Since January 1, 2014, UCI has enforced a campus-wide code which prohibits all forms of smoking. This policy was implemented largely in an attempt to diminish the effects of second-hand smoking, but, as great as this policy is in theory, many concerned UCI students believe that it is not being followed. Unfortunately, students who do not smoke feel that their health is being affected by those who do. I certainly understand their complaints, but it seems that their sentiments have raised an unforeseen consequence — a distaste towards international students.
This belief began trending on UCI’s Reddit page, but has recently also been brought up by many students on campus. These students, who wish to remain anonymous, were overwhelmed by the lack of compliance among smokers. One student stated that “people smoke despite seeing the ‘No Smoking’ signs mounted everywhere” and “it seems that people are purposefully smoking in front of those signs in order to show its futility.” Another girl who studies at the Gateway Study Center every night said that “at times [she] could smell the malodorous smoke inside the Gateway because students often smoke right outside the windows.” All of these students are certainly annoyed by the lack of enforcement of the no-smoking policy by school officials, but they are even more upset that students are childish enough to violate guidelines that are meant to help the student body.
As I spoke to the students averse to the smoking culture, I began to notice that they believed the violators to be Chinese or non-white. When I asked them who they thought the violators were, instead of beating around the bush, they all came to a consensus that international students were the ones to blame for the lack of adherence to the no-smoking policy.
Of course, these students might not be wrong, but how do they know the smokers were international? Do international students have a special aura, is it their accents, or that they simply speak another language?
I asked the students how they knew the smokers were foreign students and they would say things like “they looked like it” or “they spoke Chinese” or some other non-English language, or “I could just tell.” The truth is, there is no definitive way of knowing whether the violators are international without asking them about their nationality.
As a first-generation Asian American, I know for certain that at times I can fit all of the criterias aforementioned: I speak a different language around people of the same ethnicity as me; I am a person of color so people often assume I come from a different country; and I sometimes wear cultural clothing and hence look different from my American counterparts. Do these characteristics make me an international student? Of course not. I was born in this country — but you would not know that unless you asked me.
That being said, the UCI students that I interviewed are clearly biased against the international community because they automatically assumed the smokers were all foreign simply based on their appearances. Unfortunately, such biases are not new to the American public. Americans are very discriminatory when it comes to who they regard as the “lawbreakers” and “law abiding citizens.” For example, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, marijuana use among people of color and whites is almost equal, but people of color are far more likely to be questioned, searched, arrested and incarcerated. The prison system is also disproportionately filled with people of color who were convicted for the use or disbursement of marijuana. The American Civil Liberties Union further speaks about this bias by noting that “marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”
It seems that the students that I interviewed reflect the same bias that has taken over our judicial system. They have been constantly led to believe, based on their mainstream media and televised court cases, that people of color and those who they deem “foreign” are more likely to violate laws. In truth, the people the students described to me could easily have been natural-born American citizens.
So, are UCI students simply falling into the same illusion that our law enforcement has fallen into? Are we becoming the police officers that we have been criticizing since the death of Trayvon Martin?
I honestly cannot give a definitive answer to that question; but, I certainly believe that UCI needs to discuss the implications the no-smoking policy is having on the student body. There must be a better way to deter students from smoking and prevent such racial biases from arising. Having an international vs. non-international, us vs. them mentality, is certainly not healthy for the campus dynamic and will not promote understanding in a world that is ridden with racial biases.
Sharmin Shanur is a first year cognitive sciences major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.