June 30, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Whose Lives Really Matter at Cornell?

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“Perpetrators of racism should face legal repercussions…”

-Sarah Evanega, Director of the Alliance for Science

Over the ten-month long investigation regarding my unjust and discriminatory removal from Cornell’s Alliance for Science program, I was further abused, disregarded, defamed and traumatized repeatedly by multiple staff and departments at Cornell. After repeatedly re-experiencing and confronting the same treatment and trauma that prompted the investigation in the first place, the final decision was hardly a surprise. To paraphrase: “We take no culpability but here’s a list of things that need fixing even though we’re not going to admit we discriminated against you.”

Due to the willful intellectual incapability of Ivy League universities to be truthful about their failings and effectively grasp concepts like racism and neuro-ableism beyond a white perspective, Cornell’s decision against me and their simultaneous (albeit vague) admission of fault, demonstrates, at best, an embarrassing inability to comprehend the purpose for the investigation in the first place. At worst, it’s an attempt to deflect, dismiss and avoid accountability for the pervasive and violent racism endemic to the institution.

As the first-ever U.S. Black Indigenous person to take part in the Alliance for Science, my trauma, my oppression and my abuse is mine to use to validate those who have been systematically abused at Cornell University and elsewhere day after day, year after year.

The following are my “Top Eight” of what to expect when attempting to achieve accountability for racism and ableism at Cornell (note: nonbinarism wasn’t even considered important enough to be included in Title IX’s report):

1. Despite the ADA statement that someone does not have to disclose their disability or request accommodation until they recognize it may become a hurdle, staff and faculty at Cornell can apparently agree to accommodate your disability before the program starts and still claim that their failure to provide reasonable accommodations is your fault. Incredulously, they can also claim on record that the accommodations made were never requested, while simultaneously holding that accommodations were given because they provided broken printers that remained broken for the entire duration of the program.

Whatsapp Text between Feliz and an Alliance for Science Program head reads:

JF: Good morning, I have a question. I have ADHD and I can’t absorb information from digital documents very well. Could you help me with accommodations for this during the program? I would need to print papers, instructions, etc…

Alliance for Science Program Lead: Hi Julia, I just verified, and yes, we can support you in that.

2. No matter how many emails, texts and photos you submit as evidence, Cornell will disregard all of that in favor of “anonymous” notes stating  racism is “boring.” This singular piece of evidence is apparently all they need to justify a defamation campaign against you and cite your engagement in intellectual discourse as the reason for your removal. Yes, really.

A hand-written comment from an Alliance for Science participant read as follows: “There are possibility [sic] of making this week very Boring [sic] with more racism discussion!  Let us be careful!  We are getting worried about the topics of training!  It is URGENT [sic]!!”

3. You can document each and every single interaction through email — displaying each and every failure to accommodate a disability and request for them to address racism — and it doesn’t matter.

4. The Title IX Office knows about you and is involved before you even figure out they exist. If you have a disability, they will make believe they never knew about it and will force you to endure numerous pointless interviews while denying necessary accommodations. Also, “Inclusion and Diversity” is a tool to uphold your oppression and is easily exploited to use against you.

In an email sent to Feliz, the Title IX office informed them that their concerns had been taken “seriously” and that they have “filed a bias report on [their] behalf with Cornell’s Department of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity.”

5. When you ask Cornell to address racism and are removed from your program, staff and faculty will manufacture pretext to justify your removal after the fact. They can defame you and promote a false narrative rather successfully by exploiting the power dynamic between people of color in the global North and the global South. All of a sudden, all the fellows will go from not really knowing why you were removed to reading from the same script. Even fellows that supported you will suddenly be used to paint you as an aggressor and as a disruption — despite there not being a single complaint or remark about you being “a bully” before your removal.

In an Whatsapp message with another Alliance for Science Fellow, Feliz was informed that the Alliance for Science Program leads were concerned about “experiencing backlash publicly after [Feliz]” and asked “what can [they] do to help the alliance [sic] to combat this backlash.”

6. When you ask the question, “…as someone from the mainland U.S., how can I say to my Black and Brown communities that animal agriculture will save the developing world when animal agriculture is one of the most exploitative industries to them?” during a lecture entitled “The Role of Livestock in Developing Countries,” you will receive an aggressive, racially charged invalidating response from the white lecturer rather than the well-informed answer you hoped for.

Their inappropriate response will be deemed acceptable because their Jewish ethnicity apparently affords more credibility than the lived experience of a Brown AfroIndigenous person from the U.S. It does not matter if other fellows corroborate your side of the story and explain that anti-Semitism is notably different from racism to program staff. Rest assured, you are the problem for requesting that racist tantrums not be ignored or tolerated.

