse my sources of being racist, note that the people I hear from are not “red-necks” by any means. They are sophisticated, intelligent, and well-traveled.
Any thoughts people on what can be done to fix the problem – to bridge the disconnect between white and black?
Do people see the problem with my hypothetical rant above?
Dan might want to think he can insulate himself from being called a racist by couching his remarks in third-party narrative. But when you offer no defense on what are clearly over generalization – generalization that all lean one way – you reveal your true colors. That color further shines through when you try to augment, justify or otherwise rationalize these generalizations by noting how consistent they are and how rational the holders of these prejudice are.
[W]e make generalizations all the time. People form first impressions based on people’s height, the firmness of their handshakes, how they walk, whether people slouch or not, the style (or quantity, as the case may be) of their hair, smell of cosmetic, sense of humor, how much money they make, etc., etc.
A friend once noted that since I was from Taiwan, a tropical island, I must have really enjoyed the sweltering 100 degree heat we had been getting. I explained to my friend that was an incorrect misconception, that many people I know from Taiwan hated heat. He was at first surprised but readily accepted that information and corrected his misconception.
But what Dan exhibited appears to be a different beast altogether. It’s not just some sort of random insensitive rant touching upon race (see UCLA girl rant). It’s what I called political racism in this earlier post.
Whenever people selectively choose – even make up – what they want to see, promote what are clearly gross generalizations to make one specific group of people look bad, and advocate stereotypes that are politically motivated or that has the effect of disenfranchising whole groups of people – I have a problem. That is pure political hate speech of which racism is but a type.
Dan may think intelligence is a shield against being accused of making political hate speech, but history clearly refutes that to be the case. Throughout history, the intelligentsia have been mired with some of the worst types of racist bigotry. For example, the U.S. Constitution – with its emphasis on the individual – for all intents and purposes outlawed slavery from the very beginning, yet with many founders supporting and owning slaves, slavery managed to persist for almost a century further. Hitler’s most notorious and racist ideologies involving Aryan superiority grew not out of the mind of a madman, but out of the works of Mainstream German intellectuals.
But Allen – what if Dan’s student and parent informants are actually right? What if Chinese students are uniquely bad? There is a saying that where there is smoke, there is probably fire. Just because some evils happen fall upon a specific nationality – along nationality lines – should not make render such evils ok and out-of-bounds as topics of discussion, should it? Besides, are you Allen so confident – without conducting scientific and thorough surveys yourself – that Chinese students are saints beyond scrutiny?
Obviously not. Students are students. Some will cheat. The problem with Dan’s approach is that by framing the issues in terms of race and nationality, the discussion is biased to start out with. If you view the world with prejudice, you obtain facts that suit your prejudice.
According to recent statics, some 75-98% of all students in American colleges cheat. I am sure Chinese students studying in America also cheat. But if you focus only on Chinese students, you’d think it’s only a Chinese issue. You could easily conclude (falsely) that cheating is a uniquely Chinese problem – or that Chinese students are disproportionately cheating.
As to the stereotype that Chinese students do not participate in class as much as typical American students – to Dan’s credit, he did add a disclaimer later at the bottom of his post that in his experience, Chinese students are just as proactive in class. But Dan still mouth-offed in broad strokes this stereotype and backed it up by his trademarked qualification that he has heard this often and from smart, well-traveled people.
My perspective is that Chinese students probably do not express themselves as elegantly or forcefully as American students. Chinese students are after all foreign students. In addition to language barriers (learning sufficient English to pass the TOFEL or GRE is one thing; mastering English to articulate controversial, complex ideas on the spur of the comment is quite another), Chinese students also have to overcome cultural, social, and perhaps ideological barriers as well.
That does not mean that the burdens of furthering class discussions lie entirely with Chinese students however. The American classroom can also be a very politically divisive and intensely ideological place. An article titled “Conservatives say it’s hard to speak up in class*Life Among Liberals*,” noted that “[m]any students feel that conservative students’ ideas are accorded little respect in academic discussions….” If American students of different political persuasions can feel that type of pressure in voicing their perspectives in class, imagine how a Chinese student – with additional linguistic, cultural, social and ideological barriers – might feel!
American universities must work to make classrooms a more conducive place for discussion. In the mean time, if any reader is truly interested in what Chinese students think, invite them to coffee or tea sometimes. If you are patient and open-minded, I think you will find your efforts amply awarded.
As for the stereotype that Chinese students don’t mingle too much with non-Chinese students, some context is also in order. While diversity in institutions of higher learning is a noble pursuit, getting people of diverse grounds to truly come together is easier said than done in general, colleges and universities included. A student in a recent study on the state of diversity across several college campuses summarizes the typical experience this way: “The campus is a diverse campus. There are all types of people, but they don’t mingle. Whatever type of person you are you associate with those type of people.”
The problem of students of diverse backgrounds not reaching out to each other would thus appear to be a general problem, not a problem that is unique to Chinese students. True multiculturalism is hard. It is the responsibility of all to reach out to each other.
If you see a Chinese student (or any foreign student) that appears aloof, rather than just walk away and sulk, take that initiative to reach out yourself. These students have traveled long distances to study and learn and experience the world. They may be a little out of their comfort zone. You are on your home turf: do some reaching out yourself… and help to break the ice….
Now to some political issues underlying Dan’s post. Underneath Dan’s complaints and hearsay is what I sense to be a political insecurity. China is rising. The West may be in decline. Chinese students are studying en mass in the West. They are fast learners, and many do plan to return to China after graduation (although many also plan to stay in the West). What should the West demand in return for educating China’s next generation?
I don’t think the Western universities should demand as a prerequisite to attending American colleges an ability or propensity to acquire “Western values.” Western universities and colleges should not be made into some sort of Ayatollah U. or narcissistic institutions that worship Western culture. Americans go to school to learn to think, not to be expected to follow specific ideologies or schools of thoughts. Foreign students should not be treated differently. If the West is so confident of its “values,” it is sufficient for its Universities to train students to think freely and allow them to freely decide for themselves what path they wish to follow.
I also don’t think that universities should admit students based on their ability to contribute to the school’s endowment. It’s not that Chinese nationals don’t gift to their alma maters in America (see, e.g., Zhang Lei’s recent controversial gift to Yale). It’s just that the purpose of universities should be to educate and create next generation of leaders to make an impact. Endowments should be a secondary result that flows from a school’s success, not the primary goal or metric by which schools should be judged.
Now back to the million dollar question: is Dan Harris a bigot or racist? I prefer not to make a judgement here, if only because those terms are so politically and emotionally charged. The point is not to put Dan Harris on trial, but to learn from his post. His writing certainly causes concerns. But I hope with many voicing their concerns, people will learn to spot bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and hate speech more readily.
Finally, to put a context to the phenomenon of Chinese seeking Western education abroad: I believe that the trend is important and will in the long-term promote better understanding between the peoples of China and the West. But we must not lose sight of the fact, however heated the discussions of the political, social and economic implications of this phenomenon may get, that each student that travels abroad to study brings with him or her an individual story. The typical Chinese student come from families with meager means. Each has surmounted many challenges and made untold sacrifices to be where they are; each carries individual hopes and dreams.
To fellow American students I suggest that you welcome each as individual colleagues to your school in the best tradition of openness and free thinking. Mutual appreciation and understanding will surely follow. I have that much faith in the liberal education system…