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I am the only white person in my friend group.
I cannot tell you how exactly this happened — a myriad of coincidences, a stroke of good faith, an omnipotent hand — but it did. I sit and laugh among friends that now feel like family, able to celebrate and cherish our distinctly beautiful differences.
My favorite thing about my friends is our conversations; they sound like a tuning orchestra. Layers of complex, dissonant notes from an array of instruments that somehow fold into each other to create extremely chaotic – yet mysteriously vibrant and otherworldly — music. No matter how juvenile or satirical they may appear, our conversations reveal profound truths about the world around us.
One evening, my friend group’s banter bounced off the brick buildings in Harvard Square like the marble in a pinball machine. Somehow we drifted into talk of childhood board game proficiency where we — unsurprisingly — managed to make fun of someone for their inability to play checkers. My heart was giddy with joy, and it was then I decided to utter the phrase that will live on in infamy: “You know what else is a fun game? Bananagrams.”
And with that, the jovial smile plastered on my face was met with shrieks of laughter. “Ellie, what the hell is Bananagrams?” asked one of my friends. Witty remarks of confusion danced about the air until one phrase topped them all:
“See, that’s how you know you’re white. You know what Bananagrams is.”
Bananagrams was a childhood staple for my family and me. Throw scrabble and dominoes through a portal to the modern era and out pops the yellow, banana-shaped bag filled to the brim with smooth alphabet tiles and hours of humorous competition. Growing up, all my neighbors knew how to play the game; I even played it in elementary school.
I assumed everyone knew how to play the game. I grew up playing it, so it must be a part of everyone’s childhood reality. Right?
I could not have been more wrong.
The majority of my friends at Harvard did not know what Bananagrams was, and those who did learned about the game from a white friend. And with that, Bananagrams became a metaphor for modern-day race relations, a metaphor for how white people so often superimpose their realities over people of color.
Just like I had assumed my friends all knew what Bananagrams was, white people often assume realities of white people are realities of all. We assume others can move on from the murder of Breonna Taylor as easily as we did and aren’t emotionally distraught by the lack of justice for her a year later. We assume others can easily disengage from Cornel West’s departure and its repercussions. We manage to find the gray area in the recent Bachelor franchise controversy. We turn a blind eye to the pleas made to return cultural objects by the Association of American Indian Affairs.
As I am writing this, the top four most read articles in the Crimson all illustrate people of color bringing forth their unjust experiences and narratives, yet being shut down rather than receiving justice and change. These events do not threaten my existence, but they threaten the existence of my friends.
We white people truly do not understand what it is not to be white. We do not have to think about race every day, and that is our privilege. We so often choose convenience over empathy. We play our Bananagrams and assume others know the game too. We assume others play it the exact same way, and we refuse to learn any other games.
I truly thought I was anti-racist before coming to Harvard. I had read “The New Jim Crow.” I had watched “13th.” I had gone to Black Lives Matter protests. I had worked at a social justice organization for three years. But it took being the only white person in my friend group to show me my shortcomings. To show me how, in a day-to-day way, my mindset still needed a lot of work. It took being uncomfortable with my whiteness: getting authentic chai from an Indian restaurant, observing racial dynamics around me each and every day, and listening to my friends as they talked about their experiences with racism. It took putting down the Bananagrams.
Facing blatant prejudice after 9/11. Being gaslit when discussing an issue that personally impacts them. Having to downplay their views on systemic racism to get an internship or job. Being called “exotic” or racially fetishized by men. Hearing the statement, “you’re so pretty for a Black girl.” These are the daily realities of my friends — realities I will never be able to understand fully.
A lot of us white people think we are doing a good job at being anti-racist. We love Michelle Obama! We have a Black friend! But when the time comes, do we actually defend and amplify the Black voices and narratives around us, internalizing them to deconstruct our own white-framed reality? Or do we remind ourselves that we don’t hate people of color and go about our day unchanged?
This inherent contradiction of listening to marginalized voices when it is beneficial to us and ignoring them when it makes us uncomfortable is not anti-racist. It’s engaging in the ignorant and ingrained societal habit of moral licensing — checking the box of being “not racist” in one category and then refusing to change your behavior in any other instance.
We white people can’t change the color of our skin. But right now, we are faced with a decision. We can equate reposting a Black Lives Matter infographic on Instagram to being anti-racist, watch others push for progress, and remain disengaged in our own little bubble; or we can actively amplify realities that are not our own. We can elevate the narratives of others that have gone silenced for too long, proactively change our behaviors and attitudes, and push the boundaries of our comfort.
We must learn how to be uncomfortable and put down the Bananagrams. We must be the ones to relearn reality from another point of view.
Ellie H. Ashby ’24 is a Crimson Editorial Editor.
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