Conversations about Race at Columbia University

It’s no secret that feelings of oppression and exclusion on the basis of race have been manifesting themselves in unprecedented ways across the country. The other day I came across a post in the Columbia University Class of 2018 Facebook group that did not receive national attention, but perhaps warranted the attention because the way in which it represented conversations about racial relations within the US. The issue began when a student of color asked her class’s Facebook group if anyone knew of any Contemporary Civilization sections that were taught by a professor of color. After receiving no help, the student specifically asked if any white students wanted to give up their seat in a section taught by professor of color:

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The post sparked a heated discussion about the student of color’s right to be taught by professor of color and the role white students should play in responding to requests like this.

In the book Doing Race by Hazel Markus and Paula Moya, the two authors assert that conversations like these about race and ethnicity can be divided into eight themes:

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Among the eight different way of talking about race, there are two racial schemas that are particularly prominent in this Facebook post and the subsequent discussion. The first of the two viewpoints, “that’s just identity politics,” is predicated on the idea that race and ethnicity are “irrelevant to, or a distraction from” more important universal concerns. Those who share this opinion often express frustration that those who “have” race or ethnicity receive special privileges that are unfairly denied to those who do not.

The first student to respond to the post expressed these sentiments when he argued that such a request was symptomatic of a sense of entitlement and added that it was an “unnecessary step to specifically call on white people.” Other students questioned the importance of sharing an identity with one’s professor: “Could someone please explain to me why it’s acceptable to refuse to be taught by a highly educated, highly trained professor because they’re white?” Yet another student expanded upon this argument by asserting that a professor’s pigment does not define their teaching methods, subjects of interest, or their beliefs. Therefore these students suggested that grouping professors of color into one category seems racist. This student was essentially making a cry of “reverse racism.” Doing so disregards the systems of racial disadvantages that permeate higher education and therefore such a request is inherently not racist. Instead, what the student of color was seeking was a professor likely to be more sensitive to how white scholars’ perspectives shape interpretations of Classic Civilizations.

A student responding to these two comments vehemently disagreed with assertion that being able to identify with a professor does little or next to nothing for a student. She asserted, “this is easy for you to say when America looks at you, affirms your humanity, and teaches you your experiences are normative, while those of others are deviant from it and their own faults.” She then added that many of the texts in the class inspired the racism that her and other students of color were forced to deal with daily. Therefore, having a professor with a deeper and more personal understanding of what these documents mean for people of color can be an invaluable experience for students of color.

This school of thought falls under the category of “It’s a black thing – you wouldn’t understand” in Doing Race. The main idea behind this viewpoint is that, as a result of one’s racial identity, one’s life is so different that it cannot be completely understood by others who do not have such identity-related experiences.

Although it is not fair to expect minority students to explain their points of view to white students whose experiences are better integrated into the educational institutions they are a part of, it is important to analyze and unpack dialogues like this. In the conclusion of their essay on “Doing Race,” authors Paula Moya and Hazel Rose Markus assert that though “it may not be easy, and it may not be total, humans are able to communicate across [their] differences.” Though often times, ignorance and a lack of desire to find a middle ground precludes this possibility, this assertion certainly can be true. As a white male, I cannot reasonably say that my review of this incident has made it entirely clear to me what this student of color is going through. However, I can say reading the conversation and thinking about all the systems of power that underlie it, shed a great deal of light on the issues for me. I am now more understanding of the request and more sympathetic towards students who are forced to learn about sensitive historical topics from someone whose own struggles are quite different from their own.

When a Compliment Isn’t a Compliment

“Asians have great skin. That’s why they look so young! You’ll love that when you’re older.”

I became self conscious of how young I looked when I was sixteen because that was when people started to make me aware of it. Their comments were meant to make me feel good about myself. Instead, I grew uncomfortable with how I looked, wondering if my perceived immaturity affected what people thought of me. As a twenty year old today, I’m surprised when someone says I look my age without any makeup on. The comments that people thought were harmless and flattering actually made me sometimes wish I was not Asian. Then, maybe I would not be infantilized. Thinking that Asian women looked younger than other races is an example of a positive stereotype that has negative consequences for both the stereotyped person and the person perceiving it as a compliment. Positive stereotypes do more harm than good to everyone involved.


