April 4, 2013

Event Aims to Teach Students the ‘Power of [Their] Words’

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Six panelists spoke about their experiences as female, Muslim, lesbian, African American and transgender students at Cornell on Thursday. The event, which kicked off a campaign called “Know the Power of Your Words,” aimed to raise awareness about the effects that hurtful language can have on peers, neighbors and friends.

Susan Murphy ’73 Ph.D ’94, vice president of student and academic services, opened the discussion by reflecting on the expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”“That expression is not true,” Murphy said. “Kids know what’s going on, they see what’s going on and they say the adults are clueless. And in being clueless, the adults are seen as endorsing it.”The panelists spoke about a variety of issues, including tokenism, safety concerns and the ways they confront slurs.  Jadey Huray ’14, an international student from Singapore, spoke about the way her experience as a lesbian has been affected by the country she was in. In Singapore, she said, homosexual sex is illegal, which made her look forward to coming to the United States for college.“My perception of America was, ‘Wow, the land of the free; I can be out as a lesbian,’” Huray said. But she said she has had experiences that contradicted that perception, such as when she was awakened in the middle of the night last semester by a student yelling gay slurs at another student “for what seemed to me like an eternity,” Huray said. According to Huray, asking people not to use slurs “faggot” and “dyke” is not an argument about semantics, as it may appear on the surface; “it’s more than that,” Huray said.“[Using those words] perpetuates stereotypes the community has,” Huray said. “How would it feel if whenever we wanted to use a swear word, we substituted your name for the swear word?”

Fellow panelist Sasha Mack ’13 also discussed the intersection of language and identity, saying, “intelligence is universal and should not belong to any one race.”

Additionally, Mack she said she does not agree with what she called the “stereotype in the media” of the way black persons speak and dress.Asked about being “tokenized” by friends, Oliver Stover ’13 — who is transgender and identifies as male — spoke about his frustration with girls who said they felt lucky to have a “gay friend” with whom they could discuss fashion. “He, she, they, them — they’re not your gay friend, they’re not your black friend, they’re not your Muslim friend,” Stover said. “They’re just your friend.”The event, which was sponsored by various groups, including the Student Assembly, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives and the Center for Intercultural Dialogue, concluded with Nate Shinagawa ’05 M.A. ’09 telling a story from when he was 13 years old. Shinagawa recalled his father telling him about the story of an Asian man who was shot by police officers because they allegedly “thought he was going to do martial arts.”Shinagawa said that before the incident, he had protected himself from bullies on the playground by saying he knew martial arts. But he realized that the officers’ comment about martial arts was just another way of saying that the man was Asian. Shinagawa said he became determined to prevent people from using phrases that “institutionalized prejudice,” and has made it a goal in his job as a hospital administrator to focus on employees’ and patients’ individuality.“Nobody wants to be judged by a group that they may only be a small part of,” he said. “We can all affect our circle of friends, and one person can affect a community.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler