Opinion | Op-eds

Legacies of trauma

At University President Lee Bollinger’s fireside chat, I tried to explain the contradiction in the way we talk about affirmative action. Belief in affirmative action stems from the conviction that Black and Brown people are counted for claims of diversity and progress. At the same time, though, our traumas and needs are systematically ignored. While Columbia is heralded as a symbol of progress and diversity in higher education, many students of color are forced to get through depression after depression at this university. We must ask ourselves why this is. What personal trauma do we bring to the University when coming here? What trauma is inherited by a history of violence against our communities of color?

I want to make it clear that I am not talking about all students of color. I know many students of color who are content here—particularly those students who have had access to predominantly white private schools or well-off public schools near rich, predominantly white neighborhoods. In a similar vein, many upper-class international students of color cannot relate to the struggles that many poor people of color go through in this country. This could mean growing up in a heavily policed neighborhood with racist practices targeting black and Latino youth or going to an overcrowded school that does not have the resources to meet the needs of its students. 

However, the stories of students for whom affirmative action was created are often quite different.

I was the first one in my high school in Southern California—which was composed predominantly of students of color—to get into Columbia. I applied early decision without having left the West Coast, hoping that I could feel free in New York City as a gay person and escape the slurs and personal trauma of being one of five out gay kids in a school of over 3,000. My idea of being gay—and the misconception that in order to be queer I had to sever myself from my family and community—came from a completely white-washed idea of the LGBT community, one influenced by the mainstream: Lady Gaga, Dan Savage, and a misconstrued historicization of the Stonewall Riot that ignores the crucial role of transwomen of color such as Sylvia Rivera.

As my first full week in New York came to an end, I realized that the freedom of gayness I looked for when I left California was unrealistic. I remember calling my friend back home, sobbing in the dark on the floor of my Hartley single filled with sorrow and deep regret that I left my friends and family 3,000 miles away. The extreme culture shock I felt didn’t leave until my sophomore year, after I had already discussed the possibility of dropping out or transferring to a school in California with my adviser and Counseling and Psychological Services therapists. My depression became so intense that I stopped being able to believe that I would feel anything other than the giant void growing in me.

The main reasons I didn’t drop out or transfer was that, after living in Q House my sophomore year and helping to rebuild Proud Colors(our organization for queer people of color), my depression temporarily calmed down, and I was able to continue my existence on this campus.

Many of my friends have had similar experiences. Since my time here, I’ve known more than six students of color, most of them queer, that have had to take medical leaves for depressionand many more, myself included, who battle with on-and-off depression and anxiety. The overwhelming amount of people of color, especially queer people of color, who are currently going through or getting over depression and anxiety on this campus goes to show that this is a systemic issue that should not be seen as a problem that an individual has to face alone.

How can we piece together the causes of this systematic depression of students of color? We have to challenge history to understand these complex issues because part of the ongoing mental and physical colonization of people of color is denying us our history and making our stories and pain invisible or irrelevant.

Do the Core and the University acknowledge our existence and our resistance enough, or at all? How are we to survive these legacies of trauma while ignoring the history of genocide and enslavement on this continent, the history of this campus, and the pain we inherit as people of color.

We must address the legacies of trauma that students of color carry with us before we can begin to heal our communities on this campus. 

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in Latino studies. He is the gender and sexuality chair of Chicano Caucus and the co-chair of Queer Awareness Month.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com. 

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Anonymous posted on

Thanks for writing this. I hope we listen.

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Mariah posted on

This is awesome, and so true. Thank you for adding more clarity to this issue.

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Confused posted on

First off, you frame the piece making the main issue students of color, although from your argument, it seems like the problems you and your friends face stem from income disparity and questions of sexual identity. From your narrative, your depression came from being far away from home, and from your sexual orientation. I can see where being a student of color could have created some conflict, but you don't explain how being a student of color at Columbia specifically causes alienation or "a systematic depression." Also, you still don't propose what the university should do to help students of color, which was the entire response by both Bollinger and Valentini. Saying things like the university must "acknowledge" or "address" or "challenge" these issues doesn't really help, although it sounds nice in theory. The first half of the column was interesting, but the second half should've been spent addressing real ways that the university can make a difference. It seems that for you, it meant joining communities where you found support.

