Liberal, Open-Minded, Racist?

AM I racist?

Late one night over Spring Break, I was trekking back alone from the deserted Yard to my dorm, Greenough. I tried to remember the number of times that I had made the exact same hike at the exact same time. It was a very big number.

I was not expecting what I saw after climbing the stairs between Widener and Lamont. Thirty feet away and walking quickly toward me were three very large men. Three very large Black men. And no one else was in sight.

Twenty feet. I kept walking, instinctively flexing inside my winter jacket. I tried to act as though images of tomorrow's Herald headlines--"Black Toughs Mug Harvard Student in Brutal Yard Assault"--were not racing through my mind.

Ten feet. One looked at me. Another laughed. I remembered other ugly incidents that had occurred in the Yard over the past several months. Should I run? Could I outrun the three men? Where should I go?

Five feet. No time. I edged. closer to the side of the walk. This was it.

But as I braced myself for an expected attack, they passed without a word.

"Racist!" I thought to myself as I approached Greenough. I had just seriously entertained the prospect that I would be randomly attacked in Harvard Yard by three Black men whom I had never before seen.

This incident in the Yard, though, was not the first in which I made initial judgments of people and situations on the basis of pigmentation. I am racist, I thought, but resolved never to say it aloud. After all, a Harvard student who abhors prejudice and fancies himself liberal and open-minded does not publicly label himself a racist.

I'm not even sure that I am racist. I have good friends of all ethnic backgrounds on campus. Was my fear of three very large Black men in Harvard Yard justified? Was it legitimate prudence or pure prejudice?

I am inclined to suspect the latter. Race was the overriding factor in my appraisal of the situation that night in the Yard. In my mind looms the horrifying thought that racist beliefs may hold me captive.

OVER an otherwise forgettable dinner of London broil and savory onions, I was chatting with a good friend of mine.

Like the food, the conversation was typical Union fare, equally bland and innocuous. We covered topics like the weather, the drudgery of midterms and the fact that I would be staying at Harvard over Spring Break.

Then my friend left to go talk to someone else, and I stared down at my savory onions. What struck me most about the conversation was my acute awareness that my friend was Black. She is not just a friend like many of my other friends, I thought. She is a Black friend.

The fear of being racist brings its own problems, including a desire to escape the guilt of racism by overcompensating for my fear of acting racist. Am I artificially friendly to this individual just to prove that I can break free from the shackles of racial prejudice? To prove that deep down I really am a good person, liberal and open-minded?

It's a lose-lose attitude. If I am not friendly toward a Black person, I accuse myself of racism; if I am overly solicitous, I accuse myself of reverse discrimination, of acting differently simply because that individual is Black.

Regardless of its manifestation, the possibility that I may be racist raises more frightening thoughts. I am Jewish, myself a member of a minority group. How can I expect to be treated fairly if I prejudge others?

THE Economics Department was courting potential concentrators last month in a reception at the Faculty Club. Professor Martin Feldstein hoped to convince students who had fared well in Economics 10 to join his department.

From a very non-scientific categorization of the students at the bash, I found that a large percentage of the hobnobbers were Asian. Frankly, I was not surprised.

Asians have been succeeding academically in every institution I have attended, from elementary school to Harvard College. They were disproportionately represented in all the honors classes in my high school. Ec 10 should be no exception.

Asian students, at Harvard and else-where, have performed remarkably in the classroom. So is it natural--or racist--for me to expect Asians to perform above average, in economics or any other subject?

There is one thing of which I am sure. I want to do the right thing. I do not want my actions or attitudes to be shaped by racist notions, however subconscious they may be.

So I have at least recognized the problem. That is the first step to unlearning racist beliefs, according to Assistant Dean for Race Relations and Minority Affairs Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle, because recognition fosters an awareness of the institutions, like the media, that perpetuate and reinforce racist ideas.

The next steps, she advised in an interview, are to actively educate myself about racism in society and to consciously interact with members of minority groups.

Hernandez-Gravelle dismissed the suggestion that the ultimate goal should be color blindness. "Not to see color denies part of a person," she explained. "We need to see color, but not in a stereotyped way.

"You had that reaction in the Yard," she told me, "because society has taught you to see large Black men in groups as violent people. But you should experience large Black men in groups for yourself. Then you will have a different way of reacting to them."

I am not looking for absolution, as if writing this article will clear my guilty conscience of holding racist ideas, nor am I offering excuses.

What I am hoping is that Hernandez-Gravelle's prescription for combatting my racist tendencies will be successful.