Northwestern University on whole is a testament to many things, one of which is the fact that diversity and inclusivity are far from synonymous. In just the past two years, there have been eggs thrown, taunts shouted, insensitivity displayed, effigies hung and marches held, all amounting to one surface-level conclusion: There's a lot of work to be done when it comes to integrating the student body at all levels.
Consequently, it didn't come as a surprise when late Saturday evening, the University distributed a letter written by ASG President Ani Ajith, his executive vice president Alex Van Atta, and four current and former Alianza presidents urging Northwestern students to "[honor] the tradition of El Cinco de mayo with appropriate, tasteful and respectful celebration."
After briefly explaining the commonly misconceived history of El cinco de mayo, the authors insisted, "Drinking tequila shots, eating tacos, and wearing sombreros do not commemorate Mexican culture; on the contrary, that offends, marginalizes, and isolates many of our friends, classmates, and community members, and casts our entire community in poor light."
Needless to say, it did come as a surprise to me and several of my fellow Wildcats to see Hinman Dining Hall decked out in red, white, and green decorations and, most strikingly, a fair portion of the staff wearing sombreros.
This is what the email was supposed to correct, right?
Ajith, Van Atta and all who helped contribute to the email did exactly what they were supposed to do by identifying the potential problems, giving a cultural context and giving a suggestion in Alianza's Fuego Bonfire in how to celebrate respectfully. Ajith and Van Atta likely had nothing to do with the decorations in Hinman, and to suggest that they or any members of ASG had anything to do with them is premature and unwarranted. I, a white male whose Hispanic heritage is confined to several ancestors from Spain, am by no means qualified to speak on whether or not what I saw in Hinman was offensive.
However, there was one thing I saw in Hinman that most anybody could take away: A clear dissonance between what the email suggested and what was happening in practice.
I am not an expert in racial or cultural relations, and neither are the vast majority of faculty members, employees and students. But that is exactly where the problem lies. We as a student body have proven time and time again that we are incapable of reconciling such a tenuous and complicated issue on our own, so naturally we have looked to our administration and student leadership for support. Unfortunately, we have failed to receive a clear message or notable, outlined progress in return.
This isn't a matter of President Schapiro enacting a resolution that brings everyone together in one happy family or Ajith starting a student-run cultural symposium on Deering Meadow. This isn't a problem that can be solved by a rally at The Rock, a lawsuit or an ASG petition. The only thing that is clear is that this problem exists, it is multi-faceted and it will take a lot of time and a lot of work to diminish it.
However, one thing that the administration can and must do is work to create consistency between what they say and what students see. Educating the student body goes hand in hand with this. But how would this play out in terms of El Cinco de mayo?
To start, a university-sponsored event on the history of the holiday and the way it is celebrated would help students understand just why the day is important and explain which things would be appropriate and inappropriate to do. ASG, Alianza and administrators could meet with University Dining officials to talk about appropriate ways to extend this celebration into dining halls – ways that don't contradict what ASG asks of students. These are merely a few of the several ways the university could work toward improving the culture of disunity that prevails on this campus.
Until measures like these are taken, more questions than answers will prevail, such as why the same courtesy wasn't extended St. Patrick's Day, how feasible is unifying the Northwestern student body and whether or not the administration really takes these issues seriously.
There is no quick fix for the chronic cultural dissonance on this campus. However, by outlining a clear, consistent path to follow, our student and administrative leaders must take the lead. We've proven we cannot do it on our own, and when messages from the top get muddled in the middle, the end result will only exacerbate the problem.