In last month's op-ed "Legacies of trauma," Gerardo Romo, CC '14, talks about how the University doesn't do enough for those students of color who are, as he describes, "forced to get through depression after depression at this university." He cites depression and anxiety as a "systematic issue" at Columbia among people of color, writing, "How are we to survive these legacies of trauma while ignoring the history of genocide and enslavement on this continent, the history of this campus, and the pain we inherit as people of color."
Kyle Dontoh, CC '16, agrees with some of Romo's assertions and takes issue with others in his own op-ed, "Compassion, not compartmentalization." Dontoh claims that Romo makes sweeping generalizations about students of color and takes issue with Romo's exclusion of students who attended "predominantly white private schools or well-off public schools." Dontoh contends that Romo defines the issue too narrowly, writing, "Is my ability to understand the challenge in rising above poverty through education hopelessly impaired by the fact I did not go to an 'overcrowded school,' though my own father slept on a mat in a hut far from home as a child, just to go to school? Romo calls for us to understand, yet he makes the assumption that we inherently cannot."
Dontoh's point is that understanding doesn't have to come from lived experience, and he goes on to explain what he learned from the hardships of his father. I agree with him, but I think it is important to add that we do not even need to have ancestors who underwent hardship to have compassion. As a Jew, I am no stranger to a "history of genocide and enslavement." Thankfully my dad didn't have to sleep on a mat in a hut for his education, but until the 1970s there were quotas on Jews in the Ivy League. My ability to empathize, however, has absolutely nothing to do with this.
We are all reasonable people, and we must discard once and for all the idea that a person's opinion or capacity for understanding is exclusively a product of his or her demographics. Sensibility doesn't come from history: It comes from the study of history, and that is accessible to anyone with half a heart and a Wi-Fi connection. I am not offended by gentiles who claim to understand the Holocaust—anyone can have sympathy for the horror of genocide. What I am offended by is the insistence that race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, or creed has anything to do with our capacity for understanding. We all come from different backgrounds that shape our beliefs, but the concept of a university hinges upon the idea that reason can get us across the chasm of lived experience. We all have theory of mind and the ability to act with the knowledge of the experiences of others, whether your forebears came over on the Mayflower or you work in a Halal cart. Morally, it is a huge step backwards to think that someone's thoughts are determined by a category he or she belongs to, and the very rejection of this idea is the basis for all social progress. I swear I didn't come up with it.
In his column "The content of our character," Leo Schwartz, CC '14 writes, "Columbia has a vast problem of superficiality and categorization—we place people into boxes." It is difficult to have a category be part of your identity without letting it consume your identity. The value of diversity is in eventually recognizing how superficial our categories are in the face of a shared humanity, and that cross-section of the spiritual and intellectual is what makes the Core a practical and vital curriculum. Columbia is diverse but sometimes loses sight of the fact that these categories should be windows of insight into others, not walls of division. I am disappointed in Columbia's occasional separation, like "The Vagina Monologues" organizers' decision to include only students of color. I do not think the choice was malicious, nor was it some great injustice to white students: Clearly, it was well-intentioned. I do think it was misguided and counterproductive to the cause of compassion. As Dontoh said, it makes the assumption that some people are incapable of understanding. We need to have faith that Columbia students are able to think and feel past their skin.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate Tuesdays.
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