Cornell University officials acted instantly when an honoree at an event used a word considered by many to be offensive. Many present were upset but praised the university for not ignoring what happened.
The article below, from Inside Higher Ed, details steps taken by the university to address the issue. We believe you’ll also find the comments below the article to be of equal interest.
At a time of heightened scrutiny of racial sensitivity by American colleges and their efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming of minority students, Cornell University is getting high marks for its handling of a recent incident that initially upset and angered black alumni and students.
During a dinner event at the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference in Boston last Friday, Paul Blanchard, an active alumnus from the Class of 1952 and loyal booster of Cornell athletics, was given an award for being an “outstanding class leader.” During his acceptance speech, Blanchard said that Satchel Paige was one of his heroes and referred to the famed baseball pitcher as a “Negro” and added, “Now they call them blacks.”
Heads turned and mouths dropped, said John Rawlins III, president of the Cornell Black Alumni Association. “It was kind of shocking.”
Rawlins was not at the event, which was first reported by The Cornell Daily Sun, but he was getting a stream of phone and text-message updates throughout the evening from association members who were at the dinner. He said several black alumni in the room told him they exchanged knowing glances, as if to say, “Did you hear that? Did he really just say what we think he said?”
It was a cringe-worthy moment that turned a “usually lighthearted conference” into something else.
“There was disappointment, sadness, anger or all of the above depending on who you ask,” Rawlins said. “The notion that this would be voiced over the microphone was shocking.”
Wilma Ann Anderson, the black alumni association’s vice president for student relations, was among those at the award dinner who were very disappointed by the comments.
“It was one of those moments when I wondered, is this one of those bubbles that will float up in the air and pop far away, or will it pop right here and have to be dealt with in a swift manner,” she said. “Sometimes bubbles flow away and we don’t catch them. That one did not float away, and I was gratified not only for myself but for others in the room who were impacted by the statement.”
Anderson said she didn’t recall ever hearing the word “Negro” until she was an adult.
“So when I grew to understand what the context of it was and the context in which the word was born, it made more sense to me why people would take offense,” she said. “‘Negro’ was not a term of endearment, even though it was racial categorization — it was not a term for people who were highly regarded. I think everyone who has the ability to be aware of that context should be sensitive to it and respectful of it.”
Instead of ignoring what Blanchard said, or trying to brush over or minimize it, as some other institutions have done when speakers made controversial or offensive comments, the event organizers from the Office of Alumni Affairs addressed it head-on.
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