February 18, 2019

DEMASSA & DELGADO | The Elephant in the Room: A Legacy of Discrimination

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Earlier this month, we attended the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference, where over 100 students and 500 alumni convened to undertake the prophetic task of setting a five year strategic plan for the Office of Alumni Affairs.

The Office faces a number of growing challenges. LinkedIn has largely replaced and superseded the Office’s role in facilitating professional networking. Social media has become the dominant mode of information-sharing, obliging the Office to either adapt or get left in the dust. With data revealing a lack of donations from young alumni, as announced at the conference, the Office faces an existential threat.

Our weekend at CALC only further revealed this dissociation between young alumni and the Cornell hailed by so many older alumni. Our weekend at CALC exposed the disparities between Cornellians. It was a testament to the two distinct Cornell experiences: that of those with privilege and those without it.

At our first event of the weekend, we had a round table discussion with three alumni: two women who had graduated in the ’50s and a man from a later class in the ’60s. Past pleasantries and acclaims about Cornell’s cuisine, a picture of Cornell’s disparities began to materialize.

The two women at our table, in giving basic introductions of themselves, mentioned the discrimination they felt as women in higher education. The first said she was deterred from a degree in engineering because she felt she “could not keep up with the men.” The next described how despite her love for sports, she could not join any sports teams on campus. It would not be until the ’70s that Title IX would block gender discrimination in school athletics.

In response, we mentioned we thought gender discrimination in higher education was a conversation worth having. While much has changed, we argued there are still a multitude of barriers for women on campus. Immediately, the male alumnus interrupted, cited the brand new statistic that women comprise 50 percent of engineers on campus today, switched the subject of conversation and began telling an unrelated anecdote.

In our eyes, the best institutions are not those that are spared from criticism, glorified and hailed as the “best ever.” Rather, what makes an institution worthy of praise is its ability for serious reflection based on criticism and subsequent growth. We should not shy away from real issues in favor of exalting a Cornell exempt from disapproval.

Later, we sat with an alumnus from the Class of 1963. He spoke of the discrimination he faced as one of two African American students of his class at Cornell. He told us about how he was not allowed to travel with the football team to southern states. He talked about hosting Martin Luther King Jr. on campus, and later Malcolm X. His experience at Cornell was largely defined and impacted by the color of his skin and the prejudice of others.

But our breaks with the past are not as sharp as we believe them to be. This alumnus’s story of racial discrimination is not a story of the past, as only minutes later, the recipient of the esteemed William “Bill” Vanneman ’31 Outstanding Class Leader Award referred to Satchel Paige as a “Negro,” elaborating, “Now they call them blacks,” as previously reported by The Sun.

Many alumni have retorted that we are too sensitive if we are offended by this term. They responded that this is one isolated incident, a word that was “reasonable” back in this alumnus’ college years, a simple mistake.

However, this incident was not anomalous. It was the confrontation of the elephant in the room: Across the room, older white men were the dominant presence over the few older women, and the even scarcer older minorities. The fact of the matter is these marginalized groups were largely absent until recently, and if they were, their experiences — shrouded in discrimination — was not one that would likely yield loyal alumni donors.

The Office of Alumni Affairs leadership was quick to respond to the incident, claiming to screen speeches and ensure “this will never happen again.” Although approached appropriately, speech-screening is a limited solution. It will not impede prejudice from taking root in people’s minds, in daily conversations and in the organizations in which these individuals have influence.

Rather, we should look at disrupting the structural manifestations of discrimination. For example, 11 out of the 14 past winners of this same Vanneman Award have been older white men. In more than half of the instances in which women were given the award, they won in conjunction with their husbands.

Unlike the alumni at CALC, we the new generation of students have the ability to return and shape Cornell. With a disproportionate faculty, the blatantly racist Psi Upsilon incident and lack of diversity in leadership, Blanchard’s language is representative of larger prejudice at Cornell.

The language we use matters. It embodies our perceptions, and further sculpts our conceptions of those around us. It is imperative that we do not box-up and forget about this incident, dismissing it as anomalous. We must use this as an opportunity to confront the legacy of discrimination omnipresent at Cornell.

Laura DeMassa and Canaan Delgado are sophomores at Cornell University. They can be reached at [email protected]. Double Take appears every other Tuesday.