“You’ve had a lot of advantages, you know,” he told me, “ones that not a lot of people have, starting with how you came here.” Yikes. I assume that he meant how I came to America—a nice tinge of xenophobia rounds out his statement. It’s winter break, and we are both servers at a local restaurant chain. The relentless nature of the work prevents me from formulating a response beyond a conciliatory “Yes—I am aware of my advantages.”
At first glance, it seems contradictory for a white male to lecture a female person of color about her advantages. However, if you delve a layer deeper, into the advantages and disadvantages which are not immediately apparent, you would know that one of us is from a working-class family in a small town where higher education resources are not easily available. You would also find that the other grew up grew up in a family with two college-educated parents who deeply ingrained the value of education into her and sent her to a magnet school which emphasized college-preparedness. I fit that second description, and was being completely truthful when I said I was aware of the advantages I have had—ones largely invisible to the casual observer.
Here at Harvard, we place a lot of emphasis upon who can speak about certain issues based on their affiliation to certain groups, often assuming that one’s skin color (white) and gender (male) situate them within an insulated utopia which precludes any real understanding of hardship. However, this winter break experience allowed me to see another perspective, one in which being white did not automatically correlate with being privileged—the view which dominates within the Harvard bubble. This experience, along with the recent (and devastating) election results, has convinced me of the monumental importance of not dismissing anyone’s views based upon offhand assumptions about their experiences.
As we try to understand what happened to our country, and which factors precipitated Trump’s rise, perhaps we have to look no further than our own classrooms, where we exclude opinions and viewpoints coming from those whom we assume we can never understand based on their putative privileges. It is all too easy to tell every white male they don’t understand what it is to struggle, to vilify them as the enemy, as ignorant, and the oppressor. But such accusations are both blatantly untrue and dismissive of the wide range of setbacks and obstacles that all people face.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times' Sunday Review, Mark Lilla of Columbia University writes that “in recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” He decries the notion that “whitelash” is the all-encompassing explanation for the election outcome, and instead urges readers to consider the necessity of emphasizing commonalities between Americans. His message is clear: If we can not realize the importance of including a wider array of voices into conversations of social justice, education, the economy, and a host of other sociopolitical issues, unification in our country becomes untenable.
This is not to dismiss the very real difficulties and discrimination which countless people have experienced based upon some element of their racial, sexual, or gender identity. Rather, I wish to call attention to the value of communication and call out the harm of assuming that every obstacle a person has encountered is written on their face. People change their minds through understanding others’ experiences, and a primary way to do this is to engage in discussion.
Instead of assuming that it is someone’s ignorance and privilege that leads them to say something insensitive, we can make progress by resisting the urge to dismiss their perspective, and instead realize that it is through discussion that people learn to consider a wider array of points of view. Repudiating someone’s perspective is counterproductive because in doing so, we miss important opportunities for education, as anyone’s wish to even join a conversation signals a willingness to learn and understand.
We must realize that it is impossible to tell who has had certain advantages and who hasn’t just by looking at them. If we are to forge a way forward for our generation, we must make every effort to incorporate every voice into the conversation.
Katherine L. Borrazzo ’18, a Crimson multimedia editor, is a Psychology concentrator in Leverett House.
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