A positive stereotype is a subjective “belief that attributes a favorable characteristic to a group” and implies an advantage because of your association with that group (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Lombrozo 2015). Negative stereotypes differ in that they associate negative traits with a group. Here are some common examples of both:

Positive Stereotypes vs. Negative Stereotypes

Asians are good at math vs. Asians are socially awkward

Women are nurturing vs. Women are emotional and irrational

Positive stereotypes do not seem so bad next to explicit prejudice. But positive stereotypes categorize an entire group of individuals based on an external characteristic, showing that even with a “positive” connotation, a stereotype is still a stereotype (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015).

Being positively stereotyped can lead to various negative unintended consequences. Because your identity is reduced to racial stereotypes, positive stereotypes can lead to feelings of depersonalization (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Siy and Cheryan 2013). When you feel as if your individuality is taken away, negative emotions such as hostility, anger, and annoyance result (Siy and Cheryan 2013). Another consequence is that the stereotype target is likely to think the other person also has negative stereotypes about them, and therefore will think that person is prejudiced (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). The scary thing about positive stereotypes is that they can actually make this true.

Changing stereotypical beliefs requires knowing that they are incorrect and biased. But if you perceive positive stereotypes as compliments, you may continue to believe in them (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). Additionally, thinking about positive stereotypes triggers the brain to think of other stereotypes, including negative ones. It also contains an implicit understanding that differences between your group and another’s is biological. Basically, even though positive stereotypes seem like compliments, they can actually lead to negative judgments about the target group and even discrimination, which is why they can be so damaging to society. (Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013; Medlyn 2013).

Although positive stereotypes seem relatively harmless, they have subtle, detrimental consequences. The next time you want to compliment someone on something you think is  due to their race, instead try saying something positive about their individual features. I guarantee they will appreciate that more. The bottom line is, it is always better to attribute a positive aspect of someone to who they are as an individual, rather than saying they were born with it. Hopefully, being aware of how stereotyping makes someone feel will make the next person refrain from saying that I’ll appreciate their stereotypical comment when I’m older.


The Beginning

During our first class devoted to issues of race, we wrote reactions, feelings, and musings on sticky notes. While we wrote, Professor Kucinskas lined the wall with the sticky notes from years prior, providing the opportunity to see how other students felt about race. Though each piece of yellow paper held the thoughts of different people from different years and different backgrounds, the sentiments were the same. Race is hard. Race is scary. Race makes us uncomfortable.

This is a familiar song, one we’ve sung for decades (and will likely continue to sing). But why? Markus and Moya, in their book Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century, boil discomfort about race down to two factors: the view of race as a biological thing, and the assumption that the individual is the “source of all thought, feeling and action” (59). According to Markus and Moya, the idea that individuals may not themselves have the power to overcome racial barriers or remove themselves from racial associations similarly contributes to this discomfort.

These factors do play into the widespread unwillingness to address issues of race, but so too does fear of insult. When talking about race, we often tread upon eggshells. In doing so, words come protected, guarded, and therefore lose the ability to yield honest and meaningful conversations. This dynamic comes from the fact that racial differences stand rooted in long histories of hurt and abuse. For some, race is more than just an identity, but exists as a connection to other and to those who have come before.

The fear of insult comes also from the heightened push for political correctness. With attempts at full inclusivity and equality, humanitarian groups and social movements influence patterns of speech by constantly changing terms and labels, updating what is and what is not appropriate. The unintended effect, however, is that people fear using the incorrect term and therefore avoid discussion altogether (this is not only limited to race…a perfect example is sexuality, and how people struggle to know/remember the correct words for transgender individuals). There is an easy solution, though. We must create spaces where mistakes are allowed, where open discussions about difficult issues thrive and where, if a mistake is made, it is politely corrected so that everyone learns.

I firmly believe that hate speech comes largely from a place of fear. By signing up for “Race, Class, Gender,” we all took a step towards eliminating such intolerance and fear, creating the exact type of space where people can take risks, where they can speak and be heard. Unfortunately, the world is very different from our classroom. A mere glance at YikYak shows that our campus is even different from our classroom. We therefore all have an obligation to take this semester out of our notebooks and into the world, using what we have learned and discussed as fuel to fight the racist structures and sentiments around us.  As educated and informed individuals made aware of prevalent systems of inequality, the charge falls on us. This class and the experiences we have shared will light our path forward, so together, let us now lead the way. The semester is ending, but our work is just beginning.

