Race and Belonging at Harvard College

From community conversations to I, Too, Am Harvard

UPDATED: March, 28, 2014, at 1:14 a.m.

Approaching the row of administrators across a wide, mostly empty stage, Abigail W.T.A. Mariam ’15 offers Donald H. Pfister and Rakesh Khurana, interim and rising deans of the College, a mic.

It’s Friday, March 7, about 10 p.m., at a talkback on the opening night of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a play turned viral social media campaign centered around the diverse experiences of black students at Harvard. Mariam is the campaign’s publicity liaison.

“I, Too, Am Harvard,” the artistic brainchild of Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16, has grown from an independent study project and discussion within the black community to a New York Times-featured movement with campus spin-offs from the University of Iowa to Oxford.

Consisting of big-name professors, students, community members, at least one New York Times reporter, and administrators, the audience has spent the last couple hours laughing, cheering, and, probably, crying at the show. Here for a night of student theater, spectators now watch as the campaign’s student organizers do something unexpected: facing the row of deans, they issue two demands—and request that Pfister and Khurana commit to them.

The demands? “The first thing that we asked for was a formal statement from the President’s Office and the Dean of the College’s Office affirming the place of students of color on Harvard’s campus,” says Tsega Tamene ’15, producer of the show. The second demand: organizers “called for a meeting with administrators by the end of April,” Tamene says.

Mariam walks across the empty stage from the row of I, Too, Am Harvard organizers to the row of administrators. She offers Pfister and Khurana the mic.

***

It’s been a big year for organizing by students of color, and particularly black students, on college campuses. From the popularity of the Being Black at the University of Michigan hashtag to the “33” campaign highlighting the underrepresentation of black students at UCLA Law School (33 out of 1,100), discussions about racial dynamics on university campuses have been widely publicized.

And as it so often does, Harvard has become part of the discussion. I, Too, Am Harvard emerges in the context of other student initiatives dealing with race at the College. A recent Latino Town Hall and a resulting task force, seek to address Latino student demands. Meanwhile, black student leaders, independent from I, Too, Am Harvard, have been meeting to discuss their concerns and formulate an action plan. These initiatives have demonstrated student concern with issues of community and administrative support. And they’ve raised the profile of racial issues on campus.

“We touched people’s souls, we touched people’s hearts,” Matsuda-Lawrence says of I, Too, Am Harvard. “So many people on this campus and across America and across the world have been saying to us, ‘You know, I see myself in those stories.”’

And while today’s College is more racially diverse than ever, Matsuda-Lawrence believes these are stories that remain undertold.

According to the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, racial minorities make up a little less than half of the student body: black students at 9.4 percent; Hispanics at 9.6; Asian Americans at 20.2; and Native American and Native Hawaiians at 1.7 and 0.4 percent, respectively. Yet this diversity is a relatively new phenomenon—and the effects of over 200 years of racial exclusion at Harvard remain.

In an era some have dubbed “post-racial,” I, Too, Am Harvard has pointed to the fact that race continues to affect what it means to belong at Harvard. Through its focus on the experiences of black students, it has opened up a space for dialogue about Harvard’s progress towards racial inclusion: where the University has been, and where it still can improve.

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