Here’s an interesting thing to try: Start typing “Are Barnard students” into a Google search bar and see what it auto-completes to. It’s not “Are Barnard students successful?” or “Are Barnard students bold, brilliant, beautiful?” (okay, that one might be a bit much to hope for), or even “Are Barnard students all women?” for the rare person who gets it confused with Bowdoin.
No, the burning question about Barnard students that Google is racing to answer is, “Are Barnard students Columbia students?”
Barnard’s status in relation to Columbia is nebulous and not always easy to pin down—but why exactly do we care so much? It’s not just an arbitrary Google search term suggesting that the rare Columbia student has unresolved issues about our confusing relationship with Barnard. The compulsion to distinguish ourselves from Barnard, to position ourselves as the “us” to a distinctly inferior “them,” manifests itself absolutely everywhere. Evidence for this is scattered university-wide, in everything from “Barnard starter pack” memes to Martin Shkreli’s awkward attempts at misogyny to even disgruntled posts on reddit. Columbians getting frustrated at the “pretensions” of Barnard students is, if not the predominant mindset on campus, at the very least common enough to be treated as reasonably normal.
If these seem like minor complaints, it’s important to remember that, when the stakes get higher, things get significantly worse. Most notably, when Columbia alumnus President Barack Obama, CC ’83, chose to give a commencement address at Barnard in 2012, things took a very drastic turn.
The Bwog and Spectator articles covering what should have been a routine event—Obama has given commencement addresses everywhere from Rutgers to Howard—sparked a comment-section firestorm, with a single Bwog article getting almost 900 responses. Reactions ranged from apathy to pride on the behalf of Barnard students to a surprisingly large portion of what the New York Times rightfully categorized as “gratuitous venom.” But the same Times article then went on to backpedal and call it mere “sibling rivalry,” while University President Lee Bollinger disapproved of the comments but said that students’ disappointment was “completely understandable.”
The disappointment is barely understandable at best. We aren’t owed the President’s presence just by virtue of attending his alma mater, and frankly, speaking at a college so closely affiliated with Columbia ought to be treated as an honor in its own right, rather than a stinging blow. And to dismiss it, as the Times did, as a spat between family members—Columbia gently chiding Barnard for getting a prize—misses the very real level of vileness going on. No sibling rivalry that I know of has ever ended with the sister getting called a “feminazi,” a “cum-dumpster,” or a “mediocre Barnyard housewife” with a “dick obsession.” The fact that comments this misogynistic and degrading got played off as an understandable tiff between schools is appalling.
Maybe the New York Times passed on the topic out of time constraints, or simply ignorance. But Columbia’s willingness to pass on the subject, to let misogynist bygones be bygones, is based on profound hypocrisy. We’re a school and a student body that tweets about reading What Happened and getting internships at the United Nations. Our own mission smugly concludes that Columbia students are developing “the essential ability for engagement in an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing world” while “in the heart of the world’s most cosmopolitan city.” And yet we ignore it when Columbia students are blithely, casually hateful toward our own next-door neighbors.
Instead, we’ve left the underlying issue fundamentally unaddressed—the idea that Barnard students don’t deserve as much. That they shouldn’t get the prestige that comes with saying “I went to Columbia,” that they shouldn’t wear “our” apparel, that it’s perfectly reasonable to be mad that Obama went and spoke to “them” instead. Usually this just simmers under the surface. But the next time that Barnard students get something that Columbia students really want, whether it be a better commencement address, nicer facilities, or simply more attention, it’s going to erupt again.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as liberal and enlightened, the students so profanely bashing a women’s college are ahead of a distinctly far-right curve. Nowadays, everyone from the creepy Martin Shkreli to our commander in chief, who has mocked and belittled women from Megyn Kelly to Hillary Clinton for daring to oppose him, would all roar their approval.
Before patting themselves on the back for being oh-so-liberal and inclusive, maybe Columbia students should speak out the next time someone casually asserts that obviously Barnard students are just pretending to go to Columbia. That “Not to be rude but we are, well, just a notch above them—admission rates, after all.” It may not be as exciting as tweeting about global crises and conflicts, but this is our issue, one we can actually effect change on. We should own it.
So let’s speak out against those views, not when it becomes publicly embarrassing in one or two years, but right now.
Mark Tentarelli is a junior at Columbia College majoring in political science-statistics. Interests include catching up on Blade Runner, racquetball, incisive political analysis, and shelter animals. Inside Looking In runs alternate Thursdays.
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