AmeriKKKa: Too Much to Bear

It’s too much to bear
Wish i knew of none of this
Ignorance is bliss
Unfortunately, Eric Garner’s story will not be the last I hear.
White supremacy is too exhausting
I can barely breathe
I dont ever want to be screaming “I can’t breathe” unless it’s my asthma attacking or I’m at a protest fighting for my brothers and sisters.
I’ve been marching too long
We’ve all been marching far too long
I can’t breathe and I have blisters
It’s exhausting
White supremacy
It’s too much to bear

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When Life Gives You Apples: American Children Left Behind

Many black and Latino children in America are given apples and expected to make lemonade.

In America, the achievement gap refers to the difference in Black, Latino, and White students’ average levels of educational achievement (Young). White youth achieve more on average than black and Latino youth. Only 72% of black and Latino youth in America graduated high school in 2012, while 85% of white students graduated nationwide. In 2013, only 4.6 million black and Latino high school graduates attended college compared to the 10 million white high school graduates that attended college (NCES). This achievement gap exists because minority children aren’t as rich in cultural capital as their white counterparts.

The majority of black and Latino children aren’t as privileged as me. I was an A and B student throughout elementary, middle and high school, and I now attend Hamilton College, an elite college. How did I get here?

Although I’m not very rich in terms of economic resources, growing up in a single parent household with my little brother and a single mother who failed to receive child support from both of our fathers, I’m rich in cultural capital. Cultural capital is the general social tastes, preferences, and knowledge of how to skillfully navigate society. It is learned through one’s education, and socio-cultural background.

Growing up in Boston, I was surrounded by educational opportunities and programs. Massachusetts was ranked number 1 in education in 2014-2015 (Bernardo). I was fortunate enough to go to a collegiate charter high school. My graduating class had only 62 students and two college counselors. The school funded college tours around Boston and even out-of-state. As a junior, I began creating drafts of my personal statement; I kept working at it until my college counselors gave it a 100%.

I was involved in many extracurricular activities, especially sports. I played baseball, basketball, and tennis. I worked at a makerspace and entrepreneurship center, where I launched my art business as a sophomore. I was even a part of my school’s debate team. However, my high school and the support I had were by no means the norm in this country for Black and Latino children. There is a lot of progress to be made in other cities and states around America (The Nation’s Report Card). Many esteemed American cities like Washington D.C. lack good education systems. Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, where so many intellectuals, politicians, and judges live fails to educate the children that live in the same area (Bernardo). D.C. is ranked 50th in the nation. In Washington D.C., only 64.6% of black and Latino students graduated high school compared to the 84.5% of white students that graduated (OSSE); these rates are worse than the national average.

The achievement gap in Massachusetts is much smaller. In 2015, 75.8% of white high school students graduated while 69.6% of black and Latino high school students graduated (Massachusetts Department of ESE). So what has the State of Massachusetts done right in their education system to close the racial attainment gap?

In 1993, Massachusetts decided to focus on improving public education. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 set out to reform local education systems throughout the state (Horan). Resources were allocated to revise curricula, and update facilities and equipment, including new books and working computers. Programs were also created to provide more college prep for students. Since the 1993 reform, a higher percentage of kids have been graduating per year Boston’s 4-year graduation rate has climbed from 59.1% in 2006 to 70.7% in 2015 (Horan). Academic performance in the classroom has surged. Boston should and needs be looked at as a national leader in education reform

If not, the achievement gap will continue to exist. If so, the American state and federal governments are illustrating their apathy for America’s failing education system that claims no child should be left behind. Why have legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 if its basic premise is not being practiced?


It’s Time to Move beyond Numbers!!

Having grown up in Tokyo, a racially and ethnically homogeneous city, I had a utopian image of American society before arriving here. I thought in the United States, people respected all kinds of social differences, including race, ethnicity, and nationality. Unfortunately, the reality was far from my imagination; the affluent American society I was exposed to at my boarding school was surprisingly homogeneous. I constantly felt a strong pressure to be like my peers, most of whom were wealthy white students from the East Coast. In fact, I still feel a similar pressure at the small liberal arts college I currently attend.

Why was there such a large discrepancy between what I believed and what I experienced in terms of racial and ethnic diversity in elite higher education?

One important reason I thought was the schools’ focus on the numbers of racial diversity. Stevens (2007) shows interesting examples of how colleges use statistical figures that are “the most flattering,” “accurate,” and “defensible (47) in order to improve their image. The statistic on diversity is no exception. Some colleges “round up” the number of students from underrepresented groups. Other colleges in their pictures on recruiting materials include proportionally more minority students, especially African Americans, than are actually attending the school (Pippert, Essenburg, and Matchett 2013).

