A fight that began with a GIF of Kamala Harris sipping tea has left two minority Cornell University educators unemployed, but the legacy of their Twitter confrontation will live on as the Ivy League university's tech campus mandated "anti-racism" training for all students.
Former visiting lecturer J. Khadijah Abdurahman accused Cornell associate professor Tapan Parikh of firing her "for calling out South Asian anti-Blackness with a GIF and speaking out against ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region of Ethiopia" in a March Medium post. Abdurahman reupped the GIF in question—a meme of the vice president sipping tea, intended to mock an endorsement of a syllabus for one of Parikh’s courses that included critical race theory. Parikh sent angry private messages to her about the professional slight and terminated her employment at Cornell Tech, the university’s New York City-based tech campus, according to Abdurahman's post.
— Khadijah *Receipt Custodian* (@UpFromTheCracks) March 24, 2021
The spat between the two academics metastasized into a university-wide scandal after Abdurahman published a Medium post arguing that her experience at Cornell Tech was symptomatic of an anti-black culture. Cornell Tech agreed to a seven-point program to repair a campus culture that it said "falls short of our desire to be welcoming, inclusive, and supportive for women, people of color, non-binary people, or people with disabilities," according to internal emails reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.
In those emails, Cornell Tech promised several different policies to reform the university. The university will require anti-racism training for all faculty and students, work to "hire more people from underrepresented communities," and bring on a new "director to focus on cultural issues, especially diversity, equality, and inclusion."
Those commitments are the latest steps taken by the university to embrace critical race theory. The university's faculty Senate will soon officially recommend the creation of an anti-racism center, which will promote change through the "undoing of settler colonialism, white privilege, and other forces that perpetuate systemic racism and bias."
Cornell's reforms, however, will benefit neither of the two aggrieved academics: Abdurahman did not get her job back and Parikh was forced out of an undergraduate program he helped lead. (The university declined to clarify if Parikh lost his associate professor post as well.) Neither Abdurahman nor Parikh responded to requests for comment.
The episode began in late March after a University of Washington scholar, Sucheta Ghoshal, tweeted her "critical technology" syllabus focused on black voices. When some South Asian scholars suggested Ghoshal should include readings from the global south, Abdurahman saw the pushback as another attempt to muscle out black voices in academia. So, when one of the scholars recommended Parikh's syllabus on "anti-colonialism and liberation" to Ghoshal, Abdurahman had to act. "In lieu of an essay length response a layered critique requires, I posted a GIF of Kamala Harris sipping tea sans text," she wrote.
According to Abdurahman, Parikh started sending her "egregious, racist direct messages" soon after she posted the GIF. In those messages, Parikh allegedly accused Abdurahman of cementing an "asians vs. black narrative" at Cornell and mocked her activism for the Oromo people, an oppressed group in Ethiopia. "Anyway u and no name can go start your black liberation oromo front and make podcasts, remixes, of whatever," Parikh wrote, according to a screenshot posted by Abdurahman.
The next morning, Parikh fired Abdurahman. Soon after, Abdurahman wrote the Medium post, taking the matter public. Nearly 250 people, including critical race and computer science researchers from across the country, signed onto a petition demanding Cornell reinstate Abdurahman and hire more black faculty members.
At first sight, it was unclear whether Abdurahman's pressure campaign was effective. Cornell University said both sides share some blame. A "comprehensive review of the recent issues at Cornell Tech" found that "both parties involved in this matter did not act appropriately," according to a university statement.
But internal emails showed that Abdurahman's petition had forced concessions from the university. Despite stating otherwise, administrators internally blamed Parikh alone. "The tone, content, and actions of one of our faculty members to another person were unacceptable," Cornell Tech dean Greg Morrissett wrote to his colleagues in an April 24 email. "I have taken action to address this."
Morrissett billed Cornell Tech's renewed commitment to critical race theory as the necessary antidote to prevent similar incidents in the future. But the ascendance of critical race theory is eliciting pushback from some members of the faculty. Cornell law professor William Jacobson said in a RealClearPolitics editorial that woke rhetoric will only lead to "self-imposed racial conflict" rather than true equity.
"Rather than lessening racism, these approaches adopt discriminatory racial practices and verbiage that in any other context would be rightfully deemed racist," he wrote. "Instead of focusing on inherent human worth without regard to skin color, race becomes the obsessive focus and measure."