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This holiday season, dinner table conversations will center on family traditions, gift-giving, and divisive current events. These discussions will be particularly exhausting for students affected by debates over the displacement of Syrian refugees, racist police brutality, institutional racism, and student activism—especially when these debates take place with folks who aren’t affected or empathetic.
For many who have been directly affected by recent events, going home can be a disembodying change of culture and environment. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s placemats help students navigate these difficult conversations. This semester, students have experienced the defacement of black professors’ portraits at Harvard Law School, resistance to changing the titles of what were formerly referred to as Harvard House masters, rampant Islamophobia in politics, and student activism. It is difficult and daunting to explain one’s convictions and actions to family members, especially for first-generation Harvard students who represent “the voice of Harvard.”
By giving students the tools to engage in these conversations, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is supporting the people for whom this is relevant. Upholding its mission to “foster understanding, community and belonging,” this office is simply doing its job.
Some accuse the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of indoctrination, but the views on the placements come from students views, not administrators. Earlier this year, Latinx students issued a number of demands, including that Harvard change the title of its House heads, after police assaulted a delegate to the annual Latinx Ivy League Conference in November. Black students recently led a rally in solidarity with activists at Yale and the University of Missouri. Last year, black students led marches, demonstrations, and die-ins in protest of racist police brutality. Muslim and Arab American students continue to speak out and organize against Islamophobia and exclusion at Harvard and beyond.
The administration isn’t proselytizing students. With the placemats, it is simply listening to concerns raised by students of color, Muslim students, and other minority students who have rallied, made art, written op-eds, and made their voices heard on these issues. Harvard students have the agency to read the placemats and disagree with their positions, but they ring true to many. This is a minor token of institutional support for racial justice, and it shouldn’t be controversial for Harvard’s administration to affirm the humanity of black, Latinx, Arab, Muslim, and other minority students. The value of black lives, Latinx lives, and Muslim lives is not debatable—at the holiday dinner table, at Harvard, or anywhere else.
For many, going home is not only a break from Harvard but also a reminder of the different worlds, environments, and social networks students occupy beyond campus. While the Harvard administration owes much more to students of color, Muslim students, and other minority students, the placemat distributed by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity acknowledges and addresses their concerns about the winter holiday. Producing and distributing this placemat validates students at a time that can be difficult and uncomfortable to navigate.
In spite of the season’s cheer, winter’s holiday dinners can be draining and difficult for students forced to explain themselves, Harvard, and controversial events. Rather than condemning these placemats, we must recognize that Harvard is serving students for whom these conversations are personal rather than political.
Bernadette N. Lim '16 is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Dunster House. Ted G. Waechter '18, a Crimson editorial writer, is an African Studies concentrator in Quincy House.
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