1. No wearing leather shoes
2. No applying lotions or creams
3. No working
These are three of the rules that mark the holy day of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday known as “The Day of Atonement,” but for students at SUNY New Paltz, avoiding leather shoes may be easier than avoiding work. While holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter languish amidst vacation days, holidays that celebrate anything other than God and country receive only the assumption that educators will work with students who choose to miss.
Relying on a professor’s understanding is optimistic at best in an environment where two non-penalized absences are all that is permitted for students. Professors are held accountable only by a vague statement in the campus-wide policy that states that they are obligated to work with students. Students shouldn’t have to wonder if their professor will be understanding, let them turn in late work, count it as an excused absence, and the list goes on. Cultural and religious observations should not be a point of contention for students.
While professors may think students are using holidays to skirt their assignments, these concerns are supported by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization created to call out and address anti-semitism. The ADL’s statement concludes that the responsibility should be on administrators and faculty — not on observing students. “Diligent efforts should be made to accommodate the observance of the High Holidays and other religious practices with school or work responsibilities in a meaningful way,” they state.
SUNY’s exclusion of Jewish holidays is apparent next to its neighboring system, The City University of New York (CUNY), which notably includes Jewish holidays in its academic calendar. However, even CUNY’s calendar is far from perfect, as Islamic and other religious and cultural holidays fall by the wayside, demonstrating that the SUNY system’s lack of acknowledgment is a symptom of a much bigger problem. This silent method of repression is not only represented on college campuses, it is enacted in professional settings as well and is a cultural factor that lends itself to the normalization of a “default” religion.
As Governor Hochul recently announced a state-wide plan to counter anti-semitism this oversight is a backhanded dismissal of non-Christian holidays and their validity. The celebration and acknowledgment of other cultural celebrations is a minimum requirement for a system that preaches inclusion. The lack of administrative acknowledgment and system-wide silence allows a culture that continues to assert the hierarchy of celebrations and whose cultures and religions deserve to be celebrated and protected.
On a primarily white campus, cultural engagement is vital to create a community that doesn’t prioritize white, Christian rhetoric and solemnization over other, more marginalized, communities. Along with Jewish holidays, Islamic holidays are notably absent from the academic calendar. Major celebrations such as Eid al-Fitr are promoted due to the students’ effort on campus. The negligence of administrators shifts the work from their own unwilling shoulders, onto those of students who have to create their own space in an already isolating college campus.
Attending college is inherently jarring, due to the upheaval of familiarity and the forceful assimilation to a new environment. However, it should be noted that there is a vast discrepancy in the smoothness of the transition between students who fit the campus demographic versus those who have to endeavor to find a niche. This is illustrated by Higher Ed Today, which states in regard to Muslim students on college campuses, “Research shows microaggressions include stares in public, feelings of alienation, and assumptions of religious homogeneity. Unfortunately, such experiences are often a reflection of the negative attitudes toward Muslims held by a significant portion of society.”
The incriminating inattentiveness of administrators is only further evinced by their dismissal of culturally and racially-significant days. This includes the Chinese New Year and Black Solidarity Day. On a campus that has a ranking of “below average” overall diversity and racial-ethnic diversity, someone who was socially cognisant of the importance of bridging these substantial gaps would assume that the administration had gone to lengths to protect spaces and days dedicated to celebrating and acknowledging non-white communities. Nevertheless, students are left to haggle with their professors on their own if they wish to observe days vital to their sense of community, culture and identity.
As conversations surrounding performative activism have become more prevalent in past years, it’s difficult to observe the grandiose speeches and proclamations that administrators give regarding the importance of inclusivity without the painful awareness of the vacuousness of their promises. Moreover, it raises the question: if universities struggle to recognize the easiest part of diversity — the many different celebrations that come with it — how are they going to adequately acknowledge the structural violence that makes these omissions so disturbing?
As Larry E. Davis stated in his speech, “Race: America’s Grand Challenge,” “Celebrating diversity is usually a feel-good topic, a way to acknowledge cultural differences that do not carry a great deal of emotion … By contrast, a discussion on race is often not so vague and not such a feel-good discussion. Instead, a discussion on race draws attention to ongoing problems of bias and inequality … I feel certain that we are unlikely as a society to celebrate our way to social and economic justice.” If universities cannot even achieve the most rudimentary aspects of racial and cultural inclusion, what hope can students have that their administration will work to upend the stifling statistics that limit social mobility for non-white students on their campus?
In a political and social climate created amidst oppressive structures, academic institutions need to be aware of the subliminal messages they are sending to the student body and the culture that they are upholding. A college campus is not an autonomous microcosm, it reflects and feeds into our society at large. When cultural and religious sequestration is inherently American, occasions like holidays and celebrations aren’t merely an excuse for festivities, they are cultural touchstones that represent the endurance of marginalized communities and should be honored as such.