Yesterday, the Columbia School of Journalism hosted a two-hour long discussion on “The American Dream” in the context of modern democracy — a broad topic of conversation that could cover anything from immigration to belonging. Wooed by the prospect of knowledgeable speakers, open debate, and free lunch, Staff Writer Asya Sagnak dutifully skipped a midterm revision session to check it out.
“Awakening Our Democracy” was the first installation in a new conversation series on the race, ethnicity, and justice issues at the forefront of America’s consciousness. Held in Pulitzer Hall, the event featured a wide array of speakers from different backgrounds: TED Fellow and vocal Muslim-American comedian Negin Farsad, Columbia University Assistant Professor Van C. Tran, and Dream Action Coalition Co-Director Cesar Vargas, with Al Jazeera analyst Duarte Geraldino serving as curator. Although the title of the lecture prioritized democracy, the speakers were very clearly focused on current attitudes towards immigration — how have they evolved with time? How does language impact our point of view? Armed with personal experiences of injustice, they provided us with an understanding of not only different forms of oppression but also different strategies to combat that oppression in our day-to-day lives.
Farsad started the discussion with a simple statement: “So… guess who just crushed the MTA?” Her excitement was clearly uncontainable, and she waved her arms around her head as she elaborated on the federal lawsuit she had recently won against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. As an avid “social justice comedian” (a term Farsad uses to label those like herself who seek political action through the use of satire), Farsad tried to counter Islamophobic subway advertisements by creating her own series of satirical response advertisements that aimed to normalize the word “Muslim” in American society. The day they were scheduled to go up, the MTA banned “political viewpoint messages” and rejected her proposal. Farsad sued over violation of her First Amendment freedoms.
“They proved our point,” she explained. “Our ads were meant to be about how everyday messages could be politicised or made violent just through the inclusion of the word “Muslim.” Examples of Farsad’s ads include posters saying The Ugly Truth About Muslims: They Make Great Frittata Recipes! and Fact: Muslims Invented Justin Timberlake. She went on to clarify: “Funny stuff, dirt bag comedian stuff – nothing charged. Either that, or I’ve missed some sort of recent food scandal, and frittatas are now a hot button political issue.”
Tran, on the other hand, prefered a method of political activism he called “one-on-one change.” This method places emphasis on personal relationships between immigrants and natural-born citizens and tries to eradicate the existence of a clear social boundary between the two groups. So, the problem arises from people of minority status being understood as a component of American life, but not actually being considered a component of America. “The way many people see it now, it’s us and then them,” Tran stated, his voice grave. “But if enough personal links are made between the two groups, the them will become the us — and there’s no way we would mistreat our own people.”
Out of all the speakers, Vargas was the most emotional, perhaps because he was the one to share some of the most personal experiences with the audience. “I’m an undocumented immigrant,” he stated, with a pause. “My mother walked across the desert with nothing but the clothes on her back just to get me here. How could I be ashamed of that?” His point is crucial, and under-emphasised in most conversations. Why does the word “immigrant” carry so much shame? Just like “Muslim,” it seems to be weighed down with an inherent stigma — a stigma that is used to pigeonhole very large and very varied populations into a reduced parody of themselves. As Vargas pointed out, immigrants are seen as inferiors even after they are granted citizenship, which negates the argument that they are scorned on legal grounds. It seems as if xenophobia in the United States runs rampant still, the irony of which was pointed out by Farsad, who laughed and challenged the audience with a question — “How many of you are really American? By that, I mean, how many of you are native American?”
As the lecture was coming to a close, the topic of immigrants within the Columbia community was brought up by a graduate student sitting in the front row, who identified herself as undocumented with a nod towards Vargas. The speakers seemed to agree on one key issue — immigrant or not, minority or not, we are all part of the Columbia University community, and that gives us a sense of belonging a lot of people don’t have access to. “It’s better here because you have to build connections with people from all across the world,” said Tran, “and with familiarity comes acceptance.”
From the perspective of an international student coming from a Muslim background, I couldn’t agree more — especially with the concluding points about acceptance at Columbia. Of course, that’s not to say that oppression is non-existent within the boundaries of campus. Far from it. As Farsad says: “People will always find a reason to discriminate. I was born here but I’ve been told to go back to my country multiple times.” But there is truth in how the University binds us all together — although we went through dramatically different processes to get here, each of us are here, sharing the same cultural experience of Morningside Heights. And hopefully, the administration’s push for more open discussion on the issue will only serve to further this on-campus integration.