January 26, 2016

HICKMON | #CornellSoWhite

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So, I went to my student services counselor’s office the other day because I’m a senior and I needed to check my credits to graduate. Of course, a visit to OSS is never just an in and out thing. We got to talking about how my semester abroad went, what my plans are for after graduation, what has been happening on campus as well as current events. I usually always leave these meetings energized and ready to conquer Cornell. But this time was a bit different because I realized that in my four years here, not much has changed in spite of countless emails, meetings and endeavors to do something about the problems I’ve seen.

Cornell, like the film and television industry, loves to tout how much they value diversity. But when it comes down to the practice of diversity and inclusion, students who belong to marginalized populations often end up feeling tolerated, not celebrated — and trust me, there is a difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I got into Cornell because I could code-switch (meaning the suppression of colloquialisms to conform to a certain setting, usually full of people who do not look like you) and have been congratulated for speaking well by professors who I guess thought I’d sound a certain way because of the color of my skin.

I rarely see myself in the people who have taught me over the course of the past four years. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some amazing professors, some who have championed me and have been willing to try to understand how navigating Cornell is different for me due to my status as a Black woman. But it would have been nice if some of the others had not been surprised that I’m a capable student. It would have been nice to not have been spotlighted and asked to speak about the whole minority experience as if every minority lives through the same thing. It would have been nice to be represented to a larger degree among the group of people who control my grades, and are also responsible for educating the next generation of America’s leaders. It’s important for everyone at Cornell, not just students of color, to see people of color in positions of authority that demand intelligence and grace. Truly representing diversity matters.

Speaking of the film industry, for the second year in a row, every person nominated for an Oscar in the actor category is white, as if actors of color do not exist and did not make any movies this year. The films and television shows we reward matter because they show what our society values. They define our standards of beauty and determine what and who gets to be seen as art. All of the Oscar nominees being white is problematic because the world is not all white and Hollywood is supposed to tell everyone’s stories. Just like professors are supposed to truly support and educate everyone who sets foot in their classroom. Who Cornell hires and fires shows what we value — in practice, not theory alone.

Maybe, instead of focusing on creating a new business school, that doesn’t appear to be desired by the respective schools, Cornell alumni or Trustees, President Elizabeth Garrett, vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi and the deans should focus on hiring, not just recruiting for interviews, a wider breadth of faculty that represents more of Cornell’s student population. I’m a senior and the only classes I’ve taken with non-white professors have been in Africana, Sociology, FGSS and one science course. Not that I should be surprised, only 17 percent of Cornell’s faculty were from racial/ethic minority backgrounds during the 2013-2014 school year. You mean to tell me professors of color don’t exist outside of fields dedicated to studying the experiences of marginalized peoples? I’d beg to differ — especially when Black women are the highest educated demographic group in the United States.

Representation matters in film and it matters in the classroom too. Being able to learn from someone who looks like you or can truly identify with you is just as affirming and important as seeing one’s story told on the big screen. So, here’s me asking the powers that be to hire or give tenure to some people that look like me so the next group of Cornelians do not go four years without seeing themselves represented in the administration or faculty. It is no good to bring students who are members of marginalized groups to the Hill if you’re not going to give them all the tools they need to be happy, healthy, whole and at home — one of which being professors who get “it,” understand them and understand what being at Cornell is all about for someone who was never really supposed to be here in the first place. #OscarsSoWhite and #CornellSoWhite too … The saddest part about it is that neither of them have to be.

Gabrielle Hickmon is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at ghickmon@cornellsun.com. Gabbing with Gabby appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

  • george

    If you want the Cornell community to value you for your own demonstrated capabilities, advocate for the elimination of affirmative action in admissions.

    • KM ’15

      If there were no affirmative action, Asian students would outnumber whites because they outperform. Your white supremacy would end.

      • George

        So you are saying with a straight face that white students get preferences in admissions due to their race?

        • Marc

          It’s been proven that white females benefit most from AA. The people who get screwed are mid tier white males and every Asian who isn’t top of his class

          • George

            Marc- My question was whether whites (male or female) are afforded preferences in college admissions by virtue of their race. The answer is clearly no.

        • Marc

          However I will say I’m not really a fan of the articles message. I don’t think race relations here at Cornell are as bad as she makes it out to be and I don’t think anyone deserves to be ‘Celebrated’ just because of there race, white or black

        • SixthAmendment

          How exactly is that an argument in favor of AA?

