Every time I get on a plane I get stares. No, not stares in the good way, but in the “Oh my god, he’s on the plane” sort of way. As much as I would like to celebrate the fact that I have two eyes, two arms, and two legs and am physically similar to the rest of mankind, I can’t. I am different. I’m brown.
Often times, individuals falsely operate under the assumption that visible cultural and ethnic differences imply conflict, which would suggest that we ignore racial differences. Ignoring ethnic and racial differences and opting for a more homogenous society would, however, create more tension. Instead, ethnic and racial differences foster communication and dialogue that would otherwise be limited in a more homogenous society. In fact, it is our differences that can often make life interesting and worth living. At a time when members of our campus, both administrators and students, are discussing the nature of student groups on campus, it is important that we recognize the inherent value of and reaffirm our support for student organizations that celebrate the uniqueness of various ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. And for the past 25 years, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, an organization whose name reflects its goal, has been committed to bringing students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds together.
The Foundation is meant to encourage a flow and exchange of culture, traditions, and heritage so that we can learn from our differences, but not to grant legitimacy to self-segregation by funding ethnic groups and their events. Self-segregation, in fact, is exactly what we all fear (second, perhaps, only to racism). The Foundation only funds events that are open to the entire Harvard community, and it also requires student groups to actively publicize those events on campus. Group-specific events are crucial—one cannot have the intercultural without the cultural. Thus, the celebration of particular cultures is fundamental to the mission of the Foundation.
Furthermore, in its grants process the Harvard Foundation increases funding by 20 percent for organizations that co-sponsor their events with different ethnic organizations in hopes of bringing together both similar and different people. For instance, last semester the Foundation provided funding for “Stand up for Peace,” a night of comedy featuring an Arab comedian and Jewish comedian, which had a joint sponsorship from the Society of Arab Students and Harvard Students for Israel. In addition to supporting ethnic groups on campus, the Foundation hosts its own events that encourage the betterment of intercultural and race relations. For example, the annual Cultural Rhythms festival embodies ethnic cooperation and celebrates our common humanity while at the same time recognizing our differences.
And all the events the Harvard Foundation sponsors—including those focusing on a single group and those integrating the experiences of many—are open to the community and widely publicized. Take, for example, the Thai Society’s New Years Party I attended last Monday. Had it not been for the Thai Society, I wouldn’t have 1) learned about the importance of Thai New Year or 2) have had the pleasure of trying mango sticky rice dessert. And there are many others like me. So many of these organizations encompass people that are not just descendants of a particular ethnicity, but that simply have an interest in that ethnicity and its concomitant culture. The South Asian Association’s main cultural production, Ghungroo, swells every year in participation, particularly from non-South Asian individuals. Last year its cast was more than 20 percent “not-brown,” and its audience was even more diverse. Self-segregation is not the intention behind cultural celebration; rather, it is the antithesis. Cultural celebrations create spaces for social harmony through interaction, involvement, and empathy—making insiders out of the so-called “outsiders.” These events are actually open forums for anyone that is interested in a particular culture, and we would hope that individuals attend these events precisely to combat self-segregation and to participate in the greater intercultural conversation on this campus.
Celebrating differences and recognizing that we are different is a way to improve race relations, whereas pulling on our similarities accomplishes less. At the airport, I’m never just a person—I’m a brown person. And there are issues that simply cannot be detached from this fact. The presence of ethnic organizations can bring issues like this to light. Only when there is adequate dialogue and discussion about being different will we come to some sort of understanding of who we are as a community. This is what the Foundation hopes to do. For, in the end, I, the Foundation, and Harvard as a university all value diversity. Why would we want a society composed of faceless, amorphous, and indistinguishable individuals? That idea scares me. Personally, I would prefer to not live in such a homogeneous world of bullion. For me, the fact that the diversity among us is abundant is a most valuable quality of our life on campus.
Owais Siddiqui ’07 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. He is an intern for the Harvard Foundation.