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.

To Matsuda-Lawrence, the time for this discussion is now. She references a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

Matsuda-Lawrence says: “This is a year that answers.”

AFFIRMATIVE DEBATE

One of the most contentious questions about race and belonging on campus is the role of affirmative action.

On Nov. 2, 2012, The Crimson published “Affirmative Dissatisfaction” by columnist Sarah R. Siskind ’14, a piece questioning the efficacy and fairness of race-based affirmative action as practiced on Harvard’s campus. Siskind envisioned “Affirmative Dissatisfaction” as a discussion-prompting critique of a system she feels does more harm than good.

For many students, however, the article felt like a personal attack challenging their legitimacy at Harvard.

“The reality is that that article made students of color feel unsafe on this campus, feel unwelcome on this campus,” says Tamene. “It did create tension, and this looming feeling of ‘I’m not welcome.’”

As a result of feeling that their place on campus was questioned, Matsuda-Lawrence says, many students, particularly in the black community, felt the need to defend their qualifications.

“We should never have to defend ourselves, we should never have to pull out our SAT scores, our extracurriculars, or all the AP classes we took in high school...to defend our right to be here,” says Matsuda-Lawrence. “White kids never have to do that.”

Yet contrary to the statements of some of her detractors, Siskind says she doesn’t oppose affirmative action because she questions the presence of black students on campus or feels that the goal of diversity is an unworthy one.

“I don’t so much disagree with the stated goals of affirmative action, as I question the efficaciousness of the program itself, and whether it’s beneficial to the minorities it selects,” she says. “There should never be a presumption of inadequacy—that is highly immoral.”

Still, Matsuda-Lawrence says, she feels that the article gave license to those who questioned black students’ qualifications—a charge to which she feels I, Too, Am Harvard responds.

“If that article kind of gave people permission to attack black students on this campus, then this project is giving ourselves permission to speak back to that,” she says.

Long a topic of debate, race-based affirmative action largely targets black, Native American, and Latino students, who are currently underrepresented at institutions of higher education.

Harvard has defended considering race in the admissions process, even as some states have taken action to abolish the policy, and multiple court cases have challenged its constitutionality. In August 2012, Harvard, along with the rest of the Ivy League and peer institutions like the University of Chicago and Stanford, submitted an amicus curiae brief defending the policy in the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says that the admissions office considers a wide range of individual and academic attributes in its attempts to admit the best possible class—only one of which is race.

“Our admissions process focuses on individual applicants in a holistic way. We seek students who will contribute to our educational environment by stimulating and inspiring their fellow classmates and the faculty,” Fitzsimmons wrote in an email.

For Siskind, however, any consideration of race in admissions is bad policy.

“Race-based affirmative action seemed to be an aberration off of otherwise deeply admirable, understandable admissions policy,” Siskind says.

Furthermore, she argues, the policy may prove self-defeating, itself inspiring doubt in underrepresented minority students’ qualifications. “You should not, morally speaking, in any way, shape, or form, assume that somebody was helped by race-based affirmative action,” she says. “That is not to say, however, that is not a common interpretation.”

Siskind says that this possibility—that employers and others will assume that Black, Latino, and Native American applicants are beneficiaries of affirmative action, and stereotype them as less qualified—is part of the reason why she opposes the policy, favoring a socioeconomic model instead.

Siskind is not the only student on campus critical of race-based affirmative action.

Rahsaan K. King ’17 feels that his own experience indicates problems with the policy. A black student who attended a prep school primarily for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, King says he experienced firsthand the backlash against those thought to be beneficiaries of affirmative action. When articles about his admission to Harvard appeared in the Houston Chronicle and the Huffington Post, he says strangers made disparaging comments questioning his qualifications.

“The ostensible intention is to foster equity, to make up for past wrongs, to encourage diversity,” says King about the purpose of race-based affirmative action. “However, I think with that has unintentionally come these externalities where...people assume that students who are prospective recipients are less qualified, and I think that from what we’ve seen it has the minorities frustrated and the white students feeling slighted.”

King also feels that race-based affirmative action in college admissions fails to address a deeper issue: educational inequality.

“The problem is inequity in education before college,” he says. Race-based affirmative action, though well-meaning, he says, fails to address these disparities.

For filmmaker André Robert Lee, affirmative action is a matter of justice. Like King, Lee attended a private secondary school as a black student on scholarship, an experience he details in his documentary film “The Prep School Negro,” which he presented at Harvard last year.

“Look around. Either you think that people of color and women are less, or you think there’s injustice in the world. And there’s no grey line for it, it’s one or the other,” he says. “You believe that there are only a handful of people of color in this school because they are not as smart, they are less, or you think there’s imbalance in the application process, in the systems that are set up in our world.”

