Thursday, June 30, 2011

#SUvid and the Issue of Identity

During my siblings' very recent graduation, I had quite a long time to reflect on a local issue that has made national news in the past week: the #suvid.

In a quick summary of the event, an SU student of Asian heritage posted a video of a Caucasian student who was quite clearly intoxicated screaming racial and homophobic slurs at him that he videotaped the night before. Soon after posting it to youtube (it's since been taken down) the video went viral and spiraled a large amount of criticism of @SyracuseU and a debate about existing racial and community issues within the SU community.

Much of the criticism revolved around questions of the efforts that the university made to foster community and belonging for all students, staff and faculty of all races, religions and other differentiating backgrounds. Many remarks alluded to the very distinct separations between the various communities on campus, which are very much, through their own election, racially and belief system segregated.

This begs the question how does a university, an administration, or a body of students build a community with such largely diverse backgrounds? How do you foster community?

All of these events happening simultaneously for me: my siblings graduation from my high school, following the #suvid discussion and story unfold, and discussing these issues over dinner with friends brought me back to my highschool community.

I graduated in a class of approximately 650 students from Liverpool High School. Our class was hailed throughout the district, under the new administration, as one that helped build the High School community and gave Liverpool students the unifying sense of identity that they had been missing for a long time. Although, when I was there I bought into this as it was a contagious feeling and spirit to be apart of, ultimately, looking back on it in light of the #suvid there were some very distinct lines drawn between groups that often went unnoticed.

The most expounding example of this, I found in my yearbook from my senior year. In my math class senior year there was an African American girl (who for the purposes of anonymity I will call Jen) who I sat with the entire year. Jen was on the track team, was an excellent student and a person who I shared more laughs with then math related discussion. When it came time to sign yearbooks at the end of the year my yearbook, like many others, was passed around the room and signed with notes of affection and mementos of our time spent together. Jen left me a wonderfully sweet message talking about the great times we had in class together and wishing me luck at Syracuse the following year. She then signed it
Your Friend,

Jen (the Black girl)

At the time I'm not even sure I noticed it, but looking back on it now, I realize how profound that signature really is. Clearly Jen, who I thought of no different then any of my other friends of classmates, identified herself very differently with our classmates, and even myself, from the way I did.

And despite the fact that our class was receiving district wide recognition for building a positive and enlightened Liverpool Community and Identity at the High School, here this very stark piece of evidence was that, in fact, this community and more importantly identity wasn't as solidified as it was thought to be. I question though, if in Jen's shoes, how would I have not identified the same way she did?

The most recent demographics for Liverpool High School show that only 13.27% of the entire student body (2711 students) are of an ethnic minority, which means there is an astounding 86.73% of the population that is caucasian.

How can someone in a community so predominately homogenous not draw these distinctions when attempting to define their identity?

In a community like LHS where you are, approximately, 1 in every 10 students, it's hard not to notice your differences. However, if you are in a community like SU where ethnic minority students are 4 in every 10 students, (SyracuseU Demographics) and the demographics are such that there are the differences don't cause a single person to stand out, but these distinctions continue to exists, then what is it that causes these identities to form and continue to develop in the way they do.

We as individuals feel the need to differentiate, to draw lines in the sand. It helps us discover and learn who we are, to build an identity. If it is our innate instinct to build an original identity, one that can often be celebrated in our traditions and heritages, then how do we form a common identity or community with which to identify? If we accept that not all line drawing is bad, but that these very strong distinctions and differentiations are drawn and made between communities at large or small institutions like SyracuseU or LHS then how do we move forward and build an institutional society where incidents, such as #suvid, don't happen?