Does Silence Serve?

There are different approaches to sensitivity, but assuming good intentions is key


Last week in my own Kirkland House, the House Committee sent an email urging students to “Join me and da rest of Ho(od)Co fo' a $tein Club dat you don' wanna miss y'all!!” Immediately some students responded to the list explaining that they were offended by this language, which they viewed as racially charged, while others wrote that they saw nothing problematic about the email. Before too long, one of my housemates, Naji Filali ’14, wrote a response in the Harvard Political Review arguing that the email’s message “was so nebulous to the point of being indiscernible as to whom it was actually targeting, if anyone at all" and that “vocalizing concerns about racial difference cannot only be overwrought if done consistently and over mild cultural references, but it only accentuates a feeling of difference and exclusivity within a given community.” In this way, for approximately the one-billionth time, the conversation about how useful it is to focus on political correctness and minority groups began.

The more philosophical issue at stake in such conversations is how to incorporate minority groups and the individuals who belong to them into the Harvard community. Filali’s article (to which he later tacked an apologetic addendum after a response from Kirkland House race relations tutors) implied that the best approach to diversity at Harvard is to value individuals apart from their minority status. Notice, for example, his concern that such policies “magnify the issue of race” and “make everyone self-conscious” about talking about it. The other possible approach would be to value minorities by acknowledging and even emphasizing minority status. Most people would probably choose a balance of the two approaches, but any such balance entails real contradictions.

I sympathize with Filali’s point to an extent because in my freshman year at Harvard, I too was surprised by the overt emphasis on race and ethnicity. The number of student organizations with specific racial and ethnic slants was especially striking. I’d arrived from potentially one of the most politically correct places on earth—the suburbs of Washington, D.C.—and in my high school, mentioning another person’s race was at least awkward and at most taboo. If you wanted to describe your friend, you could mention that she was blond, but not that she was black. Yet on campus, approximately 130 of the official student organizations had some racial or ethnic qualifier. The ethos I’d been brought up with was to accept differences but not to mention them if possible. Harvard’s culture instead tended toward trumpeting them. In my first months at Harvard, I wondered if the latter approach made things worse as it sought to make them better.

But over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that the emphasis on race and ethnicity at Harvard exists in response to real tensions in the "real world.” (Surprise! Racism still exists and Harvard is not an island in this respect.) In this case, for example, Filali suggested that the race relations tutors of Kirkland had forced an apology out of the House Committee, but it instead seems that numerous offended students approached the tutors. It’s a valid point that sometimes being politically correct can draw unnecessary emphasis to race and ethnicity, but it’s naïve to imagine that this is usually the case, not to mention insulting to people who may have real grievances. Another way of thinking about it is that it is generally rude to assume that people who seek medical help are hypochondriacs; for similar reasons it is rude to assume that those who are offended do not have cause.

Filali suggests “we should not isolate ourselves from ethnic, racial, or cultural reference points and symbols. In interacting with them and sounding them out, we navigate their social relevance and significance, and engage in meaningful and thought-provoking debate in an inclusive way.” He fails to recognize how frequently this requires the assumption that we may have genuinely offended our peers. More broadly, while it’s not unfair to imagine that sometimes the best way to respect minority groups is not to bring up their status, this is a bad default assumption. There is a balance to be had between polite silence and meaningful discussion, but if other members of the Harvard community feel hurt in some way, the balance has swung toward the latter. When fellow students find something objectionable, the decent response is not to tell them they are being overly sensitive and making things worse. The correct response is to apologize and listen.

Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13, a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House, is spending spring 2012 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.