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Opinion Column
For the week of April 18 through April 24, 2001

Bigotry casts a long shadow

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

I should, of course, have remembered that the protesters who virtually took over the Berkeley campus in the late 60s didn't sanction opposition to their viewpoints either, one of the ironies of the campus rebellions of that era.

A young colleague of mine was recently asked a rhetorical question by a graduate admissions interviewer from U.C. Berkeley. She inquired whether my friend could claim any understanding of diversity because "…you live in Idaho, the Aryan Nation capital of the world."

After I sat down, I began to think about the ramifications of such a prejudiced view of our state.

Even without the knowledge that this statement emanated from a person supposedly seeking the admission of a diverse student population (hoped, ironically, to foster understanding and tolerance for other viewpoints and ethnic origins), the idea is preposterous. Even considering the hypocrisy of the smug and narrow-minded person ferreting out the attitudes of a potential graduate student, I am appalled. If I didn't know my friend and believe in her honesty, I would think this a manufactured anecdote.

I know bigots can be found anywhere, but behind my usual rose-colored glasses, I have always fancied academia as a sort of sanctuary, a safe haven for ideas of great contrast, a place where one could try out intellectual philosophies. I should, of course, have remembered that the protesters who virtually took over the Berkeley campus in the late 60s didn't sanction opposition to their viewpoints either, one of the ironies of the campus rebellions of that era.

Non-conformists required conformity. I know. I lived through that period.

Recently a controversial ad was placed in college newspapers throughout the country. While I would surely have been offended at its content, most university paper readers weren't allowed to judge it for themselves. For example, student protesters removed stacks of The Brown (University) Daily Herald from its stands on campus when it ran the ad. I worry about the impulse, especially in ivied halls of learning, to stifle views that are contrary to one's own. And, so, it is especially offensive to me to see an admissions interviewer display the kind of mentality that I would hope a college education would overcome.

Chauvinistic attitudes are not novel, of course. Some people are intolerant of anybody who hasn't chosen to live where they do. Although I adore San Francisco and have dear friends and family (and was even born there, for Pete's sake), I used to be put on the defensive at Bay area parties where people would descry my residence in "trashy" and silly LA. I got tired of explaining my choice. I love LA (and Randy Newman, if you're listening, I used to drive down Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles with my two daughters, all of us laughing, screaming, and singing along to your I Love LA.) Even today, people don't understand my affection for that sunny part of the world. But, by god, it has LIFE! And, anyway, I don't think most people have a choice of where they are raised and develop loyalties and fond memories about the most unlikely places, as a result.

One of my former students, a young man who developed into a fine poet, wrote a piece about his early years in a housing project alongside Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. He described how the outwardly ramshackle apartments still contained adventure and love and even security to a boy who knew no other home. Mom was still Mom; his buddies inhabited the world of marbles and baseball, as they would have anywhere. While one should probably be wary of romanticizing poverty, we may be able to acknowledge that home is truly where the heart is. I believe one often loves where one is placed.

After my Malibu hillside home burned in a brush fire, people challenged the concept that I should consider moving back there. Stupid, they thought! Those critics had no idea that the now-houseless half-acre was all we had left, that a federal disaster loan would make it possible to rebuild, that we still had the sunsets and the ocean air and neighborhood survivors with whom we had bonded.

And, now, I am faced with defending yet another choice of my life.

The very idea that others view my beautiful state as a place composed mainly of hate-mongers is anathema to me. I am occasionally asked, usually in a joking manner, if I enjoy the skinheads and rednecks of my state. I find myself rising to the bait, explaining Blaine County, pointing out the distance from Hayden Lake and its environs to Ketchum, even waxing poetic about the warm and lovely people who live in my town. Yes, I acknowledge, there are bigots in our state, but when they parade, waving their Nazi flags, swarms of good citizens also demonstrate, in peaceful disagreement. And now I can add that the former home of the leader of the Aryan Nations is being converted into a place honoring tolerance. I even remind people that other parts of the world have hateful enclaves. I just wish I didn't feel the need to be so defensive.

If chauvinists such as the UC admissions interviewer aren't even open to discovering the true nature of Idaho, how do we counter negative perceptions about our state? Maybe we should experience prejudice about things we treasure so we can understand it better. Maybe I need to give up and let people have their biases. It is hard, though, to understand the ignorance that is displayed by others about a place I love!


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