Harvard has many things to offer these students, but one of the most important resources that each student will have is one another. Diversity isn’t something that should be used just to paint a pretty picture. It should be used to educate people and inform them about the experiences of others.
The best way for us to learn from each other is merely to sit down and talk. Though Harvard seems to be set apart from the real world at times, we all still come from the real world and carry our outside notions about different issues, including race. It doesn’t help when talking about these issues seems to be taboo. Though conversations about race should not consume the lives of students, we should still be willing to talk frankly with members of other racial groups about issues regarding race and how they affect all of us.
I have observed two main barriers that hinder open and sincere discussions about race: people trying to be overly politically correct, and others becoming extremely defensive when racial issues are discussed.
Political correctness has its place in terms of making people feel comfortable, but it can reach absurd levels. Often we get so caught up in trying to say the right thing, in the right way, to the right person that we end up not being able to say anything at all.
But we can never really understand each other if we aren’t willing to speak our minds. One can observe how a person acts and how he approaches life; however, one can gain a much clearer picture of who that person is by hearing his story from his own mouth.
This doesn’t mean that we should go up to random people we don’t know and ask them, “Do all black people speak in ebonics?” or, “Do all white people not know how to dance?” Instead, it’s more about getting to know about a particular aspect of a person’s life as you get to know them as a complete person.
I was talking to one of my roommates one night during my freshman year, and I asked him, “Do white people use the 'N' word behind the backs of black people?” He responded with an emphatic “NO!” He then proceeded to ask me how it felt to be the only black person in a classroom sometimes. From there, our conversation turned into a series of questions, back and forth, as we tried to understand one another’s lives.
We can be blunt and get straight to the point, as long as it’s clear that we are genuinely trying to understand each other’s experiences, not merely putting the other person in a box. This type of understanding atmosphere can effectively counteract the stifling effects of political correctness.
The defensiveness that emerges during discussions of race is, however, much more alarming to me. More than anything, this blocks people from having straightforward conversations about race. This problem is not unique to one particular racial group. I have witnessed black people getting defensive when issues of race were brought up and not truthfully look at the issues just as I have seen white people do it.
In discussions about racial oppression, I’ve heard white people talk about how black people self-segregate, or how middle class white youth have it much worse than the freeloading and undeserving black youth in terms of their chances of getting admitted to college.
They’re missing the point of the conversation. While what they are saying may have some validity, their defensiveness causes them to overlook the institutionalized disadvantages that black people face in today’s society. It’s no secret that urban black communities are disproportionately affected by low-performing schools and crime. The problem of underperforming schools is crucial because it handicaps many of the kids in the community by not equipping them with the necessary tools or mindset to be able to succeed beyond high school.
We cannot run from these issues. We have to confront them head on. It’s okay for a white person to bring up issues such as the aforementioned ones, but they should be willing to understand the entire question, and examine why these issues arise in the first place.
Similarly, it is extremely useful for a black person to try to understand the problems and struggles that may exist in the lives of white people. While white people should not get defensive about race to the point that they dismiss and overlook the racial inequalities that exist in our society, black people cannot write off the dilemmas that white people face in their lives as well. There are many white people who suffer from the ills of poverty and discrimination, and these issues must be confronted as well.
The cliché phrase tells us that we have more in common than we think. This is true; however, we cannot truly appreciate the commonalities that bind us together as humans rather than separate us as races without addressing the differences that continue to divide our society. We must embrace our similarities while still having the courage and audacity to confront and learn from our differences.
Lumumba Seegars ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.