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When an Alumnus With a Mike Says Something Offensive

Cornell officials acted instantly when an honoree at an event used the word "Negro." Many present were upset but praised the university for not ignoring what happened.

February 14, 2019
 
Logo of Cornell Black Alumni Association

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.

One of the organizers went onstage after Blanchard finished speaking and asked students and members of various alumni groups in the audience to stay after the dinner to talk. They spent more than an hour discussing what happened with the university’s top alumni officials and came up with a plan of action.

The next day, during a luncheon at the conference, a written apology from Blanchard was read to conference attendees.

“I was devastated to hear how my words hurt members of the Cornell community,” it said. “I’m sorry, as that truly was never my intention. This is a learning opportunity -- for me, as I hope it will be for others -- to do better.”

The board of directors of the Cornell Association of Class Officers then issued a long, written statement to the campus explaining what happened.

“The CACO Board was saddened that our honoree made comments that distressed members of the Cornell community,” the statement read. “This is not in alignment with our philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity. The CACO Board stands by Cornell University’s commitment to celebrate difference, and to create a culture of belonging.

“The CACO Board applauds the incredible students who showed leadership, tolerance, intelligence and respect throughout the discussions that followed at [the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference]. Students were among our greatest teachers this weekend -- and we acknowledge the invaluable role that all students play in shaping our evolving alumni network.

“We should celebrate Cornell traditions while also understanding that our history was not always perfect -- nor are we. Together with students and alumni, CACO will help to build bridges toward an illuminated and diverse future.”

The four associations representing black, Asian, Latino and LGBT alumni issued their own joint statement expressing “disdain” for the “insensitivity” of Blanchard’s remarks.

“As a community of diverse alumni associations, we stand together to denounce his remarks,” the statement said. “In response to the incident, the Alumni Affairs staff immediately went into action to have a dialogue with the students, address alumni and utilize this moment as a learning opportunity. In addition, Paul Blanchard has issued an apology recognizing how his sentiments may have affected students, alumni, and all those in attendance. We applaud the Office of Alumni Affairs for responding quickly to mobilize toward dialogue and setting growth initiatives. We challenge Cornell University to continue to appropriately respond and implement initiatives that foster ongoing dialogue about incidents such as this toward accomplishing the goals of: bringing awareness, increasing understanding, growing sensibility, increasing tolerance, and respecting and celebrating diversity within the Cornell community.

“This incident illustrates the importance of our alumni associations in continuing to implement initiatives that foster intergroup dialogue and create a culture of inclusion and belonging after our time on campus as students has ended. We encourage all alumni to become part of these critical conversations by joining their respective alumni associations and helping to increase awareness and understanding of one another in celebration of diversity within the Cornell community.”

Many who were present are praising the quick response of the university. Dustin Liu, an undergraduate who is an elected student member of Cornell's board, wrote a column in The Cornell Daily Sun today, about looking around the room and realizing that so many students and others were shocked by what had just happened. He wrote of being impressed by the work done by alumni affairs officials to quickly change the schedule and give people a place to talk about the incident. And he mentioned his frustrations with those who posted online comments on the Sun's article labeling those who were upset as "oversensitive."

Such comments are "a direct violation of the very human principle that everyone has the right to feel what they feel," he wrote. "The opportunity to call someone in and bring them into the conversation is an act of compassion. Too often I see how we call members of our community out, pushing them away from the table rather than pulling them closer. I urge all members of our community to have compassionate accountability. Beyond the use of task forces and committees and even beyond policies, the ability to affirm how someone feels is central to how we move forward as a community. I refuse to believe that nothing is going to change -- if anything this weekend was a reminder of how plausible social change is within a community with members who are willing to put in the work."

Cornell’s handling of the incident stands in stark contrast to how other institutions have dealt with verbal faux pas by guest speakers. Last May, the president of Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts institution in Virginia, came under withering criticism for not challenging the controversial comments of a commencement speaker. The speaker, Nella Gray Barkley, an alumna and a major donor to the college, criticized feminists and implied she had little sympathy for victims of workplace sexual harassment.

Canada's Western University had to formally apologize to students last fall after remarks by a philanthropist, Aubrey Dan, at a building dedication. Dan said that he enrolled at the university in 1983 because Playboy magazine had declared women there "among the best in North America."

Rawlins said Cornell’s alumni affairs officials handled the Blanchard incident “very well.”

“What impressed me the most was the speed at which they went to have conversations with the students and other diverse alumni communities, and that they gathered all those individuals to talk through what happened. I think it was proactive rapid response,” he said.

Additionally, the next day, during what was supposed to be a strategic planning meeting by the alumni affairs office, the organizers used the first 30 minutes to again address what happened at the award dinner -- this despite the fact that there were already diversity and inclusion workshops scheduled for that day, Rawlins said.

For his part, Blanchard, who is 88 years old, said he thought the speech was going well with the audience until he hit that bump.

“I didn’t understand that some people took exception to the word ‘Negro,’” he said. And he certainly didn't think twice about using it in reference to Satchel Paige. “I didn’t know what else to call him; I mean, he was in the Negro Baseball League. It’s history.”

As for his other comment -- “Now they call them blacks” -- Blanchard said, “I followed up with a casual comment about … I probably should not have tried to explain myself.”

Blanchard said it was not his intent to offend.

“I’m the last person in the world that anybody would consider racist,” he said. “People interpret things in different ways, and sometimes you don’t say things in the right way. Most of the time you don’t have to worry about it because people know who you are. The world is very different now.”

Said Rawlins: “It’s a matter of intent versus impact. I don’t think he was necessarily speaking maliciously, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact on the individuals in that room.”

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