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Anonymous posted on

As if sexual identity and income disparity don't intersect with our experiences as people of color? Someone who is low income and queer does not experience life in the same way as someone who is low income, queer, AND yes, a person of color.

"it seems like the problem" yo, here's the thing though. You don't have to conjecture about this. Here's someone telling you very plainly and very clearly what the problem IS. I would ask you, and everyone else who thumbed up your comment, why your first instinct is to discredit the words of this article rather than listening.

I would ask yourself to question why your first reaction is to discredit the words of this article rather than to shut up and listen. For once.

As for the criticism that Romo doesn't provide real solutions, that a) doesn't discredit his criticisms of this institution and b) is not his job. People are paid a ridiculous amount of money to run this school. If a segment of the population is systemically experiencing depression and anxiety, then those who I speak of are not going their job.

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Anonymous posted on

I do not think the author's problem is Columbia. The author clearly has serious psychiatric problems that pre-date his arrival at this university. The author would have had similar problems at any university.

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straight white student posted on

Did you really just write him off as crazy? I think you missed the point. Columbia is known for being a progressive and accepting place. Many students here find that the university falls short of its reputation. Perhaps he would have encountered similar problems at another university. These are all not Columbia specific issues. That doesn't mean Columbia shouldn't address its own structural problems that have resulted in so much hurt and hardship for queer people of color and other groups.

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Anonymous posted on

He seems to suffer from the psychiatric condition called major depression. This is a very serious medical problem. Please do not use the word "crazy".
I am not "writing him off". I am just explaining that if indeed he has major depressive illness, then he will have the problem at any school he goes to.

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Anonymous posted on

If you don't want me to gather that you think he's crazy, I would also advise you to choose your words more carefully. Serious psychiatric condition has a much different connotation than depression, even if there is overlap there.

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Anonymous posted on

Major depression is a very serious psychiatric condition. It is the cause of many deaths. The author seems to be saying that he has suffered numerous bouts of major depression. My point is that he has an illness. The illness has nothing to do with Columbia. He would have had this illness at any college he went to.

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Anonymous posted on

I understand that it is an illness. However, to say that Columbia has no effects on that illness is to deny that environmental factors play any role in depression. Yes, he has experienced depression before, but there were environmental factors at play then too.

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More confused posted on

This is an incredibly lazy and problematic way of thinking. I said in my comment that I'm sure people of color face conflict, and I also completely agree that there is intersectionality between various identities such as race, sexual orientation, and income. This doesn't excuse the op-ed from being poorly written, because it's his job, as the author of the op-ed making this argument, to actually explain the argument. He explains perfectly adequately where his depression stemmed from income disparity and his sexual orientation. Yet, he didn't include where as a student of color, he faced racism or oppression (and again, not doubting that he did). This isn't an attack on his claim, it's an attack on his ability to write a well-argued opinion piece. He told me very plainly and very clearly WHAT the problem is, but not WHY the problem exists, and not HOW to deal with the problem, which frankly is his job, and should be the talked about more clearly in the article. For those who can change the system to better help people like Romo, they need to understand what is wrong with the system, and what should be changed.

I'm not trying to discredit his words, and frankly, it's absurd that you would tell me to shut up and listen, because what I'm trying to do is listen and understand even more. I don't understand why you would attack me for asking completely legitimate questions, and I think it's very representative of the problems with the discourse on identity that happen at Columbia. Just because you write a piece about your experience as a person of color, or a queer person, or a low-income person, does not make you impervious to criticism and dialogue.

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Anonymous posted on

i love this- thank you for writing it- i share some of the same experiences but could never articulate it in the way you have!