By focusing on surface-level representations of minority students, elite schools overlook a crucial piece in diversity: student experience. Unfortunately, superficial forms of diversity do not automatically translate into positive experiences for students from underrepresented backgrounds in historically white academic institutions. Warikoo and Deckman (2014), for example, show that students from two equally “diverse” schools in terms of numbers of underrepresented groups of students have completely different experiences with respect to integration into campus life. What determines the student experiences is how each school approaches the topic of diversity.

One school takes the Integration and Celebration approach. This school focuses on racial integration and offers events for all students to enjoy learning about different cultures. Consequently, both white and minority students in this school have positive experiences with regards to social diversity. However, since the school does not offer much programming to educate students on the structural racial inequalities, students often do not develop the ability to critically address those issues in a deeper way.

The other school takes the Power Analysis and Minority Support approach. This school focuses on the needs of minority students. It offers programming for minority students on the systems of racial oppression. Unfortunately, this programming creates a division among students. Minority students who actively participate in diversity programming, feel empowered by the knowledge and skills they gain in understanding how racial inequalities operate. Other mainly white students who do not participate in diversity programming feel marginalized and frustrated by the division that such programming creates.

The takeaway point from this comparison is that numerical diversity does not tell the whole story. It does not reflect college policies and campus cultural climates that significantly impact students’ experience and quality of life on campus. Although numerical diversity is an important step towards true diversity, it is not enough. It is time for us move beyond numbers and promote efforts in inclusion and education on structural inequalities for all students in elite higher education, regardless of their racial, ethnic, national, socioeconomic, sexual, or any other identities.


Black Skin, “White” Speech: an Analysis of Code-Switching

“Why you sound just like those white kids at your school?”

“Yo, you’re wildin’. This is my voice. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ’bout,” is my typical response to a question like that. Whenever I spend time with friends back home during breaks and/or talk to them on the phone, I am bound to get that question. I am still not sure how to avoid “sounding white.” I question whether or not I am “black enough” for my friends at home.

I’d imagine that the most salient change in my life was the transition from a predominantly black public high school to a predominantly white private college. Whether I knew it or not, during my transition, I altered the way I communicated with certain audiences; I maintained two separate identities made possible through language and expression. I was code-switching.

Code-switching refers to the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations (Deggans 2013). It occurs daily and, for me, is most noticeable in greetings. Back home in Brooklyn, NY, I’d greet a black friend by saying, “What’s good?” By using this language, it sends a message to my friends that I know the jargon of the “hood” and it reaffirms my blackness. On the contrary, at my current school, Hamilton College, I tend to greet my white friends with, “Hey. How are you?” in a very lively tone to convey that I am friendly and welcoming like every other student. Essentially, code-switching involves a certain particularity with one’s word choice and expressions whether speaking to friends, family, teachers, coworkers, etc. Words must be tuned to fit the context in which they are situated.

W.E.B DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” connects this concept of double consciousness to race. Referring to blacks, Dubois states that “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (DuBois 1903), Blacks must navigate two culturally separate identities and communities. While I assume my Negro identity at home and use the African American Vernacular English with friends, I make a conscious effort to be grammatically sound when in a white environment. When Standard English is most valued in our prestigious institutions, blacks must not only show that we are “articulate” enough, but enunciation and articulation become strongly emphasized. We can’t comfortably drop the “g” at the end of our words or mess with the syntaxes of our sentences.

However, in retrospect, the subconscious, yet sometimes conscious, changes in my tones, inflections, and accents mean something significant. Code-switching is not just a valuable skill but is essential to maintaining our dual identities. Restricting the use of Standard English in a predominantly black community enables one to not be seen as elitist, pretentious or as “acting white.” Being able to switch back into Standard English with white friends allows me to avoid being constantly corrected and displays that I am “articulate” enough to be a student at Hamilton College.

Code-switching IS taxing work. While I am developing the cultural capital necessary to be successful in lucrative white-collar jobs, it comes at a cost. My on-off switch seems to be malfunctioning. I may use words like “superfluous” in place of “mad extra” or “egregious” instead of a phrase like “yo that’s wild crazy” when talking to my black friends. I find myself struggling to communicate with friends, as if we don’t all speak English. And maybe we do, but just in different ways. However, as long as I find myself in two different social contexts, code-switching will continue to be a necessary tool for survival.

