I've learned to expect two responses whenever I tell people I attend Columbia. The first is that I was accepted because of Columbia's affirmative action policies and not on my own merit. The second is a more earnest query, something along the lines of, "How does someone like you bear going to a school like that?" These responses seem unrelated, but I believe they both speak to an entrenched idea about Columbia and other elite universities: These aren't places for people with marginalized identities.
Most times, I simply dismiss these comments. But recently, in the wake of recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Howard University, and Ithaca College, these comments have begun to loom over me, ever pressing. How does someone like me attend a place like this? This is not an easy school to attend as a girl of color, a survivor of sexual violence, a person of lower socioeconomic status—the list goes on.
Columbia talks a lot about its commitment to diversity of all kinds, painting a picture that at many times stands in direct opposition to the reality of many students. Diversity isn't about boasting statistics; if it were, much of my argument would disintegrate. As a black student, it is incredibly challenging not to see yourself reflected in the faculty, seeming to never have someone that looks like you leading the classroom. While Columbia has certainly made efforts to recruit faculty members of color, and even boasts one of the highest percentages of black faculty among traditionally white universities—6.2 percent—are we really content with 6.2 percent? We shouldn't be. All students benefit from learning from a diverse faculty. It's these interactions that provide powerful opposition to the myth of black intellectual inferiority that, yes, is pervasive on our own campus.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, a rudimentary explanation of the hardships that force me and other students to consider ourselves as defined by our marginalized identities before we conceive of ourselves as "Columbia students." They serve as barriers to a larger sense of inclusion, and negating them is harmful. Of course, there are many more issues associated with these identities. I do not attempt to speak for them or cast my experience as the only relevant one. Rather, I hope to place my own reality in a larger context and ask the whole of our campus to stop for a moment and reflect.
Though I've barely been on Columbia's campus for three months, I have found myself wrestling with questions regarding my race more often than I care to admit, more often than I ever should have had to. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I chosen another school—would I still be asking myself these questions? As I watch black students across the country struggle in incredibly visible ways, from Mizzou to Ithaca, I have to acknowledge the sad truth that I most likely would.
Perhaps most frustrating about living with marginalized identities at Columbia is the continued erasure of the reality of discriminatory and violent behavior on our campus by my peers. The continued regurgitation of admissions propaganda praising Columbia's diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance is at once both highly farcical and divergent from real experience. It is disheartening. It is exhausting.
After being quoted by the Washington Post and other papers as a witness to Yale SAE's "white girls-only" party over Halloween weekend, most of my peers did not respond with outrage, support, or acknowledgement. Instead, they focused on extolling Columbia's diversity and pride, saying, "That would never happen here. That's just Yale." I've had to bite my tongue and nod, too exhausted from the demoralizing interviews, comments, and online harassment to counter them. Looking back, I regret my silence.
We are in no way perfect. We are in no way exempt from participating in the deeply entrenched and systematic oppression and dehumanization of people of color—the same systems that fill our prisons in an age of mass incarceration, threaten the lives and well-being of black and brown bodies, draw up roadblocks on the way to higher education, and neglect and abuse us when we finally get there. Every time you paint our campus as a diverse utopia, you speak over every student of a marginalized identity and communicate to them that their very real experiences are invalid, that they are not worth your outrage or recognition.
Other students' privilege precludes them from ever understanding the emotional toll living at Columbia takes on me and my oppressed brothers and sisters. For those who would dismiss this, I urge you to take time to read some of the comments on this Spectator article covering Columbia's rally last Thursday. It is beyond demoralizing to read these words, knowing my peers wrote them. This is my school, and interest in my safety as a black student should not be a passing fad or an interest group—it should be my everyday reality.
So in the wake of the events at Mizzou, Yale, and other campuses, white Columbia—the Columbia that would seek to dismiss the reality of our campus as exclusive, dismissive, and, yes, oftentimes racist—I have a few words of advice for you on how to be an ally:
Embrace your identities. Do not feel guilty for your privilege. The only guilt comes from not using your privilege to dismantle hierarchies and oppressive systems. Examine your biases and behaviors. Look critically at yourself and the institutions around you. No one here lacks this faculty.
Remember, silence is consent. Do not allow harmful stories, practices, and stereotypes to continue. Do not propagate them yourself. Principle is more important than popularity. Challenge and disrupt prejudice at all opportunities.
Listen to the voices and stories of marginalized peoples. Support and validate them. Know that you may never be able to empathize, but you can support their outrage. Attempt to learn what you cannot ever truly know. Encourage others to do the same, don't be complacent, and never tolerate injustice where you see it.
To students of marginalized backgrounds, I urge you to take up space. This is your campus, your community, and your experiences deserve to be heard, validated, and expressed. Abandon respectability politics. How can censoring your own human emotion and experiences ever be a way to have your humanity recognized? There is no dignity in being anything other than who you are. Your worth cannot be defined by any other person's or institution's terms. Practice self-care. Always. Especially now.
The author is a Columbia College first-year with prospective majors in urban studies and race and ethnicity studies.
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