January 31, 2016

BANKS | The Brochure Illusion

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Crashing the charts last summer, the most recent rendition of our nation’s favorite song arrived in the form of a landmark SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage. That song dominated every medium, as dissenters found themselves drowned out by millions of approving, celebratory voices. In fact, one could argue that Americans hadn’t sung so loudly and proudly since the election of Barack Obama, a moment which was also accompanied by the requisite fanfare and aplomb.

Of course, the truth is that being a person of color in 2016 is not a radically different experience from being a person of color in 2007, and identifying as LGBTQ in 2016 still leaves you considerably more susceptible to verbal harassment and economic inequality. Along the same vein, I have reason to believe that the women of 2017, were Hillary to be elected this year, will not be free from the grip of sexism. Yet, should Mrs. Clinton win, I’m also pretty sure that yet another bout of rapturous praise and optimism will seize our nation, followed swiftly by the sobering reality.

We’ve been singing the same stale songs ever since the civil rights era “ended” with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These songs are the cathartic lullabies of racial harmony, crooned by weary parents to innocent children. They are the melodies of miseducation and biased history. They are the grotesque choruses belted by a fallacy-ridden media. These songs have always been here, and now they’re taking the form of a new tune:

Diversity.

Diversity is invading the mainstream. People can no longer sequester themselves in a bubble of ignorance quite as easily. Insightful articles on social justice awareness constantly flood the average millennial’s social media newsfeed. Black Lives Matter protests and #OscarsSoWhite hashtags abound. LGBTQ visibility, while still far behind the heteronormative, has begun to slowly make its way into national coverage, institutions and popular culture. At first glance, this should all be wonderful and promising. But publicity always comes with a cost. The era we live in now is one in which merely uttering the words “diversity and inclusion” is the key to appearing progressive and empathetic. As a result, when people hear these words, two narratives govern most discourse.

The first is that of, “Oh no, here we go again.” Thanks to all the exposure, people have already developed their own meanings for words like “safe space,” “patriarchy” and “white supremacy.” More often than not, distorted interpretation leads individuals to pre-emptive expectations. Already agitated, they may assume that anyone who uses this language is over-sensitive, spiteful or simply stoking the flames of antagonism. Said agitation manifests itself in ways both subtle and overt. For example, when I table for Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate (SWAG)—an organization for black men—I can’t help but notice as some of my peers’ eyes glaze over in a look of disinterest or even annoyance, as if to say, “Oh, it’s one of those black things. No thanks.”

The second response to diversity operates on the opposite end of the sociopolitical spectrum, but is equally insidious. These days, people are jumping at any opportunity to align themselves with the proverbial good guys and girls in order to assure themselves of their moral infallibility. But saying “Look! I don’t actively champion bigotry” does not absolve the speaker of culpability. Failure to realize this results in an inability to critique oneself and a gross misunderstanding of why diversity is needed in the first place. The next thing you know, we’ve got self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, such as that exemplified by a Senior Vice President of Twitter recently responding to a question about diversity with, “Diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.”

…What?

People like myself must respond to this absurdity by deftly weaving and bobbing with our words, engaging in a desperate dance to avoid miscommunication. On top of this, we must contend with the double-edged sword of trying to inject some “diversity” into the lives of our peers while simultaneously desiring to be seen as sources of cognitive dissonance. Consider the following example.

Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that, in addition to having an eclectic music collection, I am an incurable cinephile. I’ve seen almost every film that exists, the vast majority of which tell stories about, by, and for people who are nothing like me. Still, I love them all the same. That being said, I’m willing to bet that I’d have a hard time convincing my fellow cinephile friends to sit down with me and watch a “black” film. But even if I could, I would then have to be afraid that any cultural exposure provided by such a film would serve as a reminder of my otherness. Which brings me to my last point.

This one goes out to Cornell Cinema: first and foremost, the leaders of black organizations do not enjoy receiving emails from you on only the rare occasions when movies like Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton are playing (the former was a terrible film, by the way.) Please, please stop. Believe it or not, we watch other movies too. Last semester, I went to see Persona and Citizen Kane, among others, but SWAG didn’t receive any emails about either of those. So, for you and all those who share your perspective, let me be clear.

Diversity and inclusion is not a muscle to be flexed, a competitive tool for corporate entities or an obligatory appeasement to minority constituencies. Diversity is, quite simply, an overdue response to systemic oppression, which itself is a reality deeply rooted in ideology, policy and history. Oppression is painfully, undeniably inherent to the human condition and gets knitted into the neuronal stitches of our brain chemistry from the moment we are born. Oppression, imbued into the tapestry of our species’ existence, is omnipresent and all-powerful. Indeed, oppression is the way and the truth and the life of the world.

And if you don’t know why or how oppression can be all of this, please ask. Because unless you do, I don’t want to hear the words diversity or inclusion come out of your mouth and I damn sure don’t want to receive your emails.

Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.

4 thoughts on “BANKS | The Brochure Illusion

    • Hi George,

      If you are on campus, feel free to reach out to met at amiriabanks@gmail.com and we can meet up in person to discuss this. For now, I will simply say that I do not believe oppression is the defining characteristic of our society…I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion, but I’d be happy to elaborate.

      Wishing you the best!

      Regards,
      Amiri Banks

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