When I heard about the vandalism incident at Harvard Law School on Thursday morning, in which someone placed black tape over the faces of portraits of all of the black professors in Wasserstein Hall, I felt a visceral kick in my stomach.
And it felt visceral because though the black tape stated no words, it screamed something loud and clear: Achievement is not and will never be immunization from racism.
I’ve been told my entire my life that the best response to racism was to work harder. Hate against you, we’re told from early on, should only motivate you to achieve higher.
So when your sixth grade classmates scream “go back to your own country, fucking chink,” you should study harder. And when you get thrown against a wall and searched by police on your way home from your Advanced Placement exams, you should study even harder. And when you get followed because the way you look makes you a supposed national security threat, you should, of course, study harder.
So you can get into a respectable university.
So you can get a respectable job. And become accomplished in your respectable profession. And associate with respectable people and gain membership to respectable organizations. And maybe, just maybe even have your portrait hung on the wall of some respectable institution where once people who looked like you couldn’t even dream of entering.
So you go through countless nights of working yourself to the bone and quietly endure all the humiliations along the way, only to find—when you have reached the apex of respectability—black tape over your face, screaming you still do not belong.
So, what now?
I admire the black HLS professors and the many others who overcame obstacles I can only imagine to be where they are, and do the inspiring work that they do. I’m not chalking up their paths to securing respectability, but this mindset is not without its followers.
And I don’t fault my mother and all the mothers for telling their children to work harder when they come home dazed and confused from their first experiences with racism. I can only imagine the hope they have for their children to not suffer the humiliation they had faced once they climb up the respectability ladder.
I can only imagine the deep fear these mothers and fathers have when they tell their sons and daughters to never wear hoodies, to dress up, to whistle classic tunes, to lose their accent, to shave before going to the airport, to avoid their own cultural organizations, to not look or sound or be too much like themselves.