Do you wanna just tell me a little about about yourself?
I’m Darializa, I’m a senior at Columbia College. I’m studying Middle Eastern Studies, I’m from Florida…I grew up in Miami until I was about 11 and then I moved to Tallahassee when my mom was like, we’re just gonna wait for you to finish high school—-and then she moved back to Miami.
Do you know what you wanna do after you graduate?
That’s still a big question mark. I know I eventually wanna go to grad school, so I’m applying for grad school—the December deadline. So hopefully I get in, fingers crossed. But I don’t know what I’m gonna be doing in the meantime. Still looking for work.
You do activist work on campus, right? What do you do?
I’m part of MAD, Mobilized African Diaspora. I’m part of SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine. We have protests that’ll be organized by individuals, and I’ll be a part of those.
What does MAD do?
It’s a new student group, and basically it’s aimed at addressing issues that affect the Black community, not just at Columbia but the surrounding community.
A few things we’re demanding from the university, for example, are for it to address the issues of expansion and the affects that it’s had on Black populations in Harlem and the Bronx. We’re demanding more diversity in faculty, for example. And we also work a lot with other student groups to address the intersections of how their work affects us. For example, [campus sexual assault advocacy group] No Red Tape is working with demanding a 24-hour rape crisis center and we address this from a race-conscious perspective, noting that Black trans and ciswomen are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, specifically Black transwomen…Noting how environmental racism affects Black communities. And that’s working with Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, and things of that nature.
When did the group get started?
It started shortly after the Mizzou protests. We were coming up with a list of the demands from the university. The group itself was formulating a longer list of race-specific demands. And then we were approached by a bunch of other student groups that wanted to see a list of demands go to the university, and that’s how we came in communication with them, and that’s how we decided to formally call ourselves Mobilized African Diaspora.
Did you see more people start to take interest in these kind of issues when the Mizzou protests started happening, or was it mostly people already involved in the activist community on campus?
A little of both. I think the people involved were mostly already in the activist community on campus. The people who started showing up to our events, we saw a lot of new faces.
Would you say that you personally have experienced specific instances of racism on campus?
Even at Columbia, I’ve reported a professor for making comments about the KKK in class, and things of that nature. It’s really not a new thing. Experiencing these forms of racism on campus….For example, in [Contemporary Civilizations], I was once told that “if Black people can’t get into college without taking white people’s spots, maybe we’re not ready for integration in 2014!” That’s the kind of “microagressions” that I would hear pretty much on the daily here on campus, but there’s also institutional forms.
It takes a toll, not just on your physical well-being but on your mental and emotional well-being.
So, the fact that Black students take longer to graduate, on average, those kinds of things are an example of how the institution of the university perpetuates racism…It takes a toll, not just on your physical well-being but on your mental and emotional well-being.
I didn’t know that statistically students of color take longer to graduate, but it’s easy to see why when you have to sit through this on the daily.
It takes a toll, not just on your physical well-being but on your mental and emotional well-being.
A lot of people are making the argument that the student protests are “whiny.” And there’s been a liberal backlash and an academic backlash—claiming that “college is supposed to prepare you for the real world! We need to have open dialogue! This is a free speech issue!” What would you say to those kinds of arguments?
A few things, actually. I think the notion that it’s “whiny” to demand accessibility to knowledge is ridiculous. It’s covering up the fact that there are legitimate claims here about racism on campus, about sexual violence on campus, about all these harmful things that limit people’s participation in academia, that limits their participation in learning. And then saying, “well, you’re just not tough enough to deal with these issues”—while ignoring the privilege that the people that are saying these things do have. So, it’s very easy for a white cis man who’s never faced sexual violence to say, “well, I’m not triggered by this, so therefore, we should just continue having this conversation without considering how people who are triggered by sexual violence are limited from participating in that conversation.” Especially women of color who have faced sexual violence—talking about race and the intersection of race, gender, and violence, can be difficult when you are experiencing those often. So I think it’s just absolutely ludicrous to say, from a position of privilege, what is “whiny” for someone who hasn’t experienced violence to be able to claim as violence.
When you’re saying that people shouldn’t be talking about decolonizing the university because then you’re limiting the opinion of the oppressor, that’s just basically saying that you want to maintain this privilege in dominating the conversation instead of allowing other people to come into the conversation.
I also think it’s this whole attack on millennials. Saying, “millennials just want to be coddled,” which is not true, first of all. If anything, we’re basically facing harder times both economically and in terms of racial justice than the generation right before us. I think people speaking from that perspective, they had the opportunity to go to college, they had the opportunity to participate in these conversations without the setbacks we’re now facing, and being able to say “oh, you’re being coddled” for expecting these accommodations is absolutely ridiculous.
I think the notion that it’s limiting free speech is also just a form to maintain that privilege in dominating the conversation. When you’re saying that people shouldn’t be talking about decolonizing the university because then you’re limiting the opinion of the oppressor, that’s just basically saying that you want to maintain this privilege in dominating the conversation instead of allowing other people to come into the conversation.
If you’re not having intellectual discussions in college, for the sake of being prepared for the real world, you’re missing out on what college is actually supposed to be about. College is supposed to be about thought.
I think it’s really ironic, to say, “we shouldn’t demonize Jefferson”—no one’s saying we should demonize him, most people are saying, “we should have a conversation about the impact.” And not paint him with flowers and rainbows. What we’re asking is that this narrative be complicated. And when people say, well, you’re limiting people’s free speech to express and defend Jefferson, that in itself is a limiting of free speech in complicating the conversation on Jefferson. I think it’s a bullshit argument, honestly.
