Grappling with the challenges of diversity and inclusion on college campuses and throughout the nation, author and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb delivered the Presidential Lecture to an engaged and enthusiastic crowd on October 29 in Stony Brook’s Student Activities Center
In a talk entitled “Microaggressions and the Pursuit of Equity,” Cobb delved into the issues raised by commonplace daily exchanges that — intentionally or unintentionally — communicate hostile, derogatory or negative prejudicial attitudes toward marginalized groups.
“There are microaggressions that are errors of omission, things that you don’t know which we make oversights about, which we’re all capable of,” Cobb said. “It’s important to consider where the person is coming from when they do something that crosses a cultural boundary in a particularly awkward way.”
Introducing Cobb, Stony Brook Interim President Michael A. Bernstein noted that microaggressions have become a significant topic of conversation and debate on college and university campuses.
“Understanding the profound psychosocial, emotional, and even physical effects of microaggressions is especially important, on our campus and across the country,” Dr. Bernstein said.
Cobb opened his remarks with a reflection on the current state of American morality and politics.
“We live at a point in time in which we can talk about the oldest constitutional democracy, having actual debates about whether or not we should be able to separate children from their parents at the border,” he said. “We have actual debates on whether or not we should prohibit people entering the country based upon the religion that they practice. And the most basic tenets of what we believe to be civil stability and decency are up for grabs. It’s not surprising that we see the same sorts of conflicts manifest themselves on college campuses.”
Cobb said college campuses are a microcosm of the institutions of the broader society in which we live. The problems that we see out in the world incubate on college campuses.
“I talk in a lot of different places, and I talk a lot about race,” Cobb said. “I’m all over, and I find a striking degree of commonality everywhere that I go.”
“I have a similar set of conversations involving students who are either a minority based upon their religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, and what I get is: ‘I feel isolated in this place. I feel like I’m here, but I’m a visitor. I feel like this is not a community that really welcomes me.’”
Although college campuses are too often the site of such racial misunderstandings, Cobb said, they are also fundamental to healing the breach. He encouraged community members to actively engage with people from different backgrounds.
“A university is one of the best institutions for this to happen,” he said. “Universities and the military bring lots of different people together with the opportunity to interact with them.”
“Be open-minded and mindful of how you would feel being on the opposite side of this interaction,” he said. “And, fundamentally, be an ally and a supporter and a defender.”
— Robert Emproto