Packed into a well-lit living room in Keeton House, seated on couches, ottomans, folding seats and even the floor, students and members of the Cornell community investigated the concept of the “other” in modern society.
This dialogue, led by Prof. Steven Jackson, information science and science and technology studies, was inspired by the recent book The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison M.A. ’55. It marked another installment in the growing trend of public forums, both on campus and nationwide, addressing what it means to be a member of a diverse society.
Similar discussions on Morrison’s book took place in other West Campus houses the same night. The Keeton conversation, stilted at first, soon grew into impassioned discussion about perceived “otherness” and its meaning within today’s politically-charged atmosphere.
“I think one of the casualties of the difficulty and the complexity … of our politics is that sometimes people’s reaction is to not have the conversation, and we get rusty at talking across difference,” Jackson told The Sun. “[It’s] is something that needs to be practiced.”
According to Jackson, the catalyst for this discussion was the alleged racially-charged assault in Collegetown last fall.
“Of course, there’s a much larger set of things that people … were interested in talking about,” Jackson said. “[This event was] meant to give people a structure, an opportunity or a focal point around which to have a wider set of conversations.”
Morrison’s book, released in September and forwarded by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, explores the idea of ‘otherness’ — of being seen as or regarded as something apart from the status quo.
“Morrison’s discussion is race, and how that is the vehicle to differentiate people,” Kene Ifeagwu ’20 told The Sun. “It’s a fundamental human nature to separate each other, and I think race is and was [the main vehicle] for a long time in this country.”
However, the dialogue also tackled divisiveness based on factors other than the color of one’s skin. Attendees, clutching books marked with key passages, explored humanity’s urge to group strangers into predetermined categories and its pervasiveness throughout society.
“I think it sounds dark but sometimes I wonder — do humans need this ‘other’?” Ifeagwu said. “In some countries, everyone looks the same, but there’s different tribes and they have wars between the tribes. That doesn’t happen here. Someone might go ‘oh, you guys are all the same color, there’s no racism.’”
“But,” he continued, “[that’s] another problem.”
As the evening wore on, students broke away from discussing the text to share more personal experiences.
“Growing up in the South, you see a lot of perspectives,” Harrison Katapodis ’19 said in an interview after the event. In Atlanta, he attended a small, predominantly white private school.
“[My alma mater, The Lovett School] actually rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s son on the basis of race,” he said. “Coming to Cornell, it’s very interesting … you’re mixing a lot of different groups, but you still have some racial tensions and some racial undertones.”
In one small group, attendees commented on how technology such as the internet and mass communication make it more difficult for these pockets of homogeneity to persist.
“We talked about being the ‘outsider,’ and we talked about the fact that with regards to globalization you have, in a way, changed the status quo,” Katapodis said. “While there is always going to be an ‘other’, it’s getting better.”
However, other small groups addressed the persistence of prejudice even among a more educated youth body, and how racism, classism, sexism and other biases can appear in unexpected ways on campus.
“It manifests itself in different mannerisms,” Katapodis said. “It’s a different animal, but it’s still the same.”
Katapodis commented that events like this are invaluable, as they challenge people to make progress both as Cornellians and as humans.
“Dialogue between people is always good … even if you don’t like the particular conversation,” he said. “As long as you continue to expose yourself to new ideas and new thinking you can continue to broaden your own mind, which will allow you to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
For Ifeagwu, however, the most significant portion of the discussion involved the future of division within the nation, even if significant progress is made within the sphere of race relations.
“The face of America is changing, and humans have this desire to have ‘others,’” Ifeagwu said. “What is the next step?”