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Continuing Conversations: Ethnic Studies at Harvard

By Sally Chen, Anwar Omeish, and Andrew Perez

This is part three in a series of op-eds by members of Harvard student groups welcoming the Class of 2021 to campus.

To the Class of 2021:

The Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition welcomes you to a new and exciting phase of your life. Away from the familiar communities you call home, this may be the first time you will need to actively think about who you are in the broader context of the world, a process that will necessarily include conversations about race and ethnicity.

As the academic year starts in earnest and the humid summer camp memories of Opening Days gradually fade, you and other first years will be left with the lingering promise that “Community Conversations” are just a primer for the many transformative conversations you will have in the years to come. The intention and thought that the administration has put into the “Community Conversations” programming is evident with the inclusion of foundational works by scholars and writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. However, as was discussed in a 2016 town hall, these types of incisive discussions and reflections on issues of race and ethnicity are only formally initiated once in a student’s academic tenure at Harvard.

Institutionally, Harvard does not have dedicated space for continuing these conversations, a space typically provided by a program for Ethnic Studies.

As Becina J. Ganther ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, writes in her work “Becoming,” “The world needs more stories, more experiences, more perspectives. That’s how we learn about ourselves and, equally importantly, those around us. And that’s also how we learn about the ways that oppressive structures such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia advantage certain people over others.”

At the heart of this quote is an endorsement for Ethnic Studies: the critical examinations of power and privilege necessary for understanding the complex racial landscape of our communities in the US and the implications of that racial landscape on the rest of the world. You are all coming from different walks of life for an education that should ultimately prepare you to walk out of these gates once more.

Professor Gary Y. Okihiro, founding director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, confirms that “Ethnic Studies is not identity politics, multiculturalism, or an intellectual form of promoting affirmative action for people of color,” a conflation which “trivialize[s] the political claims of the discipline, reducing the analysis of power relations and their interventions.” Particularly in our current political climate, understandings of the oppressive structures which brought us to this moment are critical in the classroom and beyond.

Generations of Harvard students and faculty before you have long been committed to moving past “Community Conversations” as a starting point, including 11 proposals for Ethnic Studies at Harvard in the last 45 years. You are part of a long legacy of student action, and the need for thoughtful conversation about race and ethnicity is greater now than it has ever been before. This is a moment for change. In a political climate that encourages ignorance and bigotry, the choice to take ownership over your education is revolutionary, whether by formally pursuing and advocating for Ethnic Studies, taking classes by your excellent faculty of color, attending student-led teach-ins, or hosting educational/political events with your cultural organizations.

Finally, you are certainly not alone in pursuit of your education. The Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights has long supported students pursuing Ethnic Studies at Harvard, providing a secondary field for undergraduates, structured programming such as their Student Advisor Council, and working groups in Asian American and Latina/o Studies for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. Furthermore, the Ethnic Studies track new to History & Literature this year provides an exciting opportunity for students to pursue Ethnic Studies in a concentration and also provides another formal pathway for bringing Ethnic Studies faculty to our campus.

The Ethnic Studies Coalition will continue to advocate for a robust and interdisciplinary Ethnic Studies program at Harvard, with the goal of upholding that lofty promise of continuing these crucial conversations in our communities and beyond.

Sally Chen ’19, a co-coordinator of the Task Force for Asian and Pacific American Studies and an inactive Crimson editor, is a joint concentrator in History & Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Winthrop House. Andrew Perez ’20 lives in Mather House. Anwar Omeish ’19 is a Social Studies Concentrator in Lowell House. They write on behalf of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.

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