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Anonymous posted on

I don't get the point of this article. Obviously going across the country wasn't going to solve ignorance. All of us feel home sick at one time or another. Of course poverty is a huge issue, as well as racism, and homophobia. But you don't provide any examples of what the university should be doing more of, meanwhile, you provide great examples of what it is already doing- fostering community with organizations like QHouse which just got a brownstone, and providing psychological services for all students. Look around you, those "rich white kids" are usually going through depression and alienation of their own, albeit under different circumstances. This Us vs Them mentality simply perpetuates the divide.

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Tre posted on

While I'm not a student at Columbia, I am an acquaintance of the author and I have been following these articles pertaining to what your University President had said at his "Fireside Chat." Firstly, I am a mixed-race, gay person, though most cannot discern my multi-ethnic heritage, so I am perceived to be white--a word that has taken on it's own connotation over the years in arguments such as these. I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Southern California, and moved to New York for college--much like the author. I too have had bouts with depression and anxiety that stem from many different sources, from my homosexuality (sexual and social aspects thereof) to my financial wellbeing as a young adult (just wait for those student loans--you thought being IN college was difficult), and I have fought many a fight for the Latino and LGBT communities. To group all "people of color" (I understand the author means everyone who is not--for lack of a better word--WASPy--White Anglo-Saxon Protestant for those of you kids who don't know, though you should know, you go to Columbia) together and say that their depression stems from their being a person of color or that another group of people is being treated for their struggle with depression while the other group is ignored and left to suffer is a little unfair without using concrete evidence of this. Is it a problem that kids are suffering from depression at school and is it the administrations responsibility to address and to try and eliminate the situation? Yes. Is it fair to make gay people and non-white people feel or appear to be any more disenfranchised than they already are? No. By not proposing solutions to the problems that afflict us we only sit on the sidelines crying that our team is losing and screaming at the coach to fix the problem as opposed to getting our asses on the field and making plays. I think (again, I THINK) the issue at hand has a lot more to do with support from within the student body than from the administration. It is our duty as human beings on this planet to empower each other, especially those who are less fortunate. Someone with a chemical imbalance who has to fight depression on a daily basis needs the support of his or her peers, and programs within the school (guidance counselors, school psychologists, etc.) should be provided as a free resource for all students. The creation of Q House is a great step in the right direction for the support of LGBT students at Columbia, and more resources and organizations like it should probably be started (and funded by the school) to create a more welcoming and empowering environment for those who have spent the better part of their life being targets of hate or ambivalence because of their ethnicity or sexuality. If one hasn't experienced it personally, believe me, it is impossible to understand the feeling. Though I feel like using a term like "a white-washed idea of the LGBT community" is hurtful and a little untrue. Granted, yes the media has unfortunately in recent years been overwhelmed by people who exploit the gay community for their own gain, even going as far as to falsely claim things like bisexuality and grandstanding themselves as proponents of marriage equality for exposure (Lady Gaga), and by insensitive left-wing nut jobs like Dan Savage who give a very fantastical approach to gay issues like "it gets better" (which often times it does not) or that staying in the closet hurts our community; and it's instances like these where we need to have more people with real solutions to the problems they see and not just an acute ability to see the problems that plague us. I don't agree with the sentiment that the Stonewall Riots (or my favorite adaptation--Stonewall Rebellion--no le pegue la tranny--my Joe Arroyo fans should appreciate that) has been somehow misconstrued as an all white riot/demonstration--it is very classically told (though unfortunately never proven, due to lack of coverage of the situation) that Marsha P. Johnson, a black transvestite started the fight against the officers of the 6th precinct. Though, I think Gerardo Romo is a great role-model for those currently enrolled (and some in administration) in higher-education who haven't experienced things like discrimination or depression that stems from ethnic or sexual oppression--people like Mr. Romo are very important in our world because they see the issues that affect us deeply and have a passion to fix them, but understand this: these problems don't stop at your campus's gates--they never will unless people heed the warning signs that Mr. Romo is trying to bring to light. The only thing I would ask that he be careful about is making it SOLEY a plight of the non-white LGBT community--everybody suffers, and everybody should be helped, no exceptions: that's equality.

