September 29, 2017

GUEST ROOM | On Intersectionality, #TakeAKnee, and Call-and-Response Chants

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On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of students and staff gathered on the Arts Quad to take a knee in protest of racism and white supremacy on Cornell’s campus and throughout the United States. The event, organized by the Cornell Coalition for Inclusive Democracy, was a great display of solidarity and resistance, but there was a brief moment that made me rather uncomfortable.

During his speech, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, passionately denounced the recent events on campus, and ended his time by leading the group in chanting “Free Palestine.” I understand how hypocritical it would be for me to tell Prof. Rickford that he can’t use his time to say whatever he would like. After all, that would make me more similar to the people attempting to silence protestors around the country than to those protesting in the first place. That being said, I was nonetheless frustrated with his decision to initiate a chant of “Free Palestine.”

A quick note in the interest of full disclosure: my father is Israeli, his parents moved to Israel shortly after its independence while fleeing persecution in Yemen. I grew up very sheltered in terms of discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the struggle for Palestinian statehood. My childhood summer trips to Israel to visit family rarely, if ever, brought me into contact with Palestinian people or neighborhoods, and I didn’t start truly questioning what I was taught until coming to college three years ago. That being said, I also grew up hearing stories of the horrible racism my father experienced as a kid from his teachers and classmates for being Yemenite; from harassment and slurs to flat-out being told he wouldn’t succeed because of his skin color. All this to say that while I do have rather strong implicit biases from my upbringing, I am actively trying to acknowledge and respond to them. I also realize that because of this upbringing, I approached the protest, and this issue, with a perspective that is different from most.

But isn’t that the whole point of intersectionality? Identifying the varying and complex identities that people in a group have and knowing that because a group shares one identity doesn’t make them a monolithic entity. This, I believe, is the crux of why I felt so alienated during the chant. Prof. Rickford assumed that because we were here to protest racism on Cornell’s campus, we all shared an opinion and belief on a separate issue. And because the chanting immediately preceded the kneeling, it felt like a litmus test to the protest as a whole. Was I allowed to kneel to protest, even if I didn’t fully agree with what had just happened? Did that make me a bad ally to students of color on the Cornell campus? Was I even welcome in these spaces?

Throughout all the speeches at the protest, there were no mentions of foreign issues aside from those by Prof. Rickford, and the mentioning of issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lasted a total of less than two minutes and consisted almost entirely of a two-word chant. What frustrates me is that we afford a substantial amount of nuance and discussion time for articulating the history of racism and white supremacy in this country, but we don’t do the same for conflicts overseas. By ignoring the (very messy) history of the region, and calling on the struggle for Palestinian statehood in the way he did, we run the risk of drawing a false equivalency between two issues that deserve more than that.

One could argue that on the surface, these issues appear to be very similar: discrimination, militarization, and displacement of people from their homes. However, there are also many differences, most notably that the conflict overseas involves historically oppressed groups on both sides of the aisle. As Cornellians, we’re taught not to rely on surface arguments. It makes for shallow theses and flimsy defenses, and the whole point of being intellectuals is to delve into the deep, nitty-gritty of an issue.

Additionally, I (and I assume many others) originally attended this protest under the presumption that it would be focusing on issues in the United States. The inclusion of this brief chant threw me off and made me question the core purpose of the protest. I ended up re-reading the event description on Facebook afterwards to see if there was a mention of this, but the event specifically talked about our own community, which makes me wonder why Prof. Rickford chose to include the chant.

Now, is my frustration and discomfort due in part to the fact that my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t align with that of the leftist spaces I tend to occupy? Yes. Am I dealing with some cognitive dissonance between what I’ve grown up learning and what I am exposed to now? Probably. But I also am passionate about this issue, and I’m willing to bet that my end goals and core beliefs are more similar to Prof. Rickford’s than they are different. I hope in the future we can afford issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same nuance and time as we do for issues at home.

And if you happen to be reading this, Prof. Rickford, I would love to grab some coffee and chat about it.

Arielle Hazi is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.