For pre-orientation one year ago, I chose the First-Year Urban Program—a whirlwind week of social justice in both debate and practice. We lived with no air conditioning, donated breakfast in garbage bags, and sandwiches with only one piece of ham. At night, we debated all the intricacies of privilege, BGLTQ rights, feminism, and police brutality.
While this social justice thing was completely new to me, it was also the only part of Harvard where I felt like I fit in. As a lower-middle class, Chinese-American woman, I was not made for Harvard. But in the social justice community, I found others who shared my experiences, my story, and my values—a group of “others” that became a lifeline I held on to tightly.
First semester of freshman year, I volunteered for the Phillips Brooks House Association, took Professor Matthew Desmond’s class on poverty in America, read Upworthy articles religiously, and even cried over a debate on assimilation. I objected more than a few times when someone talked about BGLTQ issues or sexual assault without a “representative” in the room. I cringed when “African-American” and “Black” were used incorrectly. I established myself as an authority on all things Asian.
I embraced these exacting habits because FUP wasn’t just the first time I learned about social justice—it was the first time I felt validated, heard, honest, and powerful. It was the first time I realized I have a right to be myself, a right to be passionate, a right to demand change. But I also quickly discovered that the social justice community isn’t perfect.
To claim a place in this “accepting” community, I had to think perfectly, talk perfectly, act perfectly, live perfectly. There was no room for unintended marginalization, for career considerations that paid too high, for ignorance towards the ever-expanding set of causes that the social justice movement adopts. As much as I want to sympathize, too much of it is unacceptably exclusive.
Instead of focusing on the very real “bigots” of this world and tackling head-on the political structures of inequality, the loudest voices of the movement have become preoccupied with witch-hunting for “fake liberals.” There is this strange conviction that only the most extreme versions of a position can be true, and that all minor deviations, all attempts to compromise or to even consider the other side are forms of bigotry.
The result of this extremity is a tendency to prioritize flashiness over truth. It means that if, as a woman, you suggest that being careful with clothing, especially when walking by yourself, is a good way to reduce the risk of sexual assault, you will be immediately caricatured as blaming women for rape. It means that if you talk about the higher SAT and GPA scores needed for Asian-Americans in college applications in a debate about affirmative action, you will be immediately shut down as trying to pit minorities against each other.
Using exaggeration and shame to deny the tension of real nuances is both ignorant and irresponsible. No issue that deals with thousands of people can be so crudely simplified. And if my unwillingness to support these exaggerations earns me the ultimate disqualifier of “center-left,” that is the identity I want to embrace. Because this active polarization is more than a Harvard drama—it is a denial of humanity to the rest of this country.
As someone who comes from a lower-middle class neighborhood of moderate conservatives, I can’t support this criminalization of conservatism. I not only know but also have friends who are Trump supporters. I hate the misogynistic and racist elements of the modern Republican Party, but the “angry white men” who have been deserted by their manufacturing jobs are the past owners of foreclosed houses in my city. These are people who can barely afford to get by, let alone have the time to concern themselves with social justice. And to believe that this world can move forward in hatred of these people is a mistake.
Social justice does not justify exclusion. And acceptance cannot involve putting someone’s politics above their humanity. We cannot truly claim to embrace diversity when we expect everyone on the inside to look the same. People like me may not be “perfect” by your standards of social justice, but as a “real” liberal, I am also trying to make this world a better place.
And I am not your enemy.
Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.