February 28, 2012

Looking Back to Move Forward

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I write from Africa on the last day of Black History Month. Being a blonde, Caucasian, Californian in the “Rainbow Nation,” I have spent recent weeks grappling with issues of race, class, religion and what equality actually looks like. Like Cornell, the University of Cape Town is an international university, instructing students of every shade, from every walk of life, in just about every subject. Diplomats’ sons learn next to women raised in townships. However, as the minority (read: White American), I have noticed shocking segregation within the incredibly diverse institution. Classes themselves are made up of every type of student, however, as soon as class is dismissed, students of the same shade immediately cling to one another and make a b-line for the door. I wondered at first why the university even bothered creating a diverse student population if the diversity didn’t mean anything within the community — that is, if we didn’t more fully absorb one anothers’ differences. I got worked up into a frenzy about how apartheid still existed and how politically inferior South Africa was.

In my rage, I started to miss home, and especially Cornell — the school where diversity is actually valued, albeit yet to be perfected. However, I also remembered RPCC dinners during which students of color flocked together, ate with one another, kept conversation within their table, cleared their dishes and went home. Now I find myself sitting at a table with white students in a cafeteria of “other colors.”Recognizing the lack of integration — dare I say the segregation — both at Cornell and at University of Cape Town was unsettling, however, I am reminded by Black History Month that our country has come a long way. Brown vs. Board of Education, undeniably one of our nation’s greatest victories, showed that integrated educational facilities improve self-esteem of children and lead to higher achievement in African American students. In a series of similar desegregation cases, our country slowly emerged as one that actually grants a person the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So why can’t we all eat Mongo together? I think the answer is that the best is yet to come — if we let it. The positive effects of diversity — of desegregation — both within schools and outside of them, will take time. With time (and institutionalized help), integrated schools will allow for every color of student to understand how the world is changing and yet what we have in common. Isolation by race inhibits both sides of the equation from building a community, learning from each other and eliminating fears derived from ignorance (we’re all guilty). Further, isolation engenders resentment. If we move past the crutch of “such diversity in one university” and towards such integration in one university, with time, tables at RPCC will eventually run together, making a muddled (but engaged and socially aware) beige.It is hard to know where our country would be had we not, as a nation, worked to bulldoze “separate but equal” over the last 50 years. It is, however, much easier to imagine where our country can go if we continue on a similar trajectory that allows for equal opportunities for everyone. Therefore, it is frightening to think that soon a case will be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court that may reverse some of our progress. Uncle Ezra’s ideal “any person, any study” institution embraces diversity and understands that, even if groups remain separate, simply being in the classroom together benefits all involved. If affirmative action is overturned, not only will African American and Latino students be put at a disadvantage, but all will suffer. We are making great progress, but also now face the risk of falling backwards — a risk I’d argue most of us don’t want to take. Every student — regardless of color or socioeconomic class — benefits from learning alongside someone with a different set of experiences.Black History Month is a time to commemorate and celebrate those who have done good for our country (and for our University) in helping to blur racial lines and open conversations about what it means to be disadvantaged and in a minority group, and also what it means to be human. When the Supreme Court hears Fisher v. University of Texas, I hope all nine justices remember that this country has done much hard work together — we are all in RPCC together, and that’s worth something. Eventually, we’ll all be at the same table.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler