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.