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Tre posted on

administration's job** (dammit I knew there would be an error)

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You voted '-1'.
Alma Mater Got Me Fucked Up posted on

Gerardo is very brave to share his personal experiences and outline a very real and painful problem at Columbia. Although the "Alma Mater got me fucked up" opinion is not all that original--it's basically the basis of the entire Spectator opinion page.

It seems to me that the words "race," "queer," and "systematic" really polarize this campus. They have broadly characterized student actions since well before last April's hate crime incident and seem to drown out words like "class," "inequality," and "opportunity." While I am thankful that Gerardo has made such a powerful and well-considered statement, as a "student of color" from Oakland, California I am so sick of the self-righteous language of critique that gives subaltern people a monopoly on injustice. By defining "systematic" injustices in terms of sexual and "racial" identities we undermine the grievances of other members of our community. That is unethical.

So we should absolutely listen to Gerardo--he has some very important things to say. However, by inserting his voice into the Opinion page, he has put his argument and the assumptions it rests upon onto the table for debate.

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Anonymous posted on

But specifically, what should everyone else do to make life easier for you/students of color?

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CC14 posted on

As a queer PoC from a low-income neighborhood, I can attest that this has NOT been my experience at Columbia. This article is just full of generalizations made from a very selective experience.

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Anonymous posted on

"I want to make it clear that I am not talking about all students of color."

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CC14 posted on

...But then he goes on to say that this is most likely the case because the queer PoC went to a predominantly white high school or was raised in an upper-class white neighborhood. A generalization. This was not the case with me.

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Anonymous posted on

He doesn't say that if someone disagrees it's *because* they have class privilege/etc, he says that if someone disagrees it *tends to be* (aka it is "predominantly") for that reason. So let's say any racism/homophobia/classism/____-ism that you've experienced hasn't contributed to your sense of worthlessness, or you have a great support system, or even that you haven't experienced any at all. That's wonderful! That's ideal. All he's saying is that that isn't typically the case for a significant portion of students who are at the crossroads of multiple "minority" identities. Your experience otherwise does not contradict that.

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Anonymous posted on

This is absolutely fantastic and I applaud you for your deep transparency, authenticity and openness to speaking about the minority experience. Thank you for reminding us that just ignoring the pain that makes up our racial identity is not benefitting anybody, but rather we should address this pain and used it as an opportunity to confront our past and see how it shapes our present. Please stay strong as Columbia is only 4 years, and remember that thankfully, the rest of the world does NOT operate at "Columbia speed" rather there ARE people who want to love, care, embrace and understand. This is not the end. Your journey truly is an inspiration.

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Anonymous posted on

When I was in my teens, I was blissfully ignorant about how others thought of me. When I was in my twenties, I became aware of how others thought of me, and it made me angry and vengeful. When I was in my thirties, my awareness remained and I had figured out how to get back at them. When I was in my forties, my awareness remained but I had learned to dismiss their points of view. When I was in my fifties, I came to realize that nobody cared how I thought, felt, or acted - not really. People are too busy minding their own business. And now, after I have moved on in years, I myself do not care about how I think or feel, because I am just not that affected by these things any more. In any case, when I was in my teens and twenties at Columbia, those hormone driven whirlwinds were secondary to my mission in life: to learn, to participate, to engage, and to graduate. All the mollycoddling that Columbia gives to her students of today blow my mind. It produces depressed and self-absorbed youngsters such as the one who wrote this article. Young man (or young woman, or I suppose I should say young perdaughtress), the administrators at Columbia are just punching their tickets with you, as they do with everybody else. The cure for your depression lies within yourself. If you want their real attention, play football for Columbia and assault other students. Then you become their prince or princess.

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