Tonight many Cornellians will roam Collegetown in costume for Halloween. Many men on campus, however, have been dressed up for weeks in response to the wave of bias incidents and violence toward women. We’ve been very convincing iterations of Two Face — successfully spreading awareness of campus resources and encouraging others to take action in response to newsworthy episodes, while ignoring our own everyday transgressions and those of our friends. In not openly condemning and challenging a pervading culture that continues to objectify women and denigrate minorities, male Cornell students like me exacerbate problems and nullify the effects of the institutions we promote to the community at large.I was painfully reminded last week that major problems still exist at Cornell with regard to how men on campus treat women and minorities. Maggie Henry’s ’14 column in last Wednesday’s Sun served as a powerful and courageous call for action regarding attitudes toward women. What scared me most about her piece was the reminder that sexual assault on campus is far more common than any statistics or reports suggest, because we fail to properly acknowledge harmful behavior as a community. I was just as troubled by the fact that, in the story Maggie told, the perpetrator’s fraternity was aware of what happened and did nothing. We don’t merely fail to identify and expose assault, but we also remain silent when the line is clearly crossed.
Ulysses Smith’s ’13 speech at last Wednesday’s Illuminate the Night rally similarly led me to appreciate the deleterious environment that exists on campus for many minority students. Ulysses recounted incidents from the past few weeks where he was accosted for the sole reason of being black. I was horrified by how effortlessly Ulysses was able to identify instances of hate speech, with the acknowledgment that such incidents are an inherent and all-too-common part of his Cornell experience. Again, we fail to admit how often bias incidents occur and, instead of demanding accountability, avoid addressing those responsible for propagating hate speech.
I’m not a racist and I make it a point to respect women, but I’m just as responsible as any other male student for the continued unhealthy campus climate for women and minorities. I’m guilty of not speaking up when I see friends and acquaintances make unwelcome advances on female students, and I’m guilty of tacitly watching racist and homophobic statements pass as acceptable humor. So much of what I see and hear makes me sick and directly contradicts my core values, and yet I don’t feel comfortable intervening when people I know are involved. That’s my fault and a failure of my responsibility to lead by example. Even worse, when I’ve made the occasional disrespectful statement or advance, I haven’t felt shamed by the community or even ascertained that the behavior was seen as offensive. We are all to blame for not addressing everyday incidents of bias and rape with the same vigor we police the incidents that make the front page of The Sun.
In light of horribly egregious incidents of bias and violence at Cornell, it’s been made abundantly clear that we won’t stand for acknowledged rapes or obvious bias attacks on East Hill. I’ve been continually impressed by our collective promotion of excellent campus resources and with such initiatives as the Big Red Walkshare, with the aim of together promoting a safe campus. Grassroots groups, such as the Assembly for Justice, have also made remarkable inroads involving the administration and student body in important and necessary dialogue. Yet, privately at home, it’s evident many male Cornellians are still ambivalent about less blatant, unrecognized attacks that are equally, if not more harmful to our larger community.
Last week’s Interfraternity Council Sexual Assault Forum is a perfect illustration of the dichotomy between how we treat notable, universally-regarded bias and abuse incidents and how we react to daily violations of the respect and dignity of female and minority students. The forum was a noble effort on the part of the IFC to address issues related to consent and sexual relations, with the plan being to start a conversation with representatives from every fraternity. According to Sun coverage of the event, however, those who did attend were notably apathetic. From what I understand, those who did engage in the conversation found it meaningful, but most chose to sit in the back of the auditorium and disengage. When it came to common, everyday actions by friends, we reversed course and failed to address the issues at hand. The comfort, ease and courage with which we reject newsworthy incidents are replaced by the uncertainty, awkwardness and weakness inherent in our inability to reject unacceptable behavior of friends and acquaintances. We must, as males on campus, stand up for our values if we want to correct our campus cultural problem.
I do think most men on campus, like me, are uncomfortable with the rampant racism, homophobia and womanizing that is popularly perceived to be a part of fraternity, and male, culture. And that’s precisely why the disclosures of brave leaders like Ulysses and Maggie are so troubling. It’s not enough for men like us to treat women properly and abstain from racist and homophobic behavior. Merely taking ourselves out of the equation and only acting reactively to well-publicized incidents won’t make anyone feel safer, nor will it render the violators of common decency outcasts. It’s imperative we directly challenge behavior unbecoming of our University. We cannot be hesitant to intervene when friends or acquaintances act objectionably. We cannot be reluctant to openly challenge sexist, racist and homophobic actions whenever and wherever they occur. We must instead be real men in leading by example — treating all Cornellians with the utmost respect and dignity, and openly calling on others to do the same.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.