IN AND OF HARVARD

While Harvard has become drastically more inclusive in the past hundred years, for many students in the College, racial identity remains a salient factor in social life.

“We don’t live in a post-racial society, period,” says Ade G. Popoola ’15, president of the Black Students Association.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor in African and African American Studies and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, elaborates. “For some people, supposedly we live in, the election of Barack Obama spelled, the end of racism, the post-racial America, which is a ridiculous idea,” he says. “You can’t reverse three centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow segregation with the election of a black man.”

Yet despite the continued effect of race on students’ lives, says Matsuda-Lawrence, “Most of the time on campus, in America, in the world, race is a pretty taboo subject.”

Nevertheless, students point to very real tensions.

“I continue to meet with students on a regular basis who express concern to me about how they’re made to feel marginalized or how they’re made to feel in Harvard but not of it,” says neurology professor S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. “Just to hear our students say that today really concerns me.”

Keyanna Y. Wigglesworth ’16 is one of those students. “This is a problem that is pervasive in this college: this sense of alienation, of isolation, of not feeling like you belong,” she says.

Co-director of Harvard Dialogues, formerly known as Sustained Dialogue, Wigglesworth focuses her extracurricular work on promoting active conversations around various forms of identity and power on campus. And personally, she says, race is a subject that hits home—and often hurts.

Wigglesworth cites personal experience of having her legitimacy as a student doubted: in several cases, she says, her ID has been checked by staff explicitly questioning her status at the College. She says she feels this is directly related to her identity as a black student.

“You can’t tell me that racial profiling is not something that black students have to go through on this campus,” Wigglesworth says.

The issue of racial profiling has long affected social life at the College. In 2007, HUPD officers asked a group of Black Men’s Forum and Association of Black Harvard Women members enjoying a yearly gathering on the Quad to offer proof of identification. The officers had been called by students who questioned whether the picnickers went to Harvard. Many at the time thought this doubt was racialized; Wigglesworth, at least, thinks similar dynamics persist.

The Quad was home to a disproportionate number of black students under the old ranked-choice housing system, abolished to increase House diversity in 1995.

Farai Chideya ’90, a journalist who wrote a Washington Post response to I, Too, Am Harvard about her own experience of race at the College, says that this concentration of black students prompted accusations of self-segregation—a charge that affects student social life to this day.

“A lot of black students ended up living in the Quad. Some people call that self-segregation, but I don’t like that term at all,” Chideya says. This kind of social grouping by race, she argues, is often an effect of discrimination. “When you go through those kinds of things, you might say, well, I just don’t really trust that I’m going to be in a majority culture and be treated with respect.”

Rodriguez S. Roberts ’15, president of the Black Men’s Forum, objects to the way he thinks discussions about self-segregation often put the onus of the issue onto black students.

“I think the question I would prefer asking instead of ‘why are all the black students sitting together’ is ‘why are all the white students sitting together,’” he says.

King sees self-segregation as understandable, yet stymying exchange.

“People gravitate to commonality,” he says. “I think it’s logical, and rational, and makes sense.” Still, he says, “Self-segregation unintentionally stifles diversity.”

Overall, says Chideya, choice of social group can be a strategy in navigating sometimes-thorny racial terrain.

“It’s not irrational to think that there’s racism in America, because it’s documented,” she says. “The question is, what’s your strategy?”

IN THE CLASSROOM

Race doesn’t only affect students in admissions and social life. It also affects learning—from peers and from professors, from the classroom to the common room.

Head of the popular course Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality 1168: “Education, Race, Gender in the United States” professor Chiwen Bao both studies how race and other forms of identity affect learning, and witnesses these dynamic play out in class.

When discussing race in academic settings, Bao says, students’ own identities often comes into play—and the results, while often productive, can be tense.

“There are a lot of emotions—there’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of anger,” says Bao. “When those kinds of emotions come up, we need to address them or else they just become assumptions and ideas about each other and misunderstandings that are perpetuated.”

For Roberts, race doesn’t just come up as a topic of classroom discussion: it affects how comfortable he feels speaking in class.

“You want to ask a question in section, but you’re hesitant,” Roberts says. “You don’t want to give a stupid answer, because the first thing that people see is sadly the color of your skin.”

According to Roberts, this pressure has affected him differently across time: while it limited him as a freshman and sophomore, he says, now that he’s in advanced neurobiology classes, “I speak up pretty much every class, because I refuse to let that teacher think that I’m not capable.”

Amanda D. Bradley ’15, president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, points to socioeconomic background as another vector of identity affecting classroom interactions.

Race and class can pose a dual challenge for students of color who attended secondary schools in impoverished areas.

“Coming from an all black-dominated area or a poor black school, that’s a class issue, that’s a class and race issue,” says Bradley.

That’s also a question of preparation: while many students of color come from well-supported secondary schools, those who don’t may, like their white peers from similar backgrounds, face difficulties both personally and academically.

