Unlearning Institutionalized Racism with Sarah Adams-Cornell

By: Eli Saperstein  |  November 25, 2020

By Eli Saperstein, Staff Writer 

On Thursday, November 12, Sarah Adams-Cornell, an Indigenous Peoples activist, introduced herself at a Zoom event with the YU College Democrats in her native tongue and began to talk about her community’s experiences. She started us off with a history lesson, detailing the facts about how her community was targeted and manipulated by the United States government. Afterward, she transitioned to a back and forth question-and-answer style of discussion, paying homage to the traditional methods her tribe uses where everyone has a voice and is included in the learning process. 

Sarah began by telling us the story of her people and their experiences after the American government began the assimilation process. She described how education was the primary tool used to vilify their history, and destroy their love for their culture and self, as well as how the institutions supposedly dedicated to education were places of despair. How the students who were supposedly being “taught,” were being used in experiments — from withholding nutrition to experiments involving eugenics. When the children were brought to school, many, upon realizing that the purpose was not to educate but to re-educate, tried to escape and rejoin their tribes. Most did not make it, and there were cemeteries built on campus for those who died trying. She cited examples of how the education system, and many others, affect them to this day. Stereotypes originated from these institutions and their experiments, including the myth that people of color have a higher tolerance for pain. Today, this is used as an excuse to give patients of color less medication after surgery, since the “established medical practice” claims that they do not need as much. 

However, she did reassure us that the system need not be burned down in order for other schools of thought to exist; she and other activists have started their own school — an “Indigenous Hogwarts,” where the students’ identities are affirmed, not condemned, where they are taught traditional medicines, de-escalation practices, and their oral traditions. They can complete their studies in compliance with the law, as opposed to being forced underground (which they were until 1978 when they were finally “legalized”).

Adams-Cornell emphasized the importance of education, and how it is the key to a better life, saying, “everything is easier with an education.” However, she noted that the dropout rate in the Native American community is the highest. There are many reasons for this, but she stressed that “while education may help financially, it does not solve any other problem.” The system is designed to be harder for those of other cultures, specifically for those who are not used to the Western method of teaching. It is hard to learn from a system that paints you and your people as the villains. The American education system clearly has an agenda in mind with what they choose to teach. A paragraph dedicated to “The Trail of Tears,” vs. a chapter dedicated to “Manifest Destiny,” is an example of what the priorities of these institutions are — making America look like the hero of history while ignoring the importance of Native American views and history.

Adams-Cornell continued, explaining how universities were built on the eurocentric model that was considered to be superior, and how Manifest Destiny was a major principle in the foundation of these universities. However, these long-held beliefs are still held by many today. We were told about an experience that she had where an eighty-year-old woman came over to her on-campus asking why she was there. After telling her she was a student, Sarah was laughed at because the woman had thought that her people, “were not capable of higher learning.” 

Nowadays, every university promotes “diversity and inclusion,” but Adams-Cornell explained how this does not inherently solve anything. Merely gathering every ethnicity into the room ensures the room is diverse, but the power to make decisions is not held by diversity. It is held by the same few who have been making decisions the entire time. “Diversity and inclusion need to be paired with justice and transformation,” Adams-Cornell explained.

When asked what we can do to enact change on our campus, Adams-Cornell introduced us to the idea that the people in power are trying to de-radicalize demands, compromising on certain trivial issues without fixing the structural problems. She challenged us to see if, on the Yeshiva University website’s timeline, we could get a mention of the tribes who lived on the land we occupy — which for the Wilf Campus, was the Wappinger Munsee-Lenape tribe. The Beren Campus, on the other hand, rests solely on Munsee-Lenape land. 

Changing the method, Adams-Cornell asked us how we think we could solve the problems we are facing, challenging us to come up with our own solution about internalized racism. We came to a consensus: “Racism and hate is not something instinctive but something that is taught.” Adams-Cornell explained that starting young, by exposing kids to different cultures and different people, helps them to grow to be more open and welcoming. 

Adams-Cornell asked us about the future of our solutions saying, “[Those are things] we can do now but what is the endgame?” We answered that the solution is to stop the “picking and choosing,” based on race, and to look at everyone equally. We then asked her, “How do we stop the picking and choosing entirely?” 

Adams-Cornell answered that as the system stands today, education is not equitable, nor is it possible to make it equitable. The numbers among different ethnic groups are still not equal, and it will be 150 years for equitability at current rates. Until we have an equitable society, there will be picking and choosing based on race. In a perfect world, or until a new system could be created that would somehow allow for equitable distribution, there will not be picking and choosing; but until then, Affirmative Action and other motions to help college acceptance rates for minorities and underprivileged communities are needed to give those who have been left behind a head start.

When asked what would be a good barometer to measure fairness, she answered, “pay should be equal for doing the same jobs…this bar is too low, but it is something.” 

Adams-Cornell ended by saying, “I would love it if I’m out of a job.” Meaning, that as an Indigenous Peoples’ activist, I wish that there were no more problems for the Indigenous community, and with a final message, “there is so much hope for your generation.”