At Columbia, it’s cool to be “urban;” it’s cool to spend time downtown and have friends who go to NYU. This, however, is where the Columbia experience of the “greatest city in the world” usually ends. Most students are willing to travel 45 minutes downtown to eat the same dinner at different restaurants, but never 40 minutes to Queens because of its designation as an “outer borough”—and, implicitly, because of its over-representation of people of color. These same students claim the title of “New Yorker” without befriending the few students here who are actually natives of the Bronx or Brooklyn and have managed to make it to this university’s (taken) land as students. These students, along with other students who are from equally disadvantaged communities in other parts of the country, are either completely ignored or hyper-exposed—and often ruthlessly tokenized on Columbia’s campus. This tokenization is deceptive and subtle.
As a student senator, I have been invited to fancy dinners and parties at venues I had only heard of before. Over the past year, I have scheduled meetings with deans across the University and proudly signed all my emails with the words “University Senator.” The privileges that come with my position have almost fooled me into believing that I am being heard and that my voice is valued. While my peers and I are congratulated by the University for the work we do, there are so many students who have affected even more change and empowered dozens— if not hundreds—of students who remain unseen by the University.
This place and its privileged students ignore them because they operate outside of the University’s restrictive infrastructure and without the same titles. The important work of these students, who often come from severely underrepresented and underprivileged communities, continues to be dismissed and attacked. Student groups like No Red Tape and others have even faced disciplinary action. This year’s attack on Senator Heven Haile’s (CC ‘21) campaign and last year’s attack on my own senatorial campaign are just two clearer examples of this demonization. There is no such thing as a “purely political” critique or attack on our campaigns, as they are run by students who want to see drastic political and social change in the way this university interacts with our communities inside and outside of itself. I can only imagine the pain and frustration that must characterize the experiences of student activists who are not protected in these ways.
Here is the fundamental tension which haunts student leaders from marginalized communities: We are, on one hand, celebrated for our diversity and “cherished” for our points of view. On the other hand, however, when we take a step too far or demand too much change regarding the way we are treated, we are attacked. These attacks are inherently racist, Islamophobic, or otherwise discriminatory because they aim to punish us for defending and fighting for our identities and communities.
We’re supposed to feel grateful that we have some semblance of a voice while our peers are utterly silenced. We feel guilty that we are heard, and as if we must maintain our positionality at any cost. Senator Alfredo Dominguez, ex-Vice President of Communications Isabella Lajara, and Senator-elect Heven Haile and I have revolted against this expectation by resigning from the Columbia College Student Council when we felt we could no longer be silenced or fundamentally disrespected. Students who disagree with our points of view perceive our “privileges” as CCSC members and then question our activism as a result.
They see that we’re invited to the same parties they are and see our names alongside theirs and cannot understand what we’re so upset about. They cannot see that our fight is not over when we are patted on the back for implementing “positive change” because democracy is still sacrificed when it relates to Palestinian Human Rights, and our voices are silenced when it comes to institutional dismissal of concerns relating to gender-based misconduct. They certainly don’t see that people of color exist here with the knowledge that they are neither intellectually, emotionally, nor physically safe from ideological or physical violence, in the forms of a homogeneous Core Curriculum, or violent public safety officers, perpetrated by the University, its students, or others.
This is the fact of the matter: The “diverse” students most palatable to our institution are elected to positions which feign importance and real power. These students, however, are unable to implement real change lest they threaten the institution and its traditional beneficiaries. These student leaders are weaponized as their visibility is used to dismiss the voices of other PoC who act outside the bureaucracy of the institution. The end result is that the students in positions of relative power are silent, paranoid, and used as tools against their own communities.
Toqa Badran is a senior in Columbia College studying political science and anthropology. She is passionate about equality and helping Columbia become as welcoming and diverse as it claims to be.
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