  • William Alguire

    I suggest that Ms. Hickmon continues her education at a black only university and then apply for a teaching position at her undergraduate alma mater so she can improve the lives of black students.

    • DB

      1) Which “Black only university” are you speaking of? Surely not any Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are open to admission for ANYONE and do have non-Black attendees, but happen to be primarily frequented by Black students, hence the term “historically” Black.

      2) Your response to a desire for a more diverse faculty is to go somewhere else where the faculty reflects a different demographic? In other words, there’s a time and place for Black professors and Cornell is not it. Because increasing diversity in faculty would mess up the status quo and that idea is not welcomed as far as you’re concerned, so how dare any student, especially a Black one, ask for such a thing. In other words, #CornellSoWhite that if you want anything else, just go somewhere else because it’s not going to change.

      I guess if we want water we should go to the Blacks only water fountain too…..?

  • Carroll

    Gabrielle, thank you for writing this column and sharing your experience with candor and honesty. By doing so, you open doors to understanding. I think there are many in positions of power in the Cornell community who share your desire to diversify the faculty, and the effort needs to accelerate. Good luck, and stay involved after graduation.

  • Jose

    You want Cornell to hire and give tenure to more “minority” professors? 17% is woefully insufficient, you say? 57% female not ok? Hiring and tenure should be meritocracy, not something to fill some vague notion that you can only really learn and be inspired by people who look like you. If “minority” applicants are deserving, let them compose 100%, but not for any reason other than merit. Even so, there already is a hiring bias… against men (see https://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/04/women-preferred-21-over-men-stem-faculty-positions) and probably against conservatives (see http://cornellsun.com/2015/10/15/cornell-faculty-donations-flood-left%E2%80%88filings-show/).

    Your logic is rather contradictory as well. Are you saying that if I study abroad in Japan, where 100% of faculty is Asian, I will have trouble learning? Or if I study in Kenya? Or if an Indian student decides to major in Spanish? In reality, people really don’t have trouble learning from people who don’t look like them. We are all human. We should not judge people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

  • Did you professors congratulate you for speaking well because of your skin color or because you are a good speaker who stands out from your class? Appears that you’ve made a racist guess based in nothing resembling fact or certainty.

    Agreed that not every minority lives through the same thing. But neither does every white person. So the hashtag #CornellSoWhite means nothing to mean. There are whites at Cornell that come from poverty, from rich families, from adopted families, from overseas, from Long Island (too many of these), from Chicago, and from the Middle East. There are whites that have been in the military. Whites that have been bullied. Whites that come from families afflicted where a parent has been behind bars for the student’s entire life. So what in the world is your hashtag about?

    Actors of color do exist and did make movies this year. They just weren’t the top performances. 10% of award winners over the past couple decades have been black, which equates almost exactly to the minority population in Hollywood. Seems reasonable. Let’s reward the best. It’s Leo’s time.

    Plenty of black professors. Not sure why you think you can only learn from professors with racial/ethnic minority backgrounds when you just complained about being singled out because of your race. Maybe those professors don’t want to be taken by students who only see them for their race rather than their intellectual backgrounds.

  • James g

    I think the comments just speak to the truth of the article. A bunch of white people from cornell immediately attack the author, and pretend as if affirmative action hurts them (lpt: it hurts Asians and usually helps whites at top schools)

    • George

      What is your best guess as to how many white students are admitted to Cornell each year solely due to their race? Not legacy or other connections, simply because they are white.

    • SixthAmendment

      From a statistical point of view, AA hurts Asians and helps Blacks and Hispanics. Whites are unaffected or very weakly hurt depending on the study.

      AA has no beneficial affect based on gender EXCEPT in STEM fields in which case women are helped to the detriment of men. In STEM, typically Asian and White men are hurt (Asian men are hurt more), Asian females are unaffected, white females are helped, and all Blacks and Hispanics are helped (women are helped more though).

      There is no evidence for AA helping whites, to the detriment of any other racial group.