While both Bradley and Roberts cite cultural groups like BMF and ABHW as providing members with academic and personal mentorship, Bradley wishes there were more institutional outreach to students who may be having a difficult time at the College.

Harvard has a number of resources for academic support, and resources to navigate these resources. Yet, says Bradley, access can come down to individual student comfort level.

“The resources are there, it’s just a question of whether or not people feel that it’s an open space and whether or not it’s a safe space,” she says. “That isn’t to say that everybody’s mentor has to be the same race that they are or the same socioeconomic background, but sometimes it helps.”

Bao, for one, uses strategies like required office hours to engage students who may be hesitant to approach her.

Roberts also points to the importance of faculty diversity in encouraging students of color to feel comfortable in the classroom. Faculty diversity, however, has yet to keep pace with that of the student body: as of the 2013-2014 Faculty Development and Diversity Annual Report, 82.5 and 74 percent of tenured and tenure track faculty, respectively, are white.

Above all, learning both in and outside of the classroom shares a common theme: how can community members learn from each other, but not at each others’ expense?

“We have to educate each other about the ways that we wound each other, the ways in which unwittingly things said unconsciously can inflict pain,” says Gates.

Yet this learning requires a measure of vulnerability.

“Something has to give,” says Aubrey J. Walker ’15, who facilitates discussions about identity as a leader at the Freshman Urban Program. “Someone has to make themselves very vulnerable for someone else to learn. And because of this problem itself, that’s very much what people don’t want to do.”

In light of this vulnerability, Lee, the filmmaker who created “The Prep School Negro,” suggests an alternate model for dialogue—one in which students educate themselves about experiences that are not their own.

“When it comes to conversations around privilege and the like, I think we need to put the onus on the people who benefit and exist in it to take on the responsibility.”

COMMUNITY, CONVERSATION

Harvard College doesn’t have a core curriculum, but there is one text most current undergraduates have read: “Whistling Vivaldi,” written by Claude M. Steele, a piece about stereotypes surrounding black identity. It’s been assigned to the past several classes of incoming freshmen as part of Community Conversations, a facilitated discussion during freshman orientation designed to inspire conversation about race, gender, class, and other forms of identity.

Community Conversations is one of several resources available at the College for this kind of education.

“Community Conversations has, I think, tried to make students aware of the richness of the diversity in the class,” says Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67. “It isn’t just about how do we get along in Straus B, but it’s about engaging in a responsible way civically.”

Beyond this initiative, incoming students who participate in the Freshman Urban Program, a week-long pre-orientation program dedicated to social justice and community service, are engaged in discussions about identity and inclusion.

Every year right before Opening Days, FUP leaders set out upon a mission of disorientation. They take students on a “Disorientation Tour” intended to highlight Harvard’s less-told histories, including sometimes-difficult histories of race.

“I would honestly make that a requirement for every student,” says Walker, a FUP leader, of the tour. “Three hundred seventy-five years—there’s a lot we can unpack, there’s a lot we can learn about ourselves.”

After orientation, one significant resource for conversation related to race and culture on campus is the Harvard Foundation.

“The Foundation’s role is to help our students not be distracted by issues of race and culture while they’re here at Harvard,” says Counter, the Foundation’s director. “You should be able to go through, do your work, feel great pride in your cultural background, but not be distracted because someone is minimizing the value of your culture.”

Counter has served as director since the origins of the Foundation in 1981, when a committee including then-President Derek Bok and Reverend Peter J. Gomes opted for this intercultural model, as opposed to the Third World center of Princeton, or Yale’s various cultural centers.

The Foundation, which employs 16 student interns, provides funding for student cultural groups.

Maya P. Dorje ’15 is an intern at the Foundation and co-chair of its Student Advisory Committee, which oversees the allocation of grants to about 80 different cultural groups. The committee meets with cultural group representatives every month, providing a space, Dorje says, to address their concerns.

“To me, it’s about supporting students from different cultural groups, not only with resources, not only with funding, but as a venue for advocacy,” Dorje says of the committee.

However, both she and Counter indicate that the Foundation’s current budget falls short of enabling it to fund many of the projects that come the committee’s way. While the Student Advisory Committee received requests for $64,000 from cultural groups in spring 2014, its available grant money is $25,000 a semester, says Dorje. The Foundation’s last funding increase was in 2006.

Dorje says that in addition to funding, cultural groups also express the desire for designated meeting space.

“Space is power, space is legitimation, space is validation,” she says. “I think that racial dialogue can and does still happen on campus with the current level of funding and space available, however I do think that space and funding constrain the efforts and work of many cultural groups on campus.”

