Courtesy of Cornell University

Two Cornell Professors, motivated by the discriminatory incidents on West Campus, launched a new class dedicated to discussions on racial interactions.

February 15, 2018

Professors Discuss Racial Tensions in New Seminar Course Motivated by Incidents on West Campus

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Two Cornell professors, including Prof. Bill Gaskins, art, who calls himself “a recovering white supremacist, as well as sexist and homophobic” in a culture that is “not yet post-racial, post-sexist or post-queer,” are leading an initiative seeking to address difficult issues of race and oppression on campus and beyond.

Gaskins and Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources, lead an hourlong discussion each Tuesday centered around academic and artistic works by people of color. Though the conversation usually begins with the specific elements of each piece, the seminar often quickly spirals into the societal implications of oppression, as well as each student’s experience with it.

Both professors acknowledged that this class and its associated project — the “Where do we go from here?” initiative — were conceived this semester as a response to the many discriminatory actions they have witnessed on campus.

“It was … a response to the incidents of racial harassment that took place last semester directed at the Latino Studies Center, the young man who was assaulted by the fraternity and the call from the Black Students United asking faculty to play a greater role in raising the literacies of students about race-based structural inequalities in our classrooms,” Gaskins said.

Allred, the Alice Cook House resident professor, also pointed out that many of these incidents occurred within the West Campus residence halls.

“We had several incidents on West Campus too — the anti-Semitic posters and the Becker House dinner. So we had these issues and we were really trying to respond to how students were experiencing that,” she said. “We’re really trying to do this where students live.”

The students in the class are encouraged to speak about their own experiences in response to the works they study as well as their classmates’ ideas.

Jordan Kelly ’20, a student in the class, elaborated on her perspective seeing her peers come to terms with these issues.

“It’s even interesting as a woman of color taking this class, seeing other classmates come to this realization that this is the reality of this sort of interaction,” Kelly told The Sun. “Seeing people become more aware [of the oppression around them] is also really interesting.”

Anna Warfield ’18 also said that the small size of the class and the deep subject matter is conducive to revealing each person’s insights on the issues they discuss.

“[Seminars] hold people on a higher accountability, and I feel like that’s what this class does. You’re talking about intense subject matter, and you’re asking people to come to a class with so few others — you have to participate,” she said.

Gaskins and Allred hope that by engaging students in thought at the places they live, they can inspire more students to take action against the discrimination they may encounter within their communities and beyond.

“I want [students] to understand that these problems they’re critical of — whether it’s what’s going on in Washington or what’s happening on Main Street — they’re responsible for fixing it,” Gaskins said.

Allred said that she plans for the class to become a regular course offering in later years, and hopes that it will help encourage discourse surrounding race and power on campus.

“The discrimination, it’s directed at all of us … it’s all of us that are affected when somebody shouts ‘build a wall,’ or when someone is assaulted based on the color of their skin,” she said. “We really wanted to respond as faculty to this, and show that we hear you, we care, and we need to do something about it.”