February 5, 2024

LIVSHITS | Complacency in Silence

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In a way, whenever I try to notice, I obscure. As I seek to write about my interactions with race, I think back to events that I took little part in: Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, anti-Asian violence during the Covid pandemic or even the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine where the “us versus them” boundaries were blurred. These proclamations by others — and not by myself — of an outsider race make it easy for me to distance myself from the reality of these ongoing (and perhaps never-ending) circumstances. Although I recognize the police brutality against African-American communities across the nation, I stayed home during BLM demonstrations. Although I perceive my Asian American friends’ fear of hate crimes after Trump’s tweet about COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” I did not attempt to find a way to help address AAPI hate. Although I acknowledge the complicated relationship of families torn by country borders in Russia and Ukraine, I overlooked fundraisers for Ukrainian children. In simply acting as a “leftist” and supporting its tenets, I insulate myself from learning, taking action or simply doing. I am both purposely and subconsciously obscuring. It is easy.

When I try to think about how race impacted me, I often portray myself as a victim: I was bullied in elementary school for being Jewish and assimilated into that rhetoric by learning to hate Jewish culture. I’ve written and rewritten and overwritten this topic. I’ve fleshed it out to its greatest extent as my go-to when talking about racial and ethnic relations. Simply put, I find it easy to notice race when it makes my life more difficult but ignore it when it affects other people.

To a certain extent, dialogue on the Israel-Hamas war has been my first earnest attempt at confronting race and my own hate. I grew up among sharp yet small Islamophobic indictments: “Muslim husbands completely control their wives.” “Muslim women are forced to wear hijabs.” I defended these biases through feminism, perverting the ideology with the rhetoric of bigotry and imperialist hegemony. I was similarly blind to: “Islam produces extremist Muslims who become terrorists.” “Muslims hate Jews; they would kill you in Palestine.” Only now I can see that Palestinians are the ones being killed in Palestine.

However, this recognition was not instantaneous. When the Israel-Palestine conflict resurfaced, I obscured, again. As a Jewish-American leftist, it frustrated me how irreconcilable my two halves often seem. Israel has never been a home for me, but it is the mystified haven that my parents wish to retire to. In this duality, I recognize that many critical words and deploring looks have stuck with me. 

I say I have tried to relearn race past my community’s Islamophobia; somehow, this doesn’t always ring true. My racism stems not from my desire to hurt or hate others, but from my lack of desire to educate myself. Ignorance is, again, easy. Growing up, people around me did not have the words to hate Brown people; their isolation narrowed their racism to Islamophobia. They obscured the humanity of the Brown ethno-racial community (differentiated by ethnicity, nationality and religion) by leaving the language untaught. In trying to amend labels without the effort of learning the correct ones, I previously opted for referring to all my Brown friends as South Asian. This was, at times, the correct term to use. However, more often than not, it wasn’t. And, debatably, it never fit until I understood its meaning. I’ve broken down the first barrier in trying to use the correct language: I’m able to comfortably say that the appellation “Brown people” encompasses a variety of ethnic groups. But living through the reclamation of the term “Brown” from pejorative to one of self-identification has proved that resistance against discrimination extends past racial slurs. I respect Brown people. I do not act.

And yet, as a Jew, I refuse to persist in that inaction. I do take a stand: Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza is nothing short of genocide. Since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, 2023 (or even decades earlier), more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, while another 66,000 have been wounded and 2 million displaced. 800,000 Palestinians living in Gaza City and its northern region do not have access to health care: Their remaining hospitals lack basic healthcare supplies and fuel. 

Last Saturday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day echoed that never again is never again for anyone, irrespective of race, religion and supposed moral righteousness. My sempiternal longing for Jewish people to find safety in a violent world coalesces with my unwavering desire for Palestinian liberation, equity and dignity. Collective liberation is a labor of transformation through love and justice. It does not come by way of institutions; it is not bestowed by thrones of power; and it does not persist in cycles of domination. To build from the ground up, the first step is here at Cornell.

So, to President Pollack: The personal barriers to collective action are already incredibly difficult. For many of us, the process of knowing when or how to speak up can take weeks and months of conflicting thoughts and uncertainties. It can take a moment of immense moral gravity to overcome those inclinations and begin to unlearn. When Cornell opts to institutionalize those personal barriers, making psychological or social consequences into tangible policy violations, it can reset that process and reinforce complacency. 

The semblance of grassroots action is only stifled by Cornell’s Interim Expressive Activity Policy, which requires organizers to officially register outdoor events that involve more than 50 people and only use public address systems such as megaphones on Ho Plaza and in front of Day Hall between noon and 1 p.m. The bureaucratic encroachment on “Freedom of Expression” is worrying when communities have to wait an unduly long time to express their views. The fact that Cornell may use its sole discretion in prohibiting activities is even more frightening: Who gets to speak?

Let us write. Let us cry. Let us shout. Silence is complacency and your silence is deafening.

Ilana Livshits is a first year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Live Laugh Livshits focuses on politics, social issues and culture at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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