Popoola of the Black Students Association feels that this limit in funding affects the BSA. “Harvard really talks about diversity as a big selling point of their College, but the fact that they’re not really feeding into the diversity that they’re bringing into the College is really unfortunate,” she says. “I think there also needs to be something met financially.”

One potential step in approaching cultural groups’ concerns, says Dorje, is the Student Advisory Committee’s upcoming April meeting—which will be attended, upon student invitation, by University President Drew G. Faust.

Herbert B. Castillo ’14, an organizer of the LatinX Town Hall meeting, also points to funding concerns as one potential aspect of his group’s initiative. Castillo is part of the Latino Task Force, a group of upwards of 40 students formed in the wake of the Town Hall to advance the concerns of Latino students on campus. Their first task, says Castillo, is to administer a survey that will gauge how students feel about the racial climate and support network at Harvard.

Latinx Forum
Dorothy Villarreal discusses the purpose of the "LatinX" town hall meeting on Thursday, March 6. Students gathered in Ticknor Lounge to raise concerns pressing the Latino community.

One component of the campaign, Castillo says, centers around administrative responsiveness: while the Office of Student Life reached out to the Latino Task Force in the wake of the Town Hall, Castillo says he wishes the administrative approach to minority student needs was more proactive.

While some students disagree that increased administrative action is an appropriate or necessary measure in addressing issues of race on campus, rising dean Khurana emphasizes the need for both structural and community approaches.

“Leaders can set a tone of respecting the rights, differences, and dignity of each member of our community,” Khurana wrote in an emailed statement. “But much more is needed. As the [I, Too, Am Harvard] production and students point out, our entire community—students, faculty, staff—all have a leadership role to play in creating an atmosphere that encourages understanding and inclusion towards the ends of mutual learning and respecting the dignity of each person on this campus.”

Dingman indicates that there is space for improvement, referring back to Community Conversations.

“Could we do more? Yes, we sure could,” he says.

Dingman cites the recent effort to include upperclassmen co-moderators in Community Conversations as one such improvement.

While acknowledging the limits of Community Conversations as just one of many tools in advancing a climate of racial inclusion at the College, Dingman hopes that the initiative can at least inspire further dialogue.

“What we’re doing frankly is pretty superficial,” he says. “It’s only an hour and a half. But we hope we’re planting seeds, we hope that the conversation will continue.”

DIALOGIC

“Can you read?”

“Having an opinion does not make me an ‘Angry Black Woman.’”

“You’re not blacker than me because you can rap more Jay-Z lyrics.”

“You’re dressed like you might shoot me right now—such a thug.”

“You’re lucky to be black—so easy to get into college.”

“Oh, I heard her say she was going to Harvard—I just assumed she misspoke.”

“No, I will not teach you how to Twerk.”

“I was in Harvard but not of it.”

The statements above come from opposite ends of a century of change. The first seven, part of I, Too, Am Harvard’s popular social media campaign, are racial microagressions—defined as brief instances of often-unintentional racial denigration—written on signs held up by students. The last is from W.E.B. Du Bois, noted scholar, activist, and member of the Harvard Class of 1890.

While Harvard’s record of racial inclusion has drastically improved in the intervening century—from allocation of substandard housing to black students in the early twentieth century to unwanted comments about twerking—for many the feeling of being “in but not of” Harvard persists through these experiences of microaggression.

Faced with this, says Gates, students must engage in new kinds of dialogue.

“We need to educate each other at this new level of sensitivity,” he says.

For Siskind, the conversations she’s had with opponents and supporters since the release of “Affirmative Dissatisfaction” have reaffirmed the importance of interpersonal engagement around the issue of race.

“I’m very much persuaded of dialogue being the preferred medium for these kinds of discussions,” she says. “Every time I’ve had coffee with people in the years since I’ve written the article, it has invariably been productive.”

Meanwhile, students continue to engage in advocacy and community building from a number of fronts. An upcoming town hall meeting organized by black and Latino student leaders, says Castillo, will focus on three goals: faculty and staff diversity; programming and policy; and increased resources.

“We are very aware that the same issues that we face as a Latino community are faced by other racial minorities on campus,” says Castillo. “We’re working toward a common goal.”

And Pfister and Khurana, at least, have taken up I, Too, Am Harvard’s second demand, arranging an upcoming meeting with campaign representatives.

Tamene says there remains work to be done. “This is a call to action to Harvard to live up to everything that it can and should be,” she says.

For Wigglesworth, this call to action is not the result of resentment toward Harvard, but commitment to its progress.

“The reason why I criticize Harvard so much—and the reason why I do so much work with Harvard Dialogoues to make Harvard better—is because I care about this school,” she says. “Not because I don’t like it, not because I don’t want to be here, not because I’m ungrateful. It’s because I care.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 28, 2014

An earlier version of this article misplaced an initial in the name of the director of the Harvard Foundation. In fact, the director is S. Allen Counter.

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