The Sun has received messages between Feliz and a fellow Alliance for Science participant detailing the above account. A portion of this reads as follows: “I [Alliance for Science Fellow] said, him [Lecturer Max Rothschild] telling her [Alliance for Science Team Lead Present During Incident] that he understood the POC experience more than you [Feliz] was ridiculous and she said yeah but he is Jewish, and I said not the same thing etc [sic]” … “She said the reason they want you here is because they find your work so interesting and your ideas [sic]. And I said yeah but advocating often needs to be said in the moment as the comment is said [sic]. It’s not disrupting a presentation. I also said that he really lost his cool so quickly with her, it was immediately an aggressive tone that he took [sic].”

7. If you continue to request accountability after a racist experience, staff can go to the Head of Human Resources and manufacture a story exploiting racial and neurodivergent stereotypes to justify getting rid of you. They will then check if Title IX could get involved. If you’re neurodivergent, they will claim they gave you accommodations that they insist you did not request and then claim you used said accommodations too much. As the Dean explains, “… with Complainant’s need to verbalize during classroom sessions, there were no restrictions placed on Complainant.” So, in essence, you can receive accommodations you never requested and then have them weaponized against you at the university’s convenience.

In addition, weeks after a racist incident and nothing being done about it, your Department’s head of HR will file a bias report without your consent or input  or even speaking to you at any point to cover for your program’s failure. They will file using vague language that will be enough to justify your experience, will contain wrong information (since the second person you complained about was the Communications Director and not a fellow) without actually taking responsibility for it or admitting their failures. The Department of Inclusion and Diversity will request the Director contact you a week before you are terminated from the program. This will later be used to protect them when they claim they did everything they could to address the racism and ableism you complained about and was removed in retaliation. Except, since the bias report is so vague, inaccurate, mostly left blank apart from a couple of fields on a two-page report and no one at any point spoke with you about it, you will be left wondering how could they know the appropriate way to respond to bias without indication of nature, type of bias and accurate information in the report?

Feliz received an email in September from the Director of Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega, regarding Feliz’s future in the program. Feliz also received pages from the bias report submitted by the Department’s Director of HR minimally filled-in with vague responses, erroneous information, and mostly empty fields – against Feliz’s consent without any consultation or input from them.

8. As Black, Brown and Indigenous People, according to Evanega, we have it better than the global fellows, people of color from outside the U.S., “… who have lived lives far less privileged than I think Julia…These are people who have suffered immensely …” 

Why should I or we, those of us born to slaves and massacred tribes across the U.S., be allowed to complain about things like racism or ableism in a program within our “home” country, where we only experience systemic inequality, racism, police brutality, transphobia, nonbinary-phobia, homophobia, implied xenophobia, low pay and few opportunities and continued genocide? According to the person who pushed for my removal from Cornell, we Black, Brown and Indigenous people from the U.S. have it really easy with all that privilege marked on our Black and Brown skin. Every experience we’ve had, all the hard work that we’ve done and all of the things that we’ve created, despite the obstacles of a systemically racist world, mean nothing because we are “privileged people of color from the U.S.” (that’s racist).

The implication that I should tolerate racism, ableism and any other form of bigotry at Cornell and be grateful for “my privilege as a Black Indigenous U.S. citizen shaped by a lifetime of poverty, harassment, assault, racial profiling, racist medical malpractice and countless other forms of identity abuse speaks volumes about Cornell’s inability to grasp why people like me are “protected classes” under the law. Even more transparent is that staff do not even understand the applicability of the student-supported demands I released in 2019: “…these requests do not directly pertain to the matters investigated, we do not have the information to evaluate their applicability and utility as corrective actions” (“fact checker” for Cornell University, June 2020).

For almost a year now, I have been alone in this fight, in direct contrast to the wealthy Ivy League institutions that sit atop ivory towers on stolen land, drenched in privilege and the blood of our ancestors. I am born of warriors and survivors, Black and Indigenous. When I decided to say “No, this is not okay, and I request that you do better for myself and others,” I was no longer an exploitable victim of the system that Cornell University thrives on. As James Baldwin said, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” And at Cornell, and pretty much anywhere else in the U.S., threats against white supremacist ideology are silenced.

We’ve known this, and now we have direct evidence of the fact that Black, Brown and Indigenous Lives and neurodivergent people aren’t understood or perceived as valuable enough to ensure we are safe and have the accommodations we need to succeed at Cornell University. Our opportunities, hopes, dignity and definitely, our lives, do not matter.

Now you know: If you choose to flag racist incidents, complain about racism or ableism — as People of Color in the U.S., expect to be dismissed, removed and defamed regardless of how much evidence you have because none of it matters, including you.

 

Julia Feliz is a former fellow in Cornell’s Alliance for Science Program. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.