From the moment I stepped onto campus as a first-year student, I started to notice a deep tension between Columbia’s outward commitment to diversity and the reality of inclusion for marginalized students on campus.
I first noted this tension during NSOP. As I perused the programming schedule on my Columbia Guidebook app, Under1Roof immediately caught my eye. The description stated, “Under1Roof sparks dialogue that will last throughout your education here and beyond. Work to foster inclusive communities by engaging with the social identities we bring to campus.”
Under1Roof created an environment in which I felt visible and embraced. Amid the social pressure of navigating a new and overpoweringly White institution, Under1Roof acknowledged and validated my narrative and experiences as a Black female student. Instead of pretending that all of us new students were coming from the same experiences and social backgrounds, we had a platform in which our stories were appreciated. We had a space where we were encouraged to analyze the ways in which we were both oppressed and privileged, where we realized that it is up to all of us to foster an inclusive campus community.
Once outside of Under1Roof, I had difficulty finding more evidence of Columbia’s institutional dedication to diversity. The discrepancy between Columbia’s superficial appreciation of diversity and the traumatic experiences of the students who make Columbia diverse became evident inside and outside the classroom.
Instead of experiencing a “commitment to diversity,” I encountered microaggressions from classmates and staff, grueling emotional labor, unsafe classroom settings with the flippant use of derogatory language, and a constant stream of egregious speakers. I was living in tension, unsure of how to engage the Columbia community and fight against the marginalization.
My existence as a Black woman at this university seems to be “valued” merely as a means for others to attain more cultural capital. I was apparently being used as a diversity statistic. I still find myself surrounded by privileged peers at an institution that fails to ensure the meaningful incorporation of marginalized students on its campus.
There is a difference between diversity and inclusion. The University uses the presence of a diverse student body to indicate the attainment of a progressive ideal, a post-Jim Crow vision in which people of all backgrounds can coexist in a state of equity. But equity does not immediately arrive with the existence of “diversity.” A diverse environment must accompany active work on both institutional and communal levels to ensure that people of all backgrounds are being empowered to fight oppressive systems. It is never enough to merely be diverse.
In order to be inclusive, we must ensure that all marginalized students feel visible, neither erased nor ignored. While I believe that great institutional change must be made, I believe that dialogue spaces are an important place to start on a community level. Such spaces help to alleviate the aforementioned tension by cultivating discussions surrounding identity and encouraging us to both contemplate and work against oppressive power dynamics. In a formal dialogue space, our perspectives are not overlooked or tokenized but instead acknowledged and embraced.
Why not continue the work we all started during Under1Roof with opportunities such as ROOTED? Established by the Multicultural Affairs office, ROOTED, which stands for Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Empathy and Dialogue, is a student-led facilitation group which hosts intercommunity discussions to foster a culture of solidarity, empathy, and learning. This semester alone, ROOTED has organized workshops about topics ranging from how identity shapes our relationships to understanding the nuances of privilege.
As students, we must have difficult conversations to help reduce the tension between Columbia’s diverse appearance and institutionally troubled reality. While attending ROOTED facilitations will not solve all of the problems surrounding marginalization and privilege at Columbia, it will bring us closer to a goal of visibility and true inclusion. Collectively, we have the ability to change Columbia both culturally and institutionally, so let’s talk about it.
The author is a ROOTED and Under1Roof Facilitator. She encourages everyone of all backgrounds, especially students and staff who hold immense privilege, to come to a ROOTED facilitation and critically reflect on their social status and contributions to the oppression of others. Stop by the Intercultural Resource Center (552 W. 114th St.) next semester for a ROOTED facilitation, and check the Office of Multicultural Affairs Facebook page for updates!
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