September 28, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | Power, Complicity and Us

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Hate is a brute expression of power. At its most transparent, a cross burns on the lawn of a black family and a sign is posted in a storefront signaling who need not apply. Then, hate is motivated by a desire for power, a gruesome declaration of exactly who ought to belong. White Americans are trained to spot this kind of power grab, shown black-and-white diagrams in textbooks outlining racism like it’s some strain of poison oak that we can sketch, memorize and hop over on our way to get where we’re going. Yet when confronting bigotry that requires us to break stride, when an act of hate expresses a kind of social power from which we benefit, our response is often insufficient. Cornell’s most recent act of self-mutilation did not occur in isolation. It was a statement of power, made by a group of wealthy white men, declaring that they owned the space and bodies around them. In many ways, this is a power that our community has tacitly granted them. Thus if our response to is to have any teeth, we have to be willing to accept real, personal responsibility. More crucially, we are going to have to be willing to sacrifice.

At Cornell, the first form that power takes is ownership. By way of legacy admissions, certain students step on campus with a sense of generational propriety. Those whose parents donate to the University experience this ownership even more fully. Even students who pay full tuition can experience a subtle ownership over their college experience because it something they purchased. Whether or not any of this is conscious, some students are simply more likely to approach campus life with a sense of entitlement than others.

Ownership runs much deeper, though. From the complexion of our predecessors, to the demographics of our faculty and administration, institutional ownership of the University carries a distinct lack of melanin. While Cornell has undoubtedly made strides to diversify its leadership, it is an uphill battle that is certainly not finished. Moreover, our sense of cultural history is dominated by a wealthy white male memory. From paintings to class photos to the names on buildings, our campus carries the legacy of a time when only one type of person attended. This, again, breeds the real, if subconscious sense that some own the University more than others.

Cornell’s second form of power is exclusion. Greek life is by no means the sole perpetrator, but it has made the process quite efficient. We ask 18-year-olds to, in a week, self-select into the group of people that they want to spend all their time with. Those groups then pick their new friends based on snap judgements about who would fit the house best. The final step is to label those groups, structure members’ social lives around their letters, and rank each house from best to worst. Even under the best of circumstances, that process would be almost certain to result in groups that are largely homogenous along race and class lines. This does not make fraternities racist, but people, and especially 18-year-olds, looking for similarity and friendship tend to seek out people who look and sound like them.

Importantly, even if these problems are universal, Greek life has formalized the process of self-segregation and lends tremendous social power to its members on the basis of that exclusive process. They stand as literal gatekeepers to the first parties that freshmen attend, and play a major role in structuring the social lives of nearly every student. This kind of power-through-exclusion is exactly what makes certain people feel like they can act with total impunity, whether it’s calling my friend a gay slur or  throwing plastic cups at strangers walking by.

The third way that Cornell encodes power is prestige. This is where nearly all of us are culpable. Many of Cornell’s largest and most popular student groups are closed to the public. From professional and pre-professional fraternities, to consulting and finance clubs, so much of our premier student organizations guard their membership with a rigorously selective process. Despite some commendable diversity, entrance to these groups is significantly skewed towards those with more cultural capital. Even the first step of knowing what these groups are and why one would join is only intuitive if you come from a background where that knowledge is available. Then you need formal attire, a well-written resume and the networking skills to excel in interviews. To be clear, this is not just a problem for groups with formal applications. Often subconsciously, groups’ senior members seek out and more actively retain new members who they perceive to fit their type. As a result, some of Cornell’s best funded organizations reproduce sameness across generations. All of this gives a strong advantage to students from affluent, well-connected backgrounds, where these tools are provided.

We set up all of these barriers because exclusivity breeds prestige in a way we like. Most of us have been taught to value stature and reputation, and we also are often inclined to believe that a low acceptance rate is the best way to achieve it. While these groups provide tremendous value, it is often disproportionately distributed to folks who simply need less help, and the friendships and connections formed between members lends greater social influence to those make the cut. This is by no means the primary cause of imbalanced social power at Cornell, but rather an example of how even the best intentions can also cause us to formalize existing power structures, as we cordon ourselves off into smaller and smaller social groups.

The sum of all these processes is that certain, very predictable groups of students are granted social power and privilege on campus. We at Cornell have a tendency to codify and structure existing power dynamics in a way that makes them much more than simply the latent effects of broader social inequality. The result is that certain students feel they own the University, and the community within it, much more than others. These are the preconditions in which hate can flourish.

The pressing conclusion, particularly for white students on campus, is that the things we need to do will require actual sacrifice. Regardless of your thoughts on a campus hate-speech ban, it asks very little of the white students advocating for it. The real test is whether we are willing to actually have less power ourselves. Perhaps it means more accessible student and social clubs, even at the cost of perceived prestige and tradition. Certainly it means policies that more actively seek out and admit a student body, and University leadership that look much less like me. Read and re-read BSU’s demands for a real blueprint for how this can happen. Fundamentally, it means we have to stop compartmentalizing racism as if it stands separate and apart from our daily lives. This stuff feels small, and it’s easy to recoil in defensive outrage, but as beneficiaries of privilege we must lean into discomfort. Really, tangibly, we all contribute, and if we profess to care then our actions need to reflect that fact. Anything less is simply not enough.


Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.