      Your comment provides an excellent added reason that attacking AA is an attack on racism against a racial minority (Asians)

  • tom

    *”The films and television shows we reward matter because they show what our society values. They define our standards of beauty and determine what and who gets to be seen as art.”*

    1. We, as in AA’s, do not reward these shows because we do not make up a majority in the US and therefore do not comprise what is considered “mainstream”—Oscars’s, Golden Globes, Emmys,—white people created all of these awarding bodies, therefore they are the ones doling out the awards. If we concede to your statement, then ultimately white people decide what shows and films truly matter.
    2. White people control the country, and to some extent, the world. But just in terms of America, they have spent hundreds of years centering themselves in its makeup and cementing themselves in all of its systems. So, of course, the dominant culture is going to be a reflection of the dominant group. As a member of the subgroup, however, the dictates of the dominant group do not have to be something that you internalize to such a degree that you use their metric to evaulate yourself. Yes, white mainstream culture acts as the gatekeeper for eveything in the US and envelopes us, which is why most of us adhere to it without a second thought. We don’t question the idea of Cornell being one of the best because, if we go according to dominant culture’s understanding, its status is unquestionable. But Spelman or Morehouse is iffy because it does not mirror the ways of the culture that you were taught is supreme.

    What I am trying to say is that the above quote from your article is only true if you allow it to be, Gabrielle. Yes, the white gaze is inescapable sometimes but so, what? Set your own standards and embrace yourself. All of the great black people to ever make a mark on our society did so by resisting. Resist white beauty standards. Resist white academic standards. Resist the white gaze, and as hard as that may be, you will be better for it. You will stress yourself to your grave begging white people to center you in their spaces. We were the tools to build the Cornell’s of the world, but we were not who these institutions were built for. We are not inherent to mainstream hollywood or education. The people who built it and control it are.

    I know that this comment will not go over well because you, like a lot of other black people, have been lulled into believing that white people owe you something. “I deserve to be represented in white hollywod” “I deserve to be let into white prestigious schools” “I deserve to live in this white suburb”. Yes, we are owed one hell of a reperation check for the centuries of involuntary free labor that we provided, but that fact should not come at the expense of our agency. As a black person, despite the large, powerful forces that surround me and try their best to fill my brain with lies about its greatness, I will never stop centering myself. Building my own schools. My own award shows. My own entertainment industry. My own beauty standards. My own existence.

    White people may owe us a lot, but they, like most other races, do not owe us inclusion into them. They value and privilege themselves in everything they do. Start doing the same for you.

  • Ezra

    So you say that you want to be celebrated..not tolerated but any time a professor calls you out trying to celebrate you..suddenly he or she is a racist or at least intolerant? Simply because you are black does not mean you have suffered more hardship in making it to cornell. Those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and from war torn regions should be celebrated more than someone simply on the basis of their skin color.

  • Jane

    Blind eyes. We all have blind eyes and differences to one another for many reasons. Good for this author to stand up and say how she’s feeling. I’m white and I see it. I’m female and have experienced the male dominance in management positions and see how men jockey for each other; you can’t believe your witnessing these types of behaviors, but they still exist. Or, maybe we don’t know the best way of working together putting aside our differences … but we’re trying. Maybe dominance theory comes into play and we don’t even realize it. As far as the film and television industry, so many people, including myself think the junk placed on television is subpar, stupid and unrealistic. Many are tired of the dumb drama that doesn’t depict real life of the common person. This author will go far for her accomplishments and choices she’s made. The question she presented to us is “are we doing enough to tear down funny/odd thinking and fears, and substitute this with respect and compassion at the forefront of our daily lives as we interact.”

  • Batista

    First there should be no quotas anywhere Oscars, admissions, NBA players…So there were no persons who happened not to be white worthy of Oscar nomination this year. The guild is the most liberal group in the country. There is and should not be a spot on the Oscars reserved for someone who is black. Will Smith is not suffering getting paid far more than white women and not getting nominated. Should the NBA be required to have 50% white players? As for faculty, if there is going to be any quota it should be for conservative professors. Anyone who thinks there are not more minority professors because their are qualified candidates who are turned away is simply ignorant. For someone to pick a University then complain about the makeup of the faculty is really just a whiner. Didn’t you investigate the faculty before applying. We all knew we would be subject to a predominantly liberal bleeding heart faculty. Cornell did not hide the composition of the faculty or student body.

  • CURed

    I do not agree with Ms. Hickmon’s notion that a Black student should be “celebrated” simply because they are studying at Cornell University. In fact, no one should be “celebrated” because they are a student here. I think that lumping together the entirety of Black students is not correct. Some Black students come from a disadvantaged background, yes, but don’t others also face adversity as well? Why should we be celebrating one group over another? How about we move towards equality, not boasting the accomplishments of race A vs. Race B/C etc.

  • Deanna

    Congratulations, Gabrielle, on a well-written and thought provoking piece. As the backbone of the university is its student life and learning, I think taking the time to reflect on your four years at Cornell to possibly improve someone else’s is admirable. Keep in mind, everyone, that a gain for one is not a loss for another. Congrats again.