Alexandra Wallace, UCLA, and the Ethics of “American Manners”

Social media has the capacity to hold us accountable globally in seconds for our biases, poor judgment, racist comments, and stereotypic generalities; the consequences of which can change lives as dramatically as plowing through a crowded sidewalk in a speeding Ford F-150 truck.

But once racism is thrust out of the closet in such a world-wide viral way, are we any better equipped to deal with it?

From her YouTube video

The backlash from the infamous March 11, 2011 YouTube video rant about Asian students by UCLA political science major Alexandra Wallace indicates no.

Wallace’s 3-minute diatribe complained about the manners of the “hoards of Asian students” UCLA accepts each year into “our university.” Asian students, unlike American students, she says, continuously talk on their cell phones in the library, disrupting her train of thought during exam week. In the video she admonishes Asian students to use “American manners.” She acknowledges the Tsunami impacting Japan that day, expresses sympathy, but tells students to find out about their families elsewhere.

LA Weekly

To dramatize her frustration with noise in the library, she does an imitation of students speaking Chinese on their cell phone. Confusing Japan and China wasn’t lost on some UCLA Asian students who’ve created a t-shirt for sale to raise money for Tsunami victims using her gibberish Chinese.

Her final point criticizes extended Asian families coming en masse to visit their students and doing their laundry and shopping for them; thus, in her view, not raising the students to take care of themselves.

The ensuing online outrage at her video was met by retaliation in videos and  comments deconstructing her with misogynist language coupled with death threats that also found their way to her email address and voice mail. Her family was also tracked down and harassed.

In the battle for who is American and who belongs here, dehumanizing offensive stereotypes combat dehumanizing offensive stereotypes upping the ante with death threats, as if destruction of people were just a video game.

Wallace issued an apology and said for safety reasons she was no longer attending UCLA. “I could write apology letters all day and night, but I know they wouldn’t erase the video from your memory, nor would they act to reverse my inappropriate action. I made a mistake.” Campus security was involved in protecting her safety.

Her apology was a statement to the student newspaper. However, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block went on YouTube to denounce her hurtful comments and in response, students have been posting comments on his Facebook page. Would it have made a difference if she had taken her apology for her “Asians in the Library” video to YouTube, the forum where she launched it? If security could be assured, would it matter if she stayed in classes confronting daily the distrust she created, working to have it dissipate?

So does an apology matter when someone does something that so offends and hurts another? In America, founded on free speech, bigotry in one form or another isn’t a stranger; it has derailed relationships, careers and lives; and it is also always somewhere in the process of being overcome as people let go of extremism and break down the stereotypes that divide them.

All we have when we make a mistake is connecting from the heart in words and actions to try and make it right. It doesn’t feel like that has happened yet in this situation, on either side.

The war of stereotypes continues finding new ammunition every day. The rub is that diversity in a global world is a tapestry where no race, religion, or ethnic group has predominance. Sadly, the teaching moment isn’t just UCLA’s.

Gael O’Brien  March 22, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.

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2 Comments on “Alexandra Wallace, UCLA, and the Ethics of “American Manners””

  1. Barbara Spector Says:

    There was a time, not very long ago, if you had a complaint you would ‘rant’ to your friends, or in the case of this UCLA student, she could have voiced her displeasure about the noise in the library with one of the librarians,but for some reason Ms. Wallace believed that her opinions needed to be heard globally.

    This says more about self-involvement, self-importance and narcissism. Not everyone is entertaining, or has anything relevant to say, or is a good writer. Social media, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, blogs (not Gael’s),have encouraged people to express every thought they possess without any filter.

    Unfortunately, this lapse in judgement branded Ms. Wallace a bigot and forced her to leave a fine university. Yet, some would say, any attention is good attention.

    My advice and it’s really very simple: Think about what you’re putting out there–it can haunt you.

  2. Gael O'Brien Says:

    It was striking to me as well that Alexandra Wallace choose to make a video — which had no chance of resolving the noise in the library. Your advice is very well taken; the challenge in following it is when emotional intelligence has yet to be developed.


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