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If I was white, I would be able to breathe. It would come easy, absent of so much stress and so much weight. I would live in blissful ignorance, forever unaware of the minutiae that occupy my life today.
I imagine I would feel light. Because if I was white, I would be granted the right to be an individual. A daughter, intent on making my parents proud. A big sister, both cheerleader and annoyance to my three younger siblings. A writer, always getting started on her pieces too late. A Harvard student and Government concentrator, thinking about law school.
Free from being an amalgamation of millions or even billions of identities, I would live easily, unaware of how crippling the weight of those identities is, not knowing how they sink on your chest and pull down, always dragging and forever present.
I would not know what it is like when someone you’ve just met asks you if “Muslims really think that.” I would not know what it is like when strangers assume that your (brown) parents aren’t supportive of your ambitions. I would not know what it is like to constantly have to explain where I’m from or what makes me foreign—because I’d be from here and of here and at home. I would never have to experience that panic when your throat closes up and your heart starts pounding because someone has just implied that you are (just a little) less human.
If I was white, I would have walked into Harvard Yard at Visitas and not thought twice. I would have had the guarantee that Harvard was mine. These brick walls and ancient broken streets would be normal, mundane. Maybe even a little—dare I say it—underwhelming. (If I was white, I would dare to say anything. I wouldn’t be worried about being ungrateful for the bounty of Harvard.) Just like I do now, I would stumble through the wet leaves stuck to the paths that run through Tercentenary Theater. But the paths would be mine and the space would be too. I would know that people like me built Harvard, populated it, made it excellent for centuries and centuries.
I would know that I deserved to have a place in the Yard, on the steps of Widener Library, and in the gold stained common rooms in Adams House. Harvard wouldn’t be a pipe dream or a twist of fate. It would be a possibility that came true as the result of my hard work. I wouldn’t be a “diversity admit,” I’d be a strong candidate. And I would know that my being here wasn’t contingent on time or place—that it was just as much of a possibility 50 years ago as it is today.
I wouldn’t have to rewrite the rules or challenge the status quo to make room for myself. In my Government classes, I would still read theories about how only the West is capable of creating functioning political systems, how Islam is an inherently violent and dictatorial religion, and how the rest of the world is in shambles because of their “culture” (not because of the centuries of colonialism and imperialism that has been imposed upon it). But if I was white, it would be so easy to dismiss those words as no longer relevant, as ancient history. Either way, I would still be the civilized West, the democratic West, the intellectual West.
Instead of spending time trying to change the rules, I would get on with the game. I would save hours in pointless, dehumanizing day to day interactions. I’d save energy without the daily stress of microaggressions. I’d be able to utilize my intellect to explore my own interests, instead of constantly challenging the assumptions of centuries old political philosophers and modern day politicians. I would be able to let go of fear—fear for my family, for my friends, for myself. And I would be free of the burden of constantly being on the defensive and working to make my humanity realized and recognized.
If I was white, I would be allowed to belong. I wouldn’t be a person stretched across oceans. I wouldn’t be a person stretched across ideas. I would be able to claim this country and its politics. Maybe I would even affiliate with a political party. I would be able to engage, because I would have hope that things would get better and that they could change. And that’s because I would have been granted legitimacy in the founding documents of this nation, the laws of it, and the structure of it.
If I was white, I wouldn’t be other at all and I wouldn’t be writing this column. I would not even be aware of the nuances that I have written thousands of words about now. And I would have no need to speak, because my voice would already be respected and amplified and replayed, hundreds and thousands and millions of times.
I wonder if I’d feel lighter and if I’d be freer. But I can’t even imagine it and I would never want it. This weight, this fear, this confusion—it’s made me who I am and it’s shaped every part of me. And so, if I was white, I wouldn’t be myself either.
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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