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.