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THE ARRIVAL OF AWARE Week (Actively Working Against Racism and Ethnocentrism) '91 reminds me of two things. The first is a Crimson editorial I wrote when I was a sophomore in which I castigated my fellow students for their apparent apathy toward the first AWARE Week festivities. The second is the incident that led me to write the editorial.
I was a first-year visiting Central Square for the first time. I was buying something or another, and the store was full of Black men--young, muscular, vaguely threatening. In my pocket was a wad of bills--about $80. Afraid to expose so much money to a crowd of potential muggers, I carefully extracted a single $10 bill from my pocket without revealing the rest.
On the way home, I was acutely ashamed of my unease. No amount of post facto rationalizing (It was a high-crime neighborhood, I'm just not used to being in the city), could erase the fear that a dangerous, latent racism lurked beneath my avowedly liberal exterior.
AWARE Week, the essential purpose of which is to encourage students to recognize and confront these subtle prejudices, came along as I was wrestling with this contradiction. What a perfect opportunity, I thought, for everyone to go through a cathartic experience like mine.
Hence, my indignation at the paltry turnout.
Like a lot of things I thought and wrote during my first two years at Harvard, I no longer stand behind those sentiments. Like a lot of people at Harvard, I now think AWARE Week, as it is currently constituted, is a waste of time and effort, albeit an especially well-intentioned waste.
IN THE KEYNOTE SPEECH of the first-ever AWARE Week in 1989, Colgate psychologist John Dovidio told the gathered penitents that 15 percent of Americans are overtly racist, while the remaining 85 percent are racists and don't realize it. The message was clear: AWARE Week intends to dig out that hidden fiber of racism and hang it out for view, thus comforting the aggrieved and assuaging the consciences of the offenders. This week's agenda is loaded with the same stuff: a workshop on "Addressing Issues of Personal Racism," a panel discussion on "Multiculturalism in the Ivory Tower," and so on.
I don't mean to dispute the existence of unconscious prejudice. Controlled social-psychological experiments have demonstrated that fair-minded, unbigoted subjects can let race cloud their judgment and alter their behavior. But psychology also tells us that humans are cognitively incapable of assessing every situation and every person without reference to established categories. That is to say, prejudice at some level is a human frailty that cannot be wholly eliminated, but can only be acknowledged and ameliorated
This sort of self-analysis has inspired a slew of Crimson columns of the White Liberal Guilt genre. One writer, in a piece aptly headlined "Liberal, Open-Minded Racist?", reported asking Assistant Dean Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle '76 (the brains behind AWARE Week) how to root out his shameful fear of approaching large Black men at night. Her reply: "You should experience large Black men in groups for yourself."
Actually, that seems pretty reasonable, and that's one of the benefits of Harvard's diversity. Still, we don't need AWARE Week to accomplish it.
SO WHAT USEFUL PURPOSE does AWARE Week serve? None that I know of. It gives guilt-stricken white liberals a chance to attend rap sessions at which they can engage in a sort of Maoist ritual self-criticism and confess to committing sins they can't even specify, much less remember.
But we must be doing something wrong. The problem must be pretty severe, too; otherwise, a prestigious university wouldn't go to such great lengths to solve it, right? As the police told the confused protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Trial, "[T]he high authorities we serve, before they would order such an arrest as this, must be quite well informed about the reasons."
Now I'm not naive enough to contend that there is no racism at Harvard. Every so often, an ugly racist incident surfaces to disabuse us of that notion. Nevertheless, instances of genuine, hateful racism are exceedingly rare (I can think of three publicized cases during my four years) and are inevitably condemned from all quarters when they occur.
So if the purpose of AWARE Week is to create an atmosphere in which race-hatred is unacceptable...good news! Such an atmosphere already exists. But if the purpose is to reform the miscreants...bad news. Anyone inclined to scrawl "KKK" on a laundry room door (as happened a few years ago) probably won't attend any AWARE Week events. AWARE Week is an extreme case of preaching to the converted.
WITH NO OBVIOUS ENEMY to engage, AWARE Week is left to tilt at the windmill of "racial insensitivity," (provisionally defined as "any speech or action that offends three or more members of any minority group"). Though a nebulous evil, insensitivity is assumed to be not only pervasive, but just as harmful as actual racism.
This is the fundamental problem with AWARE Week. By boldly announcing a campaign "against racism and ethnocentrism"--and then devoting itself to the relatively inconsequential racial issues on this campus--AWARE Week dulls our vigilance against the serious stuff. At this week's festivities, the featured film is not Do the Right Thing or Mississippi Burning, but House Party (with a group discussion to follow, naturally).
When minority activists get so worked up over trifles, the average non-minority can reasonably conclude that (1.) Minorities don't have anything more important to worry about; and (2.) AWARE-types call everything racism.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many students dismiss all talk of racism as P.C. wolf-crying?
I'm not blind to racism; no one who has heard the word "nigger" uttered in anger can be. I'll never forget how the lone Black student in my local high school one year was taunted with the nickname "Spot," after a ditty sung to the tune of The Police's "King of Pain": There's a little black spot on the road today. A Black boy got in a white boy's way.
Nor can I forget the police officer in South Carolina who told me, a few months before I arrived at Harvard, how he and his fellow Klansmen liked to "work over the niggers."
Nothing, absolutely nothing at Harvard compares to this. To suggest that anything in the hearts of 99.44 percent of Harvard students remotely deserves the same name--"racism"--as this shameful hatred is to deprive the word of meaning. And to flagellate ourselves over our own imagined racism is worse than worthless--it's counterproductive.
SO WHAT can we guilt-ridden white liberals do? I suggest we reformulate the way we think about race and racism. Specifically, I would have us judge ourselves by a sort of categorical imperative of racial sensitivity: If everyone's attitudes about races were identical to my own, would society be acceptably just?
Under this standard, I can look at the AWARE Week posters that ask "Are you AWARE?" and answer, "Yes, thanks."
But AWARE Week sets up a much more stringent standard--an impossibly stringent standard, in fact. It asks us to identify and expunge every strand and fiber of insensitivity (as previously defined) from our consciousness. This standard encourages us to obsess about race, which, paradoxically, tends to let considerations of race intrude where they have no business and where they would not have arisen otherwise.
Under my standard, well-intentioned white liberals could resign themselves to be what they are: imperfect creatures trying to follow the Golden Rule. Better yet, this standard clearly establishes that people like me are the moral betters of those who advocate nonsense such as "Afrocentrism" and the superiority of "sun peoples" over "ice peoples."
But more immediately, my standard exempts me from any obligation to attend AWARE activities this week. After all, a world populated exclusively by people who thought like John Larew would cause no one injustice. If you can substitute your name for mine in that sentence, then AWARE Week won't help you much, either.
But it's just as well that way, because outside the gates of Harvard, there's racism and ethnocentricism to fight, and time's a-wasting.
I'll be busy working against racism and ethnocentrism.
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