November 14, 2019

GUEST ROOM | How Does Cornell Make You Feel Like You Belong?

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As I walked out of Mann Library, a person approached me to ask if I would like to have a portrait of myself taken along with a sentence declaring how I am made to feel that “I Belong at Cornell.”

I politely smiled and continued walking. All I could think about was how much I had been made to feel like I did not belong here halfway into my short, 12-week program.

Sure, no neon signs declared I did not belong. But the daily exchanges, nonstop microaggressions, covert racism, neuroableism and the constant misgendering on campus from staff that claim to be committed to inclusion and diversity managed to do the same. The violence of systematic inequality upheld by the majority despite living in a time when not being aware is a privilege was inescapable at every turn.

During my first week at Cornell, I commented on how odd it felt to be the only Afro-Indigenous Latinx person in most spaces and sometimes, the only person of color from the United States in a U.S. University. My program lead’s response? I was told to take a look at the numbers. A number … My white program lead reduced me and others to a number that apparently was enough to invalidate my experiences as a POC born and raised in the U.S.

While whiteness assumes individuality for members of its community, black, brown and Indigenous people are lumped into sum groups in which white Americans don’t seem to recognize that we are not all one and the same. Individuality is not something afforded to people like me. The worst is the mentality that allowing POC to share in white-centered spaces means that racism and other forms of bigotry no longer exist.

Cornell prides itself on “numbers” to promote a cosmetic idea of inclusion and diversity without even attempting to understand what inclusion and diversity even are on unceded Indigenous land, a reality which the University doesn’t even acknowledge. Cornell’s claim to inclusion and diversity erases the swastikas that appear every so often on the walls of Goldwin Smith Hall, the chants at Latinx students from empowered frats to “build a wall,” the emotional assault with microaggressions of its students and staff by the white majority and the tokenization of international students to appease white U.S. Americans that don’t realize racism in the U.S. has not ended.

Cornell’s claim to inclusion and diversity is an empty, performative initiative that further exploits inequality and promotes the erasure of black, brown and Indigenous people from the U.S. We are punished for daring to speak about issues that affect our communities or as individuals attempting to hold on to our cultural identity and unveil the oppressive history that institutions like Cornell are founded on. Change does not happen by ignoring and punishing those asking the majority to do better. Change happens through real action and education. However, for people who have never experienced the need for those with systemic power to do better, the request to do better seems like a personal attack. Rather than listen, Cornell adopts denial, retaliation and expulsion in its reaction.

As I stared at the person asking me how Cornell made me feel I belonged, all I could think about was that I did not belong and had been made to feel this way throughout the entirety of my weeks. I couldn’t help but think about the Willard Straight Hall Takeover’s African American and Latinx students who, 50 years ago, took a stand against the same marginalization and retaliation that dozens of students at Cornell communicated to me happens whenever they ask Cornell to do better.

I certainly understood that not much had changed in 50 years when I was forcibly removed from my fellowship for speaking up about issues that affected my black and Indigenous communities in the U.S. during discussion sessions, the role of white supremacy in science and the need to address root issues to effectively communicate technological advances to the very communities historically exploited by science.

I certainly did not feel like I belonged when I reported a racist incident that ended in retaliation against me for wanting my program and leads to do better.

I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged for daring to express myself in the way that comes naturally due to my neurodivergence: boldly and to the point.

I certainly did not feel I belonged when my request to have simple access to a printer and writing surfaces to have the same access as others went unanswered and culminated in being shamed for vocalizing my needs as a severely ADHD person.

I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged in a space where real conversations were seen as a problem and issues relating to POC from the U.S. and our reactions were unwelcomed.

I certainly did not feel like I belonged when I was told repeatedly that my own program was not for people “like me” despite having been invited to it having fully disclosed my focus on social justice as it relates to science.

I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged when I was defamed by Cornell’s head of media in an official statement slandering my person without ever even speaking to me.

I certainly did not feel like I belonged when I had to explain the many forms of bigotry I experienced at Cornell to people that don’t even experience them. In 2019, it’s no longer an excuse to just not know. It’s not acceptable for those that don’t experience my reality to determine whether something is valid or not.

I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged as I watched and waited for administrators to decide whether my very real experiences violated policies not designed to protect people like me through a process that is in itself ableist.

Eventually, I understood that belonging at Cornell means to accept and subject yourself to unending, accepted bigotry in a place where few of us from the U.S. non-majority ever make it. And that’s how Cornell gets away with claiming inclusion and diversity without actually truly changing anything and still protecting the very class that has benefited from the exploitation of black and brown bodies for over 400 years.

Inclusion and diversity: What do these words even mean when POC from the U.S. are still forced to assimilate and accept bigotry in order to survive spaces like Cornell? What does it mean that our children are forced into experiences like this as they are barely starting out their lives in this systemically unjust system?

At 36 years old, as someone running their own social enterprise and as someone that holds undergraduate and graduate science degrees, I sit here incredulously by the treatment I experienced at Cornell University. I can only attempt to communicate the unspoken exploitation of our communities at an Ivy League. I am old enough to not be afraid of institutions that are so below my intellectual capabilities that they would remove me from a program for refusing to accept their abuse and demanding better for future generations of students of color, queer students and neurodivergent students. My understanding of the world as it relates beyond a single viewpoint was so beyond the basic understanding of staff at an Ivy League that I was punished for thinking that Cornell was a space for learning and sharing.

So, how does Cornell make me feel that I belong?

My honest answer is this: Cornell makes me feel that belonging is something defined by a majority that has never actually understood how it has made sure we, marginalized people, truly do not belong.

The silence from Cornell is telling in itself.

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