Opinion | Columns

Defining identity

Six months after the fact, it would seem the ghost of Obamanard is still with us. On Monday, Barnard’s junior class council held a University Unity Forum. Bwog spoke to Barnard President Debora Spar about the Barnard-Columbia relationship. A whole new class of first-years is presumably learning about the seamy underbelly of our affiliation, now with added folklore from the time Bwog comments made the New York Times.

I dropped by the University Unity Forum on a whim, with the initial goal of walking away with free pastries. But as I read the discussion questions that the council had laid out, my reactions from last spring were suddenly vivid again. “Were you surprised by the outbreak of comments and attitudes that were expressed, or did you think they were to be expected?” As someone who had been reading those comments for years, no, I was not surprised.

During the brief discussion, such pessimism seemed to be common. People wanted things to change, but weren’t holding out much hope, or weren’t sure how to change them. We expressed many opinions and emotions regarding Obamanard, but ultimately drew few conclusions.

And indeed, it’s difficult to know what conclusions to draw. Several issues are at stake here. Of course, the sexist nature of many of the comments during Obamanard is to be condemned, but blatant prejudice is a pernicious problem throughout anonymous Internet culture. On a personal level, what is at stake for students here is identification.

When we reach college, we are still in the process of constructing our identities. As first-years, we must adjust to new surroundings and new challenges while figuring out who we want to be, both for ourselves and for others. The institution we attend becomes part of our identity, whether in a positive, negative, or neutral way. Figuring out who we are in relation to our school is part and parcel of attending a particular institution.

And for Columbia and Barnard students, this can be complicated. Columbia students, to an extent, have a choice about whether to use Barnard as an element of their institutional identification. Some regard Barnard as a quirk of Columbia, neither good nor bad, or even wholly good. Some peg Barnard as the inferior institution to confirm their superiority ... and then they comment on Bwog. Some maintain this hierarchy in their heads without voicing it, perhaps more than we realize.
Barnard students, however, have less of a choice. Columbia is the recognizable name, so even if a Barnard student introduces herself off campus, she often has to clarify, “It’s part of Columbia.” If she’s like me, her major is essentially at Columbia, and most of her faculty network there. The Obamanard debacle left students on both sides of Broadway with less of a choice about acknowledging the other institution.

In my first two years at Barnard, frustrated by the attitudes I perceived through Bwog comments and with my general inability to find a niche within either institution, I sought to construct an identity separate from both Barnard and Columbia. I told people that I was from Barnard, but that I “wasn’t like” other Barnard girls. Even as I disowned my college, however, I felt alienated from Columbia, wondering whether people I met were placing me in that hierarchy in their heads. When I studied abroad, I was finally freed from my self-imposed isolation. Then I returned to Barnard, and to the Obamanard debacle.

Strangely enough, the firestorm over those particular Bwog comments prompted me to finally embrace Barnard. If I’d written this column then, it would have been an impassioned condemnation of sexism and elitism. Despite all of my efforts to identify myself as separate from my institution, when Barnard was attacked, I felt attacked. Suddenly, I realized that vitriol toward Barnard, on the part of both Columbia students and myself, was ludicrous and just plain wrong.

However, it’s difficult to find it ludicrous for underclassmen trying to figure out who they are. Columbia is inscribed on the Barnard identity, for better or for worse. As well as determining what Columbia is to them, Barnard students must determine what they are to Columbia. Columbia students too are in the process of identity construction, and sometimes Barnard plays a negative role in that process. The separation of our institutions invites comparison, and thus it is difficult to imagine how meaningful unity could happen.

But just because we find it hard to draw conclusions doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s doubtful that we’ll overcome negativity between our schools tomorrow, or even next year. But Obamanard and its aftertaste prove that a negative relationship affects students in both schools. As long as our institutions are affiliated, we should make a continued effort to interrogate that relationship on both sides of the street. Events like the University Unity Forum are a start, but the dialogue must be sustained to have any effect.

Cecille de Laurentis is a Barnard College senior majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures. Modest Proposals runs alternate Fridays.


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