Whiteout: The Social Roots of Oscar Glory

A nervous energy filled the Beverly Hills theater on the morning of January 14, 2016, as agents and reporters sipped coffee, made predictions, and rubbed sleep from their eyes. It was a lull before the storm, the very seconds before the announcement of the 88th Academy Award nominations. For a moment, Hollywood stood united, excited and prepared to honor the most spectacular achievements in film. But when the four presenters stepped onstage and began to speak, all sense of unity disappeared.

For the second year in a row, all of the nominees were white. Moments after the 5:30 A.M. announcement, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to trend on Facebook and Twitter. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter to call for a boycott, causing Mark Ruffalo (nominated for his work in ‘Spotlight’), George Clooney, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Matt Damon (nominated for ‘The Martian’) to similarly admonish the lack of diversity in awards shows. Even Saturday Night Live joined in, airing a sketch in which the “best actor” trophy was awarded to “all white guys” (Oswald 2016).

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Charlotte Rampling, nominated for her work in “45 Years,” sang a different tune, commenting that all performances should be judged equally and that “maybe black actors didn’t deserve to be in the final stretch.” Rampling found herself within minutes labeled as insensitive and prejudiced. To many, Rampling’s statement only validated the claim that Hollywood is inherently racist, and that changes must be made (Sage 2016).

So who is right? Is the Academy comprised of racists, as Jada Pinkett Smith suggests? Or is Rampling correct in suggesting that this year’s minority performances were subpar? A close study of the voting Academy and of the film industry as a whole reveals truths in the arguments of both Smith and Rampling.

The nominations are less surprising (but no less noteworthy) with an understanding of Academy demographics. In 2012, the median age was 62, with voters under 50 years of age making up only 14% of the Academy (this makes voters less likely to support a profane film like “Straight Outta Compton”). In 2012, the Academy was a staggering 94% Caucasian, with African-Americans comprising only 2% of voters, suggesting a fundamental racial inequality of representation. (Horn, Sperling, and Smith 2012). The Academy is therefore what sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter would describe as a “skewed” group, containing “a large preponderance of one type (the numerical “dominants”) over another (the rare “tokens.)” Kanter’s theory of tokenism holds that interactions and perceptions inevitably form around stereotypes imposed by the majority and sometimes accepted by the minority. This subconscious racism applies directly to voting biases and their roots (Kanter 1977).

The problem is both with the “skewed” Academy and with a shallow, white-dominated industry. Minority actors are often given the spotlight only to portray characters which are either underdeveloped or shaped by harmful stereotypes. For example, many black actors fall into type casting, playing maids or slaves. This underscores Kanter’s aforementioned theory that minorities tend to accept imposed stereotypes. University of Connecticut professor Matthew Hughey discusses this phenomenon in his book The White Savior Film, focusing on films where a “white messianic character saves a lower- or working class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate,” using Oscar-winning examples like “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “The Blind Side” (2009).

Portrayals of black characters as poor and in need of saving only reinforce a harmful and historically supported power dynamic, reminiscent of the American notion of the White Man’s Burden. The representation of “nonwhite characters and culture as essentially broke, marginalized, and pathological,” reveals within the industry a deep bias; the product of both subconscious racism and rampant type casting. This bias keeps minority actors out of the juiciest roles, and therefore out of Oscar contention (Hughey 2014; 1-2, 10). Should minority actors be given more complex, abundant roles, their names would show up alongside those of their white peers on nomination day.

But how much does this matter? Does the racial composition of an awards show which bestows privilege upon the most privileged bear any apparent weight? During Gina Rodriguez’s tribute to actress Rita Moreno at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, she spoke of seeing Moreno on screen and realizing for the first time that Puerto Rican women could be actresses. “You gave me hope, you gave me a reason to fight and to speak up, you gave me a voice,” she said through tears (Brucculieri 2015). When the Oscars aired on February 28th, young children of all ethnicities watched as white actors won gold statutes. For any racial minority, dreams of becoming an actor seemed that much less attainable. Just like that, dreams stayed dreams, and stars were unborn. This is why Hollywood is angry. This is why it matters.

The Academy should nominate the actors who give the most outstanding performances of the year. That’s it. No race. No campaigns. No politics. In a society characterized by subconscious racism, this is no easy task. But after accounting for the limitations and prejudices of the industry, I am confident that through increased awareness and calls for industry-wide reform, changes can be made. Actors can transcend race. They just need to be given the chance.