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.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Israel is literally an ethnostate…

    • Happy Jack

      More than a fifth of the population of Israel is Arab, and they have representation in government.

      Please tell me one, just one, Moslem state where Jews are represented (or even allowed).

    • Man with Axe

      Are the Arab countries ethnostates? Who is welcome there? Is Pakistan an ethnostate? Who is welcome there?

  • Jay Wind

    The whole “intersectionality” fad is fuzzy thinking. This column illustrates the fundamental weakness in identity politics. Martin Luther King and Barack Obama had the talent to move past identity politics to define moral issues. One can believe in the Civil Rights Movement, in various human rights campaigns, in ending police misconduct, and in freedom of speech without falling into the trap of identity politics.

    If everyone in Israel treated their neighbors with respect, the world could find a solution to this problem. A focus on identity politics makes a peaceful solution or a good outcome impossible.

    If everyone on the Cornell campus focused on being a Cornellian, and work to advance Cornell as a whole, rather than fight for more from Cornell for my identity group, we would quickly have a solution to many of the problems on the front page of the Sun.

    • Man with Axe

      “If everyone in Israel treated their neighbors with respect, the world could find a solution to this problem.” Here are some examples of ways Israelis could treat their neighbors with respect: “You are so good at shooting rockets at random civilians.” “Those terror attacks against children are what makes you so special.” “Your education system, which teaches your children to hate Jews and to want them all to be killed, is quite progressive.” “We respect you for not joining together to invade our country after the first several invasions were repulsed.” “We admire the way you throw gay people from the tops of tall buildings. In our country we have to put up with their pride parades.” You get the picture. The Israelis don’t respect anyone.

      • wendy trauth

        Israelis? Most Israelis are Jews, most Palestinians are not Jews- they’re Muslims. You have confused the two peoples. Palestinians are shooting the rockets killing innocent civilians, not Israelis.

        • Man with Axe

          I was speaking ironically.

  • Happy Jack

    “Intersectionality”?! The more the number of syllables, the more the Leftist, pseudointellectual, academics give their pretentiousness and vacuity away.

    Only thing that I can’t figure out is why the Sun, an independent entity, is such a willing fool for this.

    • Jay Wind

      The Sun has been financially independent of Cornell for more than 120 years. It has a Board of Directors that does not interfere with editorial judgments.

      The “Editorials” are written by the Editor-in-Chief who is elected for that role. Traditionally, he/she wrote almost every day. A couple of years ago, the Sun had a lazy Editor-in-Chief who thought that Editorials would have more impact if they were infrequent. Since then, we are luck to get one a week. The Associate Editor is responsible for filling up the rest of the Op-ed page. He edits columns written by members of the Editorial Board who are supposed to write columns on at least a biweekly basis. The Associate Editor also receives columns from outsiders that run under the label “Guest Room.” These are all undergraduates, although occasionally a faculty, administrator or alumnus will write a Guest Room column. So far this year, I have noticed three alumni Guest Room columns, all defending the Greek system. One would hope that with an “online first” business plan, the number of op-ed pieces would not be limited by the available column inches of print. However, the productivity of the Editor in Chief and the Editorial Board seems to be shrinking, even when the Sun has an important opportunity to influence campus opinion.

      The Sun draws from a diverse set of people. If there is any systematic bias, it has been (and should be) pro-freedom of speech, pro-journalism, anti-Fake News, and pro-students, including the right of students to form self-governing organizations free from Day Hall interference.

  • Man with Axe

    I don’t know that I have ever seen something more inappropriate than this chant. The hypocrisy of it is staggering. How dare he hijack a protest about something else to put forth his pet cause? This goes to show the weakness of the progressive mind. He assumes that the people who support kneeling to the national anthem (as a protest against Trump) also support every other progressive issue. I’m surprised he didn’t ask that any Jews present should absent themselves because they don’t belong at a progressive rally. Which is what happened at the Chicago gay pride parade, if memory serves.

    Here’s a more appropriate chant he could have offered: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, moronic repetitive chanting has got to go.”