February 19, 2024

CHANCELLOR | We Are Not a Monolith

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In the Comedy Central show “Key & Peele,” there was a sketch about Black Republicans where a series of speakers arose, stating that the Black community is diverse and not a monolith. A monolith is a group of people seen as uniform and indivisible. The current cultural practice has been to treat minority coalitions as one group lumped together. Given the plethora of different cultural identities within the Black community, categorizing African Americans within the monolith leads to the harm and disappearance of Black voices and perspectives. 

The best local encapsulation of the monolith problem was earlier this month in a collaborative post on Instagram  by Cornell Dining and Black Students United to celebrate Black History Month. Throughout this month, there are four nights of special dinners highlighting the different cuisines of African people dispersed worldwide. Nine dining halls participate across four nights, each with different cuisines, from Ghana and the Gold Coast, East Africa, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, North Africa and Jamaica, to name a few. However, there was a cuisine that was notably left off the list: soul food. This African American cuisine consists of delectable eats such as fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, cornbread and yams. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. People in the comments section of the Instagram post echoed the sentiment. Given that African Americans fought for Black History Month to recognize their culture and history, Cornell Dining, even when collaborating with Black Students United, completely ignored Black culture.

The offense continued, with many of the cuisines having overlapping elements. Ghana and the Gold Coast cuisine was offered at Becker House on Feb. 8, but Jansens at Hans Bethe House served a general West African cuisine the same night. When looking at a map, you can see that Ghana is part of West Africa. This was not the only case of overlap. Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Jamaica all have their own cuisine nights, but there is also a general Caribbean cuisine night, which all these nations are part of. Cuisines from Caribbean Islands such as Cuba and Puerto Rico were included, even though these cuisines are not considered to be part of Black cuisine. Cornell Dining created a localized monolith of African Diaspora students, erasing African Americans during a celebration of Black History Month. 

Furthermore, the localized monolith created by Cornell Dining is symbolic of a widespread monolith created by Democratic politicians: the oppression monolith. This monolith consists of minority voter groups (Blacks, Hispanics and members of the LGBTQ community, for example) that are often seen as statistics rather than people for political gain. Forged by academic theories such as intersectionality, the concept of monoliths are often reinforced by policies like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion across institutions. This monolith allows white Democratic candidates to utter phrases such as “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” The same monolith enables white talk-show hosts to claim that Black men like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Senator Tim Scott do not understand “the systemic racism that African Americans face in this country,” despite both men being born and raised in the Jim Crow South. 

It’s important to acknowledge that the monolith alone may not be all bad, as there are benefits to minority coalitions coming together to fight against common issues like racism. However, the harm of being in the monolith far outweighs the benefits. The monolith does not really help African Americans in the way they need. Sure, programs such as affirmative action do help Black people. But after roughly 50 years of affirmative action policies, the trajectory of Black people in America has not resulted in massive changes in educational opportunities, partially because affirmative action was not just for Black people but for members of the oppressed coalition as a whole. Additionally, not all members of that said coalition had the same levels of privilege beforehand to take advantage of affirmative action policies. There were some groups who were able to greatly benefit because their discrimination did not have a large impact on the wealth of their families. White women, for instance, were the biggest benefactors of affirmative action. But for those who faced more destructive forms of discrimination from the start, privilege was not evenly distributed. Slavery, for example, ensured that Black people were not able to have any wealth when arriving in America and continued the restriction of wealth until the 13th amendment. Given that Jim Crow continued to restrict the growth of Black wealth historically, it is no surprise that Black people were not equally prepared to take advantage of affirmative action policies. 

This is one of the core problems of the monolith: the positions and problems of the members are not the same, therefore the solutions are not the same. Those who claim to fight for the monolith perform easy tasks, claiming praise while people who need the most help are ignored. African Americans are not a monolith and are more than a larger monolith used for political gain. We are people with a unique history and culture that should be respected. Happy Black History Month! 

Armand Chancellor is a third year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. His fortnightly column The Rostrum focuses on the interaction of politics and culture at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected]

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