October 10, 2013

Latino Students Criticize Cornell’s Response to ‘Insensitive’ Campaign

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Members of the Latino community at Cornell are criticizing what they say was the administration’s insufficient response to Cornell Athletics’ “culturally insensitive,” Cinco de Mayo-themed marketing campaign.

The marketing campaign, which was launched last week to promote Cornell’s football game against Colgate University, encouraged community members to participate in a “photobooth” activity that involved the person with the “best costume” winning a prize.

At a Student Assembly meeting Thursday, members of MEChA — a student organization that “serves as the official voice of Chicano students at Cornell University” — urged the administration to take a more active role in responding to the incident.

Carmen Martinez ’14, co-chair of MEChA, said there needs to be increased dialogue regarding diversity and cultural sensitivity on campus. “Many students were confused and outraged as to how this theme was allowed to be promoted around campus and Ithaca,” she said. “In a University that prides itself on its diversity, we find it alarming that these incidents continue to occur.”

Martinez said she proposes the implementation of an academic diversity requirement in order to increase cultural awareness among Cornell students. “In moving forward from the issue, we propose the University consider advocating for a stronger, more realistic and engaging diversity requirement for all students, such as a course on racism and ethnicity,” she said.

Ulysses Smith ’14, S.A. president, said that, when necessary, there should be an increased effort from University officials to minimize bias incidents and cultural insensitivity in the future. “If we, as a University, are going to make websites to shame people that haze and re-educate students in that sense, why do we not follow up in such a matter with bias incidents?” he asked.

Students said they are still confused and disturbed by how such a campaign was approved in the first place. Gabriela Lopez ’15, political chair of MEChA, added that she thinks many students have failed to recognize the extent of Cornell Athletics’ insensitivity towards the Latino community in choosing a Cinco de Mayo-themed campaign.

“We have been criticized by various parts of the Cornell student body who do not understand what it is we found so problematic about this,” she said. She said the campaign’s overall objectification of Latino culture is unacceptable. “Our cultural background is being used as a costume, as a contest: that is what is so problematic about this,” she said.

“The Latino community works hard day by day to break stereotypes.” Echoing Lopez’s sentiments, Sarah Proo ’15, a member of Cornell’s Latino community, said she was personally offended by the campaign since it unfairly subjected a marginalized group to further objectification.

“They stripped our culture to a distorted image and exploited it for their use,” she said. Proo said that the theme could have been approached in a way that better celebrated Latino culture and did not involve football players in the dining halls dressed in traditional Mexican attire.

Martinez stressed that the campaign demonstrates the need for dialogue regarding diversity between students and the administration. “It is necessary to have uncomfortable conversations about culture, race, oppression and privilege,” she said. “We need to be more willing to openly talk about these issues, ‘check’ our privilege, and start deconstructing the preconceived notions we have about each other.”

Lopez agreed and urged the University to take a more proactive role in responding to the incident. “We appreciate the athletic department’s apologies. However, our intent was to find a way to move forward with this and not simply take the apology and move on,” she said. Just pulling the campaign and issuing a statement apologizing for it ignores the issue of cultural insensitivity rather than actively addressing it, Proo said. “Canceling everything feels like an attempt to shut us up,” she said.