Harvard’s Underside

Discussing racism on campus should be encouraged, not shunned

“Is Harvard subconsciously racist?”

Without a doubt, most Harvard students, if asked, would firmly deny that they are racist or that they employ racial profiling in their everyday lives. Yet this difficult and loaded question has emerged from the woodwork and has been asked, debated over e-mail, and discussed over dinner ever since Saturday.

We write, of course, of the incident in which several Quad residents called the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) to check whether students playing on the Quad were in fact Harvard students and permitted to be there. It turned out that they were Harvard students who had explicit permission to use the space—and specifically members of the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) and Association of Black Women at Harvard (ABWH) participating in an annual contest. Since then the campus has erupted in discussion of the incident and what it shows about the presence of racism at Harvard.

Given the details of the situation, the question of whether or not last Saturday’s events at the Quad were racially motivated is largely unclear. It is also largely irrelevant. What matters, instead, is that a large segment of the student body—including many leaders of the African-American community—perceives the incident as demonstrative of the fact that our professed level of open-mindedness may be a façade for a deeper, more complex reality. Indeed, many claim that this incident is merely the tip of the iceberg, a highly visible example of a more widespread and insidious phenomenon.

Instead of trying to contest this viewpoint, students would best be served by using this example as a springboard for a greater conversation about our subconscious biases against certain groups of people and the lack of social cohesion on campus. These are topics that lie at the core of what it means to live on a college campus, yet they are all too often shunned or brushed away as taboo.

Yet if subconscious racism or racial profiling exists on campus today, it will only abate when students begin to reflect on their own thought processes and unconsidered assumptions. By simply thinking and talking about such issues rather than repressing them, we will become more aware of the problems on campus and the way we treat our peers. With greater awareness will come a more sociable, friendly, and open attitude toward interaction with other students, reducing the frequency of incidents like that on the Quad, racially motivated or not, and making Harvard a stronger community.

This incident also sheds light on the poverty of bonds in Harvard’s social fabric and a failure in Harvard’s student support system, regardless of issues of race. The fact that students suggested HUPD as the best solution to the problem, rather than contacting a tutor or going to speak with the students themselves, says a lot about the social distance Harvard students feel between one another.

Finally, this incident has raised the important issue of subconscious racism in American in general. The issues stemming from racism, whose legacy in this country is far from extinct, manifest themselves everywhere, from the housing market to the workplace to college campuses. The discussions of the last week have been valuable not just for rethinking our own community but also for challenging Harvard students to think about our society’s most pervasive problems.

As an academic community, Harvard prides itself on the dialogue that occurs on campus, even on the most sensitive issues. In this tradition, we should embrace and extend the discussion of last Saturday’s incident at the Quad rather than trying to pretend that nothing consequential happened.