May 11, 2019

GUEST ROOM | An Open Letter to Cornell and the President’s Council of Cornell Women

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When I first came to Cornell, I felt out of place. I am a first-generation student of color from a working-class background. My background made it so that I experienced macro and microaggressions constantly at Cornell — from being tokenized to being unable to navigate academic spaces that required cultural capital and “know-how” that I didn’t have. No one cared to demystify for me. It was only through the years that I created community and a sense of belonging by forging my own spaces and investing in issues and events that were important to me. I led diversity initiatives in my department, organized events as co-president of the Latin@ Graduate Student Coalition with other student of color groups, mentored and worked with Cornell’s Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, McNair Scholars and Mellon Mays programs and planned many events to highlight communities often erased at Cornell and in Ithaca. Through all of this work, I created space in this Ivy league that was not built to hold space for me.

Recently, I returned to Ithaca to complete a major step in my career: defend my dissertation. When I successfully passed my defense, I became a part of less than one percent of Latinas who receive doctorate degrees in the U.S. As I closed this major chapter in my life, unfortunately, the bookends of my time here at Cornell were marked with the message that I will never belong in spaces that were not created for me after attending a graduate mentoring lunch sponsored by the President’s Council of Cornell Women.

The theme of the PCCW conference was diversity and inclusion. As I contemplated my future and recognized the cultural capital of networking, I registered for this event with hopes I could push my career forward. This hope was shockingly disrupted during the lunch when a current sitting and senior member of the Cornell Council for Women decided to use an anti-black racial slur as an example when answering the speaker’s questions about the difference between macro and microaggressions. I sat in shock after this word was used and the room erupted in laughter. I looked around in disbelief hoping that the leadership of the program would address how inappropriate and offensive the moment was. But instead, the speaker — himself probably in shock — moved on. In anger, I left the room, unwilling to sit in a place that became so violent and unsafe for me.

When I left the room, I immediately asked to speak to someone in charge to explain the levels of violence that occurred. Not only had a racial slur been used, but it went unaddressed in the room, which made me feel unwelcome and unsafe. It reaffirmed to me and triggered all the feelings of not belonging in a place like Cornell. No matter how much work I did to make Cornell a place of belonging, ultimately it did not matter. A history of racial violence, abuse and trauma was evoked during the event and left to linger. I sat thinking about how casually this person said this racial slur out loud without care about the trauma and history held in this word to mark white supremacy, degrade and enact violence upon black people in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the levels of racial violence continued after this. When speaking to the people in charge, which consisted of four white women and the director of alumni diversity initiatives, there was a series of micro and macro aggressions in which I was erased and unacknowledged while my friend, a bi-racial white-passing women, was seen and heard. My words and actions were being attributed to her, while I was being ignored. The various levels of aggression are difficult to recount — some were blatant, and others were completely unrecognized by the leaders themselves. Ironically enough, the leadership, whose job was to teach about micro and macro aggressions, were blind to how they were enacting these same acts upon me.

Multiple times the leadership attempted to excuse the use of this racial slur — saying that it was not intended or that the person was trying to be “provocative.” Other times the leadership attempted to shift the labor on me and asked me to talk to her so the woman could explain herself and maybe then I would “get closure.” I refused this meeting because this woman’s use of a racial slur is indicative of broader issues that point towards the systemic racism that plagues academic spaces and making people of color feel unsafe. The closure they suggested was not intended for me but for the woman to apologize and feel better about herself. After realizing that the leadership was no longer paying attention to me, I interrupted their conversation and asked them to address this with the broader group, to make it a teachable moment and to make real changes. I told them I had no interest in participating in their organization now or in the future and was told twice that while they understood they hoped I would reconsider. I refuse to engage in spaces that enact these kinds of violence with no critical reflection.

The PCCW should not have used a mentoring space that included students from diverse backgrounds to teach a mostly white room about microaggressions. If the PCCW was genuinely interested in teaching its alumni about micro and macro aggressions, then it should have been done in a series of intense workshops that are meant to teach and reflect; not during lunch where histories and traumas of racial violence were being reduced to bullet points on a PowerPoint. The curating of this space to privilege the feelings of Cornell white and senior alumni was one of the reasons that this senior council member would feel safe using a racial slur. To the extent that systemic racism is unaddressed, people of color will never be safe within these academic spaces.

What happened during the PCCW graduate mentoring lunch is not an isolated issue. From swastikas on campus, to chants of “build that wall” near the Latino Living Center to a black Cornell student being assaulted while being called racial slurs, Cornell talks a lot about diversity but refuses to reflect on how it reproduces and at times ignores racism within the same structures that are supposed to make us feel like we belong. Ignoring racism within these spaces upholds and reproduces the same issues these organizations claim to address.

Often times these issues go unreported and only remain stories within the communities of color who have to experience these issues consistently. Cornell diversity initiatives are only useful in so far as systemic racism is addressed and it is made explicit the way racial bias and white supremacy structure the university and its knowledge.

PCCW wrote a follow-up email shortly after the lunch to address the issue stating, “We will continue to do this work with our members over the months ahead.” These vague promises of change mean nothing without real concrete solutions to not only address this problem that arose from the lunch but also the broader reality that makes Cornell University unsafe for students of color.

I am not interested in apologies, one-on-one conversations, or promises for change. I am interested in concrete steps that will not just diversify the leadership of the council and its members, but that will also initiate anti-racist programs, training and workshops for the leadership and members to learn when and how to intervene while also recognizing and addressing their own racial biases.

Elena Guzman is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.