May 2, 2019

DZODZOMENYO | Beyond Water Fountain Freedom

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It’s possible I wouldn’t be writing to you as a black student on this campus without the occurrence of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover in 1969. This semester marked the 50th anniversary of the event, and despite a 12-page Sun special issue, many students know nothing about its history. The Takeover forced the University and institutions nationwide not only to accept black students as names on the registrar but to recognize us as part of its fabric.

As a black woman on this campus, there is no way I could have made it this far in my Cornell career without acknowledging the men and women who paved the way for the rest of us. Yet so many don’t even know what it is. They don’t have to.

Flashback to my spring semester in 2018. I had just joined my sorority. It was one of my first mixers as a newly initiated member: the Delta Upsilon Wedding. A senior girl in my house and a senior guy in the fraternity were married in a mock ceremony — complete with rice, Andre and a kiss at the end.

What I knew about this fraternity was not comforting. My freshman year, a brother drunkenly exposed himself to a black female friend of mine while she was walking home through their shared parking lot. Title IX dismissed the charges and no punitive action beside an alcohol training course was imposed on the offender. My sophomore year, a group of black women I knew had been told at the door “you can’t come in here.” Most importantly, I learned from my peers that in 1969 the DU brothers had allegedly burned a cross on the front lawn of the Wari House — the black women’s cooperative on North Campus — and that the lack of University response prompted the occupation of Willard Straight Hall. I also knew that after the black students had succeeded, the brothers attempted to retake the building by force. All of this, in addition to claims of drugging, physical assault and injury by brothers on several women — a couple of whom I knew personally — made me feel uncomfortable attending their mixers.

I sent a message in my member class group chat explaining my decision not to attend. It didn’t go over well: I was called a liar, told to stop “spreading falsehoods,” and that it was “inappropriate” for me to try to influence other people in the member class based on rumors. One individual, Lucy*, who was dating a brother in the house, called me several times demanding I apologize and take back what I had said. “Whatever happened in 1969 is not related at all to the ‘amazing guys’ who are in the house now,” she said. Older girls advised me to “simmer down.”

This wasn’t shocking. If the legacy of racism has never affected you, how are you supposed to identify it? Of course they’d think I was exaggerating. Who, historically, has defined our narratives through history, sociology and anthropology books, let alone through the media? It’s not hard to understand, then, that white people construct a narrative of racism through an incomplete lens.

Sophomore year Edem thought that by speaking out, I was standing in solidarity with other women. I thought I was doing what I could, as a black person complicit in a racist system, to at least try to maintain the integrity of my community by taking a stand against the evil that had occurred 50 years ago. But the allegations were not addressed. It wasn’t brought up at chapter by any of the executive board members, and after my experience broaching the topic with my member class, I certainly wasn’t comfortable bringing it up myself.

During rush when I asked about the lack of diversity, a sister boasted their social activism on campus: “We had several members of the chapter attend the Willard Straight Occupation back in the fall.” Though I joked about her paltry attempt at “wokeness” with my friends, I signed my bid and was met with comments about how progressive and artsy my house was. But the “woke” image we had worked so hard to cultivate as a group was worthless if members weren’t even willing to have a deeper conversation about the implications of the original event.

This irony, to me, is not the most frustrating part of this tale. Nor is it the irony that the original Takeover was incited by the violence of a fraternity that we continue to mix with — a fraternity that has never rectified their actions, or needed to because they are not called out by the University. Nor is it the fact that my sisters are more angered by the suggestion that we stop mixing with a top fraternity than by racial injustice. It wasn’t even when an older sister explained to me that I was out of my depths. “They’re untouchable,” she said — “The fraternity with the highest number of alumni names on buildings.” What is most frustrating is that I volunteered myself into a system like that to begin with.

As women in the Panhellenic council, we are not able to host social events in our houses. Our only form of activism is abstinence. By going to a fraternity, sororities endorse them, sending a signal that women feel safe there. When I see this fraternity on our social schedule every week, I am disheartened, and to me, it’s another example that the evils of “the system” persist or desist only because of the actions of the people within it. Women claim they are allies for one another, but actions speak louder than words, and allyship is worthless if it isn’t practiced.

How can we move forward if white people do not challenge historical hierarchies of oppression that they continue to benefit from today? What Lucy said about past Cornellians having no ties to students on campus today is untrue, if not willfully ignorant. These organizations were founded for people to formalize their ties to others like them. Privilege is amassed by those in power, denied to those they deem inferior and transferred to their offspring, whether biological or social.

Rectifying the past is uncomfortable. It means coming to terms with the fact that your privilege is unearned. It may mean acknowledging that as long as those who paved the way for you — your grandparents, parents —  lived in an unequal world, the legacy they established for you has come at a cost to society. It means listening now, and not 50 years later. It means taking ownership of your blindspots and biases. At a baseline, it means that a simple act like reevaluating your ties with a fraternity could be armor to one of your own who feels like the only one on the battlefield.

And we cannot rectify the past without addressing the present. We can’t just assume race relations would have improved on their own — lives have been lost in order for us to foster a world where someone with my identities can attend Cornell University. We celebrate the so-called freedom of people of color because we can all drink from the same water fountains now, but we can easily turn a blind eye to the present misdeeds of a fraternity whose racist and misogynistic histories are as long as their existence on campus.

It’s easy to look at the past and dismiss contemporary concerns about persisting racial or social injustice — to chalk it up to “how far we’ve come.” But we cannot assume that any problem will fix itself or that we will eventually evolve to an equal society. When someone says things are fine as they are, we must question that, because there have been people who felt so at every stage of American history. I look back to people my age in 1865, to 1969, to 2016 who were complacent and see those people as a warning to those of us who think the same today, because in the future our children will look at us and them and find no difference in our inaction.

*The subject’s name was changed to ensure their anonymity.

Edem Dzodzomenyo is a junior in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at edemjayne@cornellsun.com. Ed’s Declassified appears every other Friday this semester.