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I don’t like secrets. Nor do I have many of them. My bed is located in the common room. I have had sex within the pages of The Crimson. I don’t see the point in closing bathroom doors, unless I am in the bathtub painting my nails, and that’s because a glossy topcoat is an art that requires total concentration. My roommates literally had to teach me when to knock on their doors.
There are good reasons to keep secrets. If being out about your gender identity means losing your parents’ support, not talking can be an important choice. If you’re judging a peer’s poetry submission in a small community, it's best not to know who the author is. And if you’re running a competitive comp, or semester-long audition for an organization, keeping your assessment of compers’ abilities from other candidates is an act of kindness.
But sometimes here at Harvard we suffer from Secret Room Syndrome.
Harvard people like accomplishing shit. There’s always a secret room to discover, a new level to reach, something unfathomably wonderful around the next bend. This impulse is awesome when it comes to cancer research or performance art. And for people who are marginalized, building our own secret spaces is empowering. But often at Harvard, secret rooms are spaces where privilege concentrates.
If you’re in a social club, or if you’ve ever tried to talk to someone about their social club, you may have run up against the door to a secret room: “We keep that within the club.”
The same happens with comps. Maybe there are parts of an organization’s building that non-members can’t go to. Maybe some initiation rituals are kept hush-hush. Maybe requirements are mysterious, or we’re not told how we’re being judged.
Secrets are sexy. Secrets play directly into our desire to belong. Shared secrets bond communities, and wanting to be in on a community’s secret makes us work harder to join. But secrets often reinforce patterns of exclusivity. They can prevent us from being accountable to communities beyond our spheres.
A lot of people at Harvard don’t come from privilege, and a lot of people do cool things to overturn systems of privilege. But Harvard is a place that makes elites. And it’s a place with a lot of internal stratification.
Secret-keeping reinforces this stratification. It creates ingroups and outgroups. For a lot of us, entering the ingroup seems to require a password we don’t know. This password might be a class norm or a kind of behavior that is gendered and raced. When we use secrecy to cultivate mystique—when we refuse to talk about our clubs, or stay conspicuously mum about what we do—we not only reinforce the difference between ingroup and outgroup. We also create hierarchies of belonging. These hierarchies play on inequalities in the larger world.
Secrecy also prevents us from being accountable. When no one’s looking, I eat the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts straight from the Whole Foods bin. And I bet that dude wouldn’t have street harassed me last night had his friends not also catcalled. People do things in groups, and in private, that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Consider the racist bullshit that just went down at the University of Oklahoma. If the SAE dudes were standing in front of the whole university, rather than just in their fraternity, how many of them would have said what they said? We’re all responsible for our choices. But closed communities of privilege don’t help.
Or what about the recent kerfluffle over the Spee’s objectifying party invitations? A club representative issued a public apology directly to The Crimson—a great example of taking accountability. But if clubs were more open to scrutiny to begin with—if members’ attitudes toward gender inclusion were transparent, if alumni board membership were public, and if club officers were more willing to talk to the press—perhaps the incident wouldn’t have taken place. Openness keeps us responsible to each other, to our communities, and to ourselves.
Secret rooms can give us lots of things: Job networks; spaces to get our groove on; feelings of prestige. Especially for those of us not born into secret rooms—maybe not even born in houses—learning the password can change our world.
But we shouldn’t hide success behind a password at all.
At the end of the day, it’s a simple question about what kind of community we want to be. Are we going to trust that what we have to offer—our clubs, our magazines, our teams, ourselves—is good enough, cool enough, interesting enough to draw people in without an added level of mind-fuck?
Are we going to deal with our problems in the open like the deep thinkers, empathic listeners, slightly sloppy kissers, and resolute p-set buddies we are?
Or are we going to cross our legs like dudes taking up too much space on the subway, cackle softly like cartoon capitalists, and plot amongst ourselves?
I used to have Secret Room Syndrome. I jumped through the hoops, I guessed at the passwords, I flirted with the sentinels, I followed Tadzio around the bends. And when I got there, I found—well, not much. The furniture was decrepit. The music was so-so. There was no ice cream. But mostly, I found the people who were there with me.
I’m not gonna lie: The booze was excellent. But frankly, I’m more interested in exploring the brilliant rooms of my friends.
Reina A.E. Gattuso ‘15 is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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