Dr. Jelani Cobb, an American writer, author and educator, spoke as part of the University’s Presidential Lecture Series on Monday, Oct. 28.
During the lecture, Cobb discussed microaggressions and the pursuit of equity in the U.S. He has been an Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Journalism School since 2016 and a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2015, where he covers race, politics, history and culture.
“Our conversation focuses on a topic of extreme importance,” Interim President Michael Bernstein said at the lecture. “Being on a campus as diverse as ours and understanding the psychological and physical effects of microaggressions is important.”
Dr. Jarvis Watson, Interim Chief Diversity Officer, added that picking Dr. Cobb as a Presidential Speaker was part of the Stony Brook University Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, published in May 2016. The Diversity Plan aims to improve inclusivity on campus and includes the goal to invite more speakers who will “cover concepts of inclusion and anti-bias in campus lecture series events.”
“We realized we needed to do something on a presidential level and we wanted someone who brought the message and set the tone,” Watson said.
Cobb opened up the lecture with a remark on the connection between college campuses and issues in the outside world.
“College campuses are a microcosm of the problems we see outside in the world,” he said. “If we had any questions about this, it became impossible to avoid this connection two years ago in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville.”
The “Unite the Right” rally occurred on Aug. 12, 2017 in the college town of Charlottesville. Hundreds of white nationalists and their supporters gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s Lee Park. The rally led to violence between protestors, counter-protestors and the police — including swinging, punching and pepper spraying — ultimately leading to three deaths and about 34 injuries.
Cobb spoke about the accusations and violent clashes that occurred on the University of Virginia’s campus following the rally, and how they were an effect of the acts of hatred and racism that occurred off the campus. He believes that microaggressions and hate crimes happen often on college campuses, showing the connection between what occurs within campuses and outside of the campuses. Cobb shared that he wasn’t surprised to see the same kind of problems occurring nationwide also occurring on college campuses.
“In the aftermath [of the rally] we were forced to question the relationship between freedom of expression and signs of oppression,” Cobb said.
Cobb used the Charlottesville tragedy as an anecdote to demonstrate the overall rise of hate crimes and acts of racial bigotry across the U.S.
According to the 2017 Hate Crime Statistics from the FBI, hate crime reports were up about 17% from 2016 to 2017 with more than 7,100 hate crimes reported, marking a rise for the third year in a row. There were increases in attacks motivated by racism, religious bias and homophobia. Specifically, there was about a 23% increase in religion-based hate crimes and a 37% spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes, according to reports from both years.
“We have seen all of these things spike with a general increase of these dynamics in our broader society,” Cobb said.
Cobb spoke about encountering underrepresented students when he travels, who voice feelings of isolation and being left out on their campuses.
“I always have similar conversations that involve students who are minorities, whether based upon their race, religion, sexual or gender orientation,” he said. “People tell me they feel isolated and it’s not a community that welcomes them.”
He explained that students tend to feel isolated due to instances involving implicit bias or implicit ideas, which are any unconsciously-held set of associations that a person has about a social group. According to Cobb, many students would not feel at home when they were on campus.
“It’s a fundamental problem because when we look at our institutions they were not as diverse in their history,” Cobb said.
Cobb frequently deals with microaggressions himself. For instance, when he was in college, the first thing people used to ask when they met him was what position he played on the football team. He always responded with: “I’m an English major.” Cobb didn’t play football.
He felt people immediately assumed he was on campus solely to be a football player due to his race and size. In making these assumptions, people didn’t give Cobb a chance to introduce himself as a student.
“They assumed that because I was large, I played football, and if I played, I was dumb,” Cobb said. “They thought I was there because of affirmative action or a specialized program and at some point, I started to question that presumption.”
More than 25 years after he graduated from high school and only a few months after 9/11, Cobb was on an airplane going from Atlanta to New York when a man with a long beard wearing a tunic boarded the plane. As the man walked down the aisle, Cobb felt tension build in the people around him.
Cobb looked over at him and asked where he was from to see if he knew him from the high school he attended in Queens, which is the most diverse county in the nation.
“I asked that question to know if he was in the same breakdance crew as me back in high school and he was,” Cobb said. “What that meant was I saw the best breakdancer I knew when I was 17, not a Muslim or terrorist.”
After the reconnection, Cobb shared that people around him showed signs of relief for their safety. The two high school friends were able to talk during the plane ride and share memories with one another.
As microaggressions have been proven to have a psychological and emotional toll on its victims, Cobb shared that isolation is one of the main reasons why students of color leave universities.
He explained the best way to avoid microaggressions would be to remain open-minded when curiosity strikes about another person’s culture.
“Fundamentally, be an ally and a supporter. We need to have that willingness to understand where other people are coming from,” Cobb said. “It’s also necessary to support and understand where the people in your community are coming from.”
Cobb went on to explain that although the words “diversity” and “inclusion” are typically grouped together, there is a big difference between them. Diversity is simply having a diverse group of people in one area, whereas inclusion is including everyone in that diverse group and learning about each other, which ultimately leads to equity.
Emmanuel Pointdujour, a senior technological management systems major, said he could relate when Cobb spoke about diversity and inclusion being two different things.
“It’s hard to find a community that includes people like me because a normal campus culture is to be stable in academics, but sometimes it’s hard to find a home away from home because of that,” he said. Although Pointdujour saw diversity on campus when he first matriculated, he said he didn’t see any inclusion.
Cobb said that in order to have actual equity and inclusion at a college campus, the institution can no longer cater only to the majority.
“You have to restrip it and make it something else, which equals democracy, not just diversifying,” he said. When a college campus wasn’t originally built on diversity, Cobb believes the institution has to first be rebuilt and begin from the beginning, instead of simply creating a diverse population.
According to Cobb, microaggressions become the effect of campuses not being inclusive because people don’t gain exposure to other types of people if they aren’t including one another. Cobb covered the two types of microaggressions: when the attacker is aware and when they are unaware of the harm they are causing. In terms of responding to microaggressions, Cobb told the audience to learn how to pick their battles.
“These dynamics serve to ultimately distract you from the things that are most important, which is what you want to get accomplished,” he said. “It’s a means of trying to bring you back to square one.”
He emphasized to not let the aggressor know they have gotten to you and to keep doing the work that you are doing.
“Pick your battles because you don’t always want to be in the position when you’re against the person,” Cobb said. “Personally, I think it’s important to raise things that leave the possibility of resolution. I believe in operating in good faith until people give you a reason not to.”
Johnny Tranquile, a 52-year-old Brooklyn resident, said the lecture was a learning experience for him. He came to the event to find out more about what microaggressions are.
“The fact that he spoke about personal experiences that everyone could relate to makes it pretty powerful,” he said.