October 15, 2014

MUÑOZ | Dear White People

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By PAOLA MUÑOZ

Hallelujah, Dear White People. A film that is finally about the universal struggle of the average person of color, specifically black, at a predominantly white college campus, produced bya POC himself. If you thought that those Cornell brochures displayed a wonderfully refreshing black-to-white ratio, five white students throwing a frisbee to five black students catching a frisbee on the Arts Quad, then you might actually want to look at the Arts Quad. Even analyzing data collected from surveys for a research project designed to measure the dynamics of failure and success between higher- and lower-income students at Cornell is more representative of the population — where my people at?

If at any moment you find yourself saying “not to sound racist, but…” then love, trust and believe that you sound racist. You are racist. I have said this before and I will say it again: implicit racism is still racism. These aren’t merely microaggressions anymore — they are neo-aggressions. It’s racism’s new and evolved formed (kind of like Pokemon). Because folks just love to euphemize this topic, I’ll be the “first” to say: We are so not post-racial.

Not allowing your Latino partner to contribute during lab, despite her knowing the procedures better than you, is racist. Yes, I’m pulling out the race card — and throwing shade.

The professor for my class, HD 3510: Race and Ethnic Identity Development, loves to use one particular word that has truly encompassed my realization of my culture, frizzy hair, and the color of my friend’s skin: salience. Coming from a charter high school in Harlem where 98 percent of the students are either Latino or African American, I was always in the majority. I was comfortable. I was truly a beast in my own domain — slaying GPAs, activities and the love of my teachers. When you are in the majority, you don’t notice that you are the majority. You aren’t aware of the implications that come with being in the majority. The first time my dad drove me over to Ithaca as a high school student participating in Cornell Summer College, he said, “Mi hija, that’s a lot of cows.” My aunt responded, “Forget the cows, Victor, that’s a lot of white people!” I was excited to finally visit the university of my dreams, where my peers wouldn’t look like my immediate family, where I could meet white, Asian, Jewish, atheist, any kind of person, really. I wanted to learn, to understand the lives that these students have carried with them so far, past oceans, languages and history. I wanted to take in who they were, and I wanted them to take in who I was, without homogenizing our selves. I wanted to celebrate.

There are groups on campus specifically designed to create a home away from home. Wouldn’t Cornell be more integrated if students were randomly placed into dorms all around campus? Not at all. There is a reason why these clubs, program houses and organizations exist. Race becomes salient the moment that POCs enter as freshmen (or the first time they set foot inside a predominantly white university). Not because there are a lot of white people that outnumber the rest, but because of the privilege attached to the majority of the campus, a teasing fantasy for the minority. Now, we play catch-up.

Speaking for myself, I literally did not know how to seek out help from professors or TAs; the only help I’ve seeked out in the past was from myself. I didn’t trust the educational board in my city to properly handle my future because if they did, I wouldn’t be in college. Everything was up to me, and it was my responsibility to figure out how to get out of the Bronx (Note: You can take the girl out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the girl). Other students like me will tell you the same thing.

Success in college is different. Graduating from high school is one thing, graduating from college is an entirely different playing field. Those who seek out help are the ones who end up victorious, regardless of how many all-nighters one can pull off,  nothing is better than confirming that what you think you know is actually correct by the professor’s standards. I just didn’t know that.

I didn’t know that it was okay to drop a class if you didn’t like it, because in my life, if I didn’t like something, I would fight through it and not give it up. But it’s okay here.

I didn’t know that it was okay to seek out help from tutors, because in my school, the students who had tutors were the students who didn’t graduate. But it’s more than okay here. It’s a sign of curiosity, and a sign of humility.

I, along with other POCs, are thrown into an environment where everything we once knew is turned upside down, inside out. Something as simple as knowing how to ask for help the right way (yeah, that’s another thing that becomes more salient when you enter Cornell: There literally is a right and wrong way to ask for help — choose incorrectly and they’ll look at you like a fish out of water, which you are over here) makes an enormous difference. For example:

Trivia question (and true story time): Out of two students who took a leave of absence, which one came back? The Latino, low-income student, or the high-income student?

Sad, isn’t it? For that reason I have this note for those who don’t realize how privileged they are:

Dear White People,

Please be aware of your advantage. It’s real. Stand in solidarity with us to fight for our right to those advantages as well. Things as little as coming to our events on campus, or letting us assist in carrying out the chemical procedures during labs will make a huge difference. Don’t go Columbus-ing POC cultures, flaunting around sombreros at your Greek parties. Don’t justify the bad cop. I want to see my friends graduate. I want to see my friends comfortable. I want to see my friends free.

With love,

A little POC with a not-so-little dream

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