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?