How to unlearn

As we age, life requires us to learn, unlearn, and relearn. There comes a time when our old ways no longer serve us, and we need to tear down and build a new foundation. In order for us to dismantle, we need to first look at ourselves and our privilege.

Let me tell you a story. 

A high school soccer captain and valedictorian desire to be a college professor. While visiting, they shadow an education class, have lunch with the Sustained Dialogue president, and play a game of frisbee golf. During a presentation, their dad raises his hand and inquires, “how many Black professors are on campus?” The host replies, “Unfortunately, one. There are not very many qualified candidates.” Robyn’s head cocks to the side in confusion. They do not quite know how to interpret this response. Their father makes eye contact with Robyn and sighs. 

Words have power. We need to recognize the responsibility we all carry. We have the autonomy to repeat or break cycles. Unlearning is the process of taking our thoughts and behaviors, examining their origins, questioning their impact, and developing a new understanding. The art of unlearning is a shift in our perspective; it bulldozes our foundation, and at times, may contradict our previous beliefs. The internal reckoning can be difficult to navigate, and we need to acknowledge the amount of difficulty and vulnerability this work requires to achieve the goal of a more inclusive and equitable world. 

We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When leaping into difficult conversations, we need to reprogram our brains and create space for new information. Before anything else, make the commitment to be an active listener. Do not listen to be right; listen to understand. Let go of the need to defend. 

Throughout the conversation:

  • Work toward an understanding counter to your own.  
  • Take a mental note of your implicit and inherent biases, and acknowledge them. Learn to question, ask why, and truly listen to the response. 
  • Believe them­—I cannot stress this enough. I will say it again. Believe them. 
  • Find the best course of action that will support the person talking to you. Make sure they feel heard by asking “what can I do to help?” before assuming you know what’s best. 
  • You need to accept and adapt. We are creatures of habit, and change doesn’t occur overnight. Be committed and acknowledge the process.  

If you find yourself struggling and need to step away, acknowledge it, politely excuse yourself and find a time both parties agree can continue. Important: do not force anyone into a conversation only when you are ready. The ability to establish when and where the conversation should take place is a privilege. Respect their space. 

In the meantime, ask yourself why you were uncomfortable. Are your experiences real? If so, why aren’t theirs? Are you trying to be right, or are you trying to learn?

After the conversation, make the commitment to continue to reflect. Where have your thoughts and ideas come from? How has your view shifted? 

 We are fighting against years of systematic oppression ingrained in our DNA. Let’s get to work.

Unlearning lane: Stories from Cornellians

These examples were taken from Cornell student surveys, however, these responses are by no means exclusive to Cornell. They happen all around the country. As Cornellians, it is our responsibility to acknowledge, address, and unlearn what causes harm so everyone belongs.

  • “As a student at Cornell, I was told that I could never be beautiful because of the color of my skin. I have been around people who think that it’s okay to use the N-word because it’s ‘in private’.” 
  • “Upon coming to Cornell, not only is my name often mispronounced, it’s often misspelled. It seems as though often others don’t even attempt to try to properly pronounce my name and assign me a name they find easier or more Americanized.” 
  • “In class, I’m sometimes the only person of color and am called on in conversations of race as if I’m a representative for my race or even for all people of color. Or I’m told that I speak very good English as if I’m expected to speak any other language because I look different.”
  • “Once, I was speaking on the phone with my family and one of my ‘friends’ joked as if I was talking to Al-Qaeda about something. I’m a pretty upbeat and resilient person, but these things really hit deep.”
  • “As a transgender student, I’m told that I pass so well and that no one would’ve known I used to be a girl. I know that they were just trying to be accommodating or respectful, but I clearly have breasts. On the other end, I’ve been told, ‘Well, you still wear girl’s clothes. That makes it a little confusing don’t you think?’ ” 
  • “I’m told sometimes how I’m not seen as anything different (than white). One of the biggest things that happens to me and others like me on campus is not being ‘seen’ or heard or taken seriously in our experiences.”