Following two high-profile incidents in which Cornell students reported being targeted physically or verbally because of their race, the use of a slur last week at a house dinner has left a West Campus house community “shattered.”
Students at the Carl Becker House’s weekly house dinner on Wednesday night were answering poll questions by anonymously texting responses to questions such as, “What is your favorite place on campus?” Their answers appeared in bubbles on a projector, and soon people began submitting silly and somewhat inappropriate answers, people who were there said.
Then, in response to one prompt — “Name your key strength” — someone responded by submitting the N-word, which appeared prominently at the front of the room, projected onto a screen.
“The room went completely silent,” Prof. Neema Kudva, the house professor and dean, said in an email to residents of the house the next day, adding that “a sense of shock at the intent to violate and intimidate slammed into us.”
Prof. Thomas Fox, biology, who attended the dinner, said he has been a member of the house since 2005 and has never heard the room get so quiet.
“I have never, ever heard it that silent there,” he said. “There was dead silence for five minutes. People were stunned. There were some students at my table who were literally in tears.”
In an email to members of all five houses in the west campus house system, the house professors and assistant deans said a bias incident report had been submitted.
At the house dinner, “during a light-hearted community activity involving online polling, a racist epithet was submitted and sent a shockwave of sadness and outrage through the community,” the professors and assistant deans said. “A bias incident report has been made and Becker House leadership is working with campus partners.”
Following the incident, many students and at least one professor began to cry. One resident said that more than 100 people were there when the N-word appeared on the screen, and that Kudva had urged the person who sent the message to come forward, calling the person a “coward.”
The resident confirmed many details of the incident on the condition of anonymity because it is being handled internally. John McKain, associate vice president for university relations, said, “it’s been an active conversation within the Becker House,” and University officials did not respond to requests for additional comment.
Fox said he thought the response from attendees of the dinner “was about as good as you could expect.”
“In other words, there was no horsing around at that time,” he said. Kudva, he said, “was obviously stunned, but her response, I thought, was very appropriate and effective.”
Kudva, in an email on Friday, said it had been “a long couple of days” and declined to elaborate on the incident, saying she had been working with various support systems within the University.
In the email Kudva sent to residents of the house last week, she said she spoke immediately after the incident “from a place of sadness, and of furious anger at what had happened, in defense of everyone whom the text targeted, against the cowardice and cyber-bullying that was on display.”
The use of the slur comes in the same month that a black student said he was assaulted and called the N-word by a group of white men in Collegetown. Also in September, a resident of the Latino Living Center reporting hearing a member of a next-door frat proposing that people “build a wall” around the residence.
Police arrested a student, John Greenwood ’20, in the Collegetown incident and charged him with two misdemeanors, assault and aggravated harassment. A grand jury will decide this week or next whether Greenwood will face hate crime charges.
In the email from house professors and assistant deans, they said, “Racist and intimidating acts have no place here.”
“In light of the recent racist incidents on our campus, it is especially disappointing and hurtful to see that this has happened right here, where we get together to live as an inclusive and supportive community,” the professors and assistant deans said.