November 22, 2015

Cornellians Address Diversity, Inequality Over ‘Breaking Bread’ Meal

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“We have been listening to your stories,” said Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean and director of intercultural programs, student and academic services. “[This dinner] is a way to work together, establishing commonalities as we work across differences.”

Speaking to nearly 90 students, administrators and faculty members on Thursday, Alexander encouraged them to speak openly about race and campus climate with each other over a meal.

The “Breaking Bread” dinner, held in the Biotechnology Building, was filled with 10 tables with about eight participants each. The dinner and the small group setting aimed to allow participants to feel comfortable expressing their feelings and sharing their personal stories in a safe space.

To stimulate and direct conversation at the tables, facilitators posed three questions to participants, asking individuals to elaborate on their experiences with issues including race in higher education and how the University and members of the community can act in the future to better the campus climate.

Many participants began the conversation by sharing personal stories.

Campus-wide Breaking Bread Dinner. Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Campus-wide Breaking Bread Dinner. Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

“I’m biracial and have heard people talk about Asians dismissively while I’m sitting right there, hidden in some sense by my mixed features,” said John Lowry ’16, president of the class of 2016, on his experiences as an Asian-American. “I understand that they probably don’t take it to heart, and if they knew I were part-Asian, they would be more careful. Nevertheless it hurts, and I’d like to think that you don’t speak ill of others regardless of whether or not someone is present.”

Amiri Banks ’17, a participant and facilitator, echoed Lowry and said he believes social categories impact individuals’ perspectives significantly.

“Because interactions in society are built on a dichotomy of perception, we often find ourselves forced to check a certain box or present ourselves as a certain type of person when it comes to race,” said Banks, who is also a columnist for The Sun. “And the implications of this categorization for a person’s sense of self-identity and mental health can be far greater than we realize.”

Shifting from personal stories, participants led a discussion that focused on issues of race on Cornell’s campus.

“Here at Cornell, we pride ourselves on compositional diversity,” Nicolette Jooyoung Lee ’15 said. “But we still have work to do on inclusion and engagement across our many diverse communities.”

One place on campus that students felt a particular lack of mixing and open discussion is in the classroom.

“I would love to see more diversity in the classroom,” Carúmey Stevens ’19 said. “Especially in STEM classes where diversity is not the focus.”

Minority students also spoke about being the subject of diversity when issues being the subject of diversity when issues on race, for example, were brought up in the classroom. Students recalled being singled out or looked to for answers when these instances occurred.

“People rely on minority people to describe racial issues,” said Aditi Bhowmick ’16, who is also a columnist for The Sun. “The burden to talk about it and justify myself is so overwhelming.”

Conversations also addressed questions that arise at the intersection of free speech, diversity of thought, power, privilege and equity.

Members also noted the importance of facilitating training of faculty in dialogue skills. Banks recalled several instances in which a professor seemed either oblivious to an insensitive remark, or completely unable to react.

“The institution has a responsibility to educate its educators so that they are well equipped to handle issues that come up in the classroom, and also so that they avoid placing excessive pressure on students of color to defend themselves from attack or speak for entire groups of people,” Banks said. “Having these fundamental tools and skills will allow them to demonstrate the nuance, empathy, and awareness required to prevent students from disengaging from the conversation or dismissing the experiences of others.”

Students also discussed desires to see more campus-wide initiatives to help foster awareness and understanding of inequalities that exist.

“There needs to be more than just one hour [of teaching] during [orientation] week,” Stevens said. “Understanding needs to be taught over time.”