I think I’ve said this before, but I rarely post about anything serious because I think there is enough seriousness in the world. It needs more laughter and while the things I write typically only make me laugh and everyone else wince, +1 laughing person is better than 0 laughing person. All the wincing might cancel that, but whatever. Anyway, at the risk of sounding all high-and-mighty and of making even more people wince, I am going to post something serious today. Please bear with me and call me out where needed.
Last night I saw the “I, too, am Harvard” production. It was fantastic. It was videotaped and while I think that watching the video won’t fully capture the feelings present that night, I encourage everyone to watch it.
The I, Too, Am Harvard campaign has caught a lot of media attention. With media attention, of course, comes the usual resentful outbursts from people who seemingly don’t know what the play and campaign are about.
Unfortunately I think that many people’s immediate reaction to feeling “attacked” is to become defensive and try to undermine others’ points of view. The fact that these students are bringing up hard truths about race relations in the US is obviously going to make many people feel uncomfortable. There were several points during the play when I felt deeply uncomfortable and one moment when I thought that I shouldn’t be there. It is hard to be confronted with the problems and pains that your society has put on others.
But what is immensely harder are the pains and problems that students (or people) of colour deal with on a daily basis. I will not pretend to know what that is like and I am not trying to speak on behalf of anyone, but I can acknowledge that these struggles are real. After the play, I could go back out into a predominantly white world and leave the discomfort behind. Others can not do that.
There was one part of the play that really struck a chord with me. A male student was talking about how, at the end of the day, he goes to sit with his black friends in the cafeteria and had been ragged on for “segregating”. He said something like “why is it so bad that, after a day of living in a white world, I want to relax in my world – with people who understand me”.
I was recently asked why, in the economics department, we would need to have gatherings for female students. What does this accomplish? I don’t think many men realize how exhausting it can be to work in a male-dominated department day in and day out. They don’t realize because they have the privilege of living in a male-friendly world. Just like I have the privilege of living in a white-friendly world.
I often hear people say “Why do they need black student clubs? Why should there be a residence for black students? If I demanded a white student club, I’d be called racist.” You don’t need a white student club because you live in one every day. There is no society for men in the maths and sciences because the maths and sciences are a society of men.
These students are not “whining about being at Harvard”, as one commenter suggested. They are trying to invoke a discussion and create a community for minority students. Harvard is a pressure cooker and if you don’t have a community here, it can be painful. These comments about affirmative action are nonsense. They are not asking the university to create more spots for black students. They are asking people to stop questioning their credentials when they arrive at a place like Harvard.
Again, I really encourage everyone to watch the production. If you are white, it will be uncomfortable because you are faced with truths about yourself and the world you live in that you took for granted or didn’t think about it. It will not be uncomfortable because the students are “angry” or “hostile” as some have said. It will also make you question what you’ve been doing with your life since the writer and director did this all at age 19. The age when my greatest life accomplishment was making vegetarian chili from scratch that later had be thrown away for reasons related to edibility.