Last semester, I was a part of the coalition of Black, Indigenous, and people of color first-year Barnard students that boycotted a required course called Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020—an act that culminated in a letter written to the Barnard administration. In short, the letter outlined an extensive list of our demands and detailed what our problems with the course were; particularly, its performative nature, the way it catered to white students, and how it depended on BIPOC students to exploit their lived experiences and traumas.
Although this experience was not unfamiliar to me, it did intensify an internal conflict I’ve had since I attended a predominantly white high school. I have always felt a certain degree of dilemma, discomfort, and guilt about what attending these schools meant. Specifically, I’ve felt unable to reconcile my identity as a BIPOC, a first-generation low-income student, an activist, and a student who attends elitist schools with histories of reproducing inequality and making superficial change.
In these predominantly white spaces, I, alongside other marginalized students, have frequently been expected to exploit my experiences for the sake of educating others, undergo the burden of that process, and take on the responsibility of implementing social equity. This process embedded in me an automatic response of questioning what I should change and what I have done wrong instead of considering what the institution has done wrong. Elite institutions like Columbia need to restructure their approach to addressing issues of equity rather than placing conversational pressure on their BIPOC, FLI, or other marginalized students. The standard for accountability must change.
Many marginalized students are burdened with spearheading change through productive and educational conversations on race and class from a very young age. From when I was in elementary school, I was always told that I could be the “exception,” the one that “makes it” through education—the supposed “ultimate equalizer.”
These messages tokenize and create unrealistic standards for marginalized students. It reinforces the notion that in order to be a “successful” student of color, one must abide by elitist standards only to rise as “exceptions” by proving to be competent of meeting these standards. It normalizes placing unhealthy amounts of mentally and emotionally taxing burdens on ourselves. All the while, we as students of color have to self-sacrifice to be symbols of change. We have to represent progress within the white institution through our mere presence within it while also carrying out the task of improving race and class dynamics within the institution to make it livable.
This comes hand in hand with the normalization of trauma porn and exploiting marginalized people’s trauma in these spaces. I have internalized my discomfort as somehow equated with “activism,” “making a change,” or just diversity, equity, and inclusion work—all the while ignoring my anger at the responsibility I believed I had.
But in actuality, change can only be effective when it is institutional and fundamental. Students of color are not responsible for speaking up or doing the intellectual work that an administrative team is responsible for to ensure equitable standards within a school. Placing that responsibility on students is simply a superficial act, for a school’s intentions mean little to nothing without accountability and tangible, administrative action. So tell me, Columbia, what’s your call to action?
Celeste Ramirez, BC ʼ24, is on the Opinion staff and enjoys listening to music, talking to family, or getting boba when she’s not editing.
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