February 11, 2016

GUEST ROOM | The Limits of Dialogue

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For pissed off students who have considered transferring/when dialogue isn’t enuff

Last week, our campus had the pleasure of hosting three activists from the Black Lives Matter Network, one of the many organizations and groups engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement. I left feeling inspired to imagine more radical possibilities for our world and particularly for our campus community. As someone who collaborated with many students in the fall to deliver a working list of demands to the university president and as someone who was moved by the actions of students all over the country, I had to reflect deeply on my own activism. Are we demanding the right things? Are we using the right strategies? The answer is yes and no. It is always yes and no. There is no way for us to know at any point in time if what we are doing will have the desired effect, but we can be sure of what is in our hearts.

Janya, Alicia and Opal all advocated for an activism rooted in love. I love being a Cornell student. I love being a queer Black woman. I love my community. And loving these things means that I must expect the best of my institution, myself and my community, always. And as I reflect on the events of semesters past, I come to one resounding conclusion: We have been far too easy on you, Cornell.

Let me offer an analogy. Cornell students are expected to learn how to swim before they graduate. Many of these students have never swum a day in their lives either because they were never taught or because they just did not encounter a pool or a beach. Many more are afraid to swim or feel uncomfortable in the water. We come to Cornell with varying levels of experience with swimming. Still, we are all expected to learn how and prove that we can make it from one end of the pool to the other.

Of course, you cannot throw someone who cannot swim into a pool and expect them to just float. You have to meet them where they are, and that is why the university offers swimming courses. This requirement is clearly a priority for the university because you will not graduate if you do not pass the swim test. Similarly, many students arrive at Cornell having never met a person of color. Many more have encountered people of color but were not taught anything of value about them or were not taught healthy ways of dealing with people from different backgrounds. More are afraid of or uncomfortable around queer or trans* people, Muslim people, undocumented immigrants, people of color, etc.

We all come to Cornell with varying levels of experience with other cultures and backgrounds. There is no reason why students should come to this university afraid, averse or unaware of others’ lives and experiences and leave the same way. Of course, you cannot throw someone into an environment with people from all kinds of groups and expect them to never experience conflict, to never say something wrong or to immediately recognize their power and privilege. And that is why Cornell should offer a “diversity requirement.”

If you’re ever confused about why students of color or queer and trans* students or any other marginalized group does not believe this university when they say they care about us, think about the symbolism of this analogy. It is clearly important to Cornell that you know how to keep yourself from drowning, but it is not important that you be able to understand when your peers are drowning next to you.

Again, I say: We have been far too easy on you, Cornell. The same administration that told us it would take time to get this done, that reminded us the CALS diversity requirements took 15 years to institute and dropped the news about the College of Business over winter break the way Beyoncé dropped the promo for her newest World Tour: out of nowhere. We see through it, we are not fooled.

I remember thinking after our demonstration in Trillium last semester that it was not enough. Maybe we should have occupied Day Hall. Maybe we should have protested relentlessly. Maybe we should have been more disruptive. I feel as though we are being sucked into the never-ending, resistance suffocating, pacifying cycle of “dialogue” once again. Dialogue will only get you so far. As someone who sees herself as a student and participant of the Black Radical Tradition, I know that action is necessary for survival. To paraphrase the title of a popular book, “that dialogue stuff can get you killed.” Aiyana Stanley-Jones was not even given the chance to engage in a dialogue when she was killed in her sleep. Tamir Rice couldn’t even get a word out in the two seconds it took for cops to execute him on his neighborhood playground. Penny Proud’s voice was snuffed out on the streets of New Orleans. Sandra Bland tried dialogue and look what happened to her. I’m sure Trayvon Martin’s parents would have loved for George Zimmerman to approach their son and ignite a conversation over Thai food and seltzer water.

My grandmother has a saying, “It is better to be pissed off, than pissed on.” As members of this community, we have a responsibility to always push, to always pressure it to be better. Our activism must be rooted in love, but it does not have to be void of anger and passion. We should not have to be calm or quiet in order to be heard. Disruption is not an act of violence, silence is. Silence will not protect us. Repetitive dialogue will not protect us. It never has, and it never will.

Noelani Gabriel is a senior in Arts & Sciences.  She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.