Yeah, colleges are exactly the kind of place where this kind of thing needs to happen, right? It’s academic institutions and government institutions which literally shape our way of seeing the world, in education. This is the perfect place to intervene.
I think the notion that college is supposed to prepare you for the real world is a bogus argument. No, college is supposed to be a place where you can develop your thoughts, you can develop yourself as an intellectual being. If you’re not having these intellectual discussions in college, for the sake of being prepared for the real world, you’re missing out on what college is actually supposed to be about. College is supposed to be about thought, and not just supposed to be about practicality of making it through capitalism. Granted, I think we’d all like to survive capitalism, but I think college is a lot more than just “get up, go to your 9 to 5….”
I just wanna go back to something you said about how people are saying about how students should toughen up…were students in the past tough? What does that mean?
That’s what I wanna know. Just because these issues haven’t been raised before doesn’t mean that they haven’t always been there. And I think the fact that people are now having the courage to speak up on these issues is not a testament to the fact that these issues weren’t previously there.
The thing is these issues were always there. People did protest South African apartheid…People did protest gender inequality here. But because they’re now framed in a new light, people are saying “that’s not the same thing.” When it actually is.
Columbia suspended students, it expelled students, and today it continues to celebrate the students it suspended and expelled.
The fact that, for example, people are protesting sexual violence on campus, how people don’t see that as connected to issues to racial inequality on campus, it doesn’t make sense to me why those connections aren’t being made. It’s very clear that the issue of sexual violence is a very gendered issue. A gendered population, namely women and transfolk, do not feel safe on this campus and able to participate in their academic world of college, that’s a gender disparity, that’s gender inequality. And that’s restricting access to education because of gender…The fact that people don’t see this as very much relevant to issues of protest on gender in the past is very ludicrous to me.
And I think another thing that Columbia does very well is, it crosses off the work that activists do by saying, “look at what a great and diverse campus we are in terms of thought! We promote political activity here! But let’s expel all the people who actually do this work.” I think one of my favorite things is, at Barnard, there’s an image of the 1968 protests, where a bunch of men are helping a woman up a window, and the first thing that came to my mind was, “look at how proud we are of all these students we expelled!”
The fact is that Columbia keeps perpetuating this story of how open it’s been to all this radical activism, and yet completely chooses to ignore the fact that it actively acted against these students, and made their access to education difficult. It suspended students, it expelled students, and it continues to celebrate the students it suspended and expelled. And the same students that it, today, continues to surveil, and put on academic warnings, and things of that nature…
This is a discussion we were having—we just had Israeli Apartheid Week, and one of the speakers was saying, “your activist circles need to be more like sororities and fraternities. You need to recruit them young and have a rush session.” And I was like, “oh my god, that’s so true.”
Activism is about community building. Always about bringing people in and helping them teach the next round of people. The lineage that we create that way is so important.
The university definitely banks on the fact that people graduate and people leave, and the fact that students come in as freshmen, they’re not really sure where they stand politically, and so it takes some time to get their feet wet, and by the time they are more comfortable in the political sphere, they’re juniors, so [the administration] only has to wait two years, and so it’s really important to start young.
The reverse is the problem too, that it takes an incredible amount of stamina to do this work, and do Columbia’s school workload too…Would you be able to talk about some things you think would make it easier for students of color to function on campus?
It’s really hard to be an activist, and it’s really hard to be a student. A lot of the things that activists are trying to push for are things that would make it easier to be a student to begin with. For example, the 24-hour rape crisis center would help students who have faced sexual violence to be able to cope with that, and to be able to continue their academics. And yet, that work is so physically and emotionally taxing, because you’re talking about sexual violence on the daily, and you’re being shut down by the administration on the daily. And on top that, you have to go home and do your schoolwork. And continue about your day.
Most of the demands that are being brought to the university are about making student life a little easier, and making it easier for students to be able to focus on their academics and do well. It’s this irony of having to exert extra energy in order to be more comfortable. It is so tiring.
For example, with SJP, we just did Israeli Apartheid Week, and that’s one of the most exhausting weeks that we have, and yet, it’s the one where we get the most done in terms of activism and teaching, and things of that nature. And so it’s like, we have to learn to balance these things.
The way I’ve learned to best work about it is that you do things in pairs. An older student and a younger student. That way the older students learn the ropes of what’s happening, while not being as burned out, and the older students can still take the lead and it shares the workload among them.
I think there’s a sense, almost in any hiring and admissions situation, if a person of color gets in, they’re filling a quota. So, what do you think are the direct benefits of having a more diverse faculty?
For one, There’s something important about seeing someone who looks like you teaching a class. That’s really empowering. I was talking to a friend about how almost none of the classes I’ve taken on gender or race have been taught by a person of color or a woman. And I think that’s absolutely ludicrous, that in the classes that are supposed to be talking about these marginalized communities, there is minimal representation of these marginalized communities. For example, my Gender and International Relations class is taught by a white man…
If the research that’s being done at universities is very centered from a white perspective, or a male gaze perspective, then the research it produces will be very limited in scope.
I think it’s also really important, not just in terms of empowering students, but in terms of resources for students. If the research that’s being done at universities is very centered from a white perspective, or a male gaze perspective, then that research that’s gonna be produced is gonna be very limited in scope, and it’s also gonna dissuade students of color and specifically women of color, who want to do research on these fields on gender and sexuality and race, for example, that the people they have to look to for academic guidance is going to be limited.