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Who Does Harvard Belong To?

Underrepresented minorities should remain steadfast when their right to Harvard is questioned

By Ifeoluwa T. Obayan
Ifeoluwa T. Obayan ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Biomedical Engineering and Social Anthropology joint concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

I will never forget a moment in my Ethical Reasoning lecture sophomore spring when my professor asked the class if they thought African-American descendents of slaves should receive reparations. The class sat still and silent for a moment. You may wonder what I was thinking.

I glanced over at the only other black person in the room, thankfully a friend of mine, and decided to keep my hand down. Our professor was the type to hold a dialogue when a student made a comment, asking follow up questions. In section, this may be expected, but in a lecture even with a smaller-sized class, this felt like a defense. And what I was not going to do was be one of the token black people in the predominantly white classroom that was defending the people’s right for reparations. I had already been in many a room with this type of demographic at Harvard where issues dealing with underrepresented minorities were brought up, so I knew what that looked like, felt like, and was not ready for the required emotional labor at that time.

The standstill was broken when a white male student raised his hand and answered the question with a question. With a serious tone of voice, he asked the professor if he thought affirmative action could be considered reparations.

I was taken aback.

The professor, the poor man, must have then realized he had inadvertently touched on a tense subject. His conciliatory response was that some people may consider affirmative action as a form of reparations. He quickly moved on to the next subject.

Now, you may think my story is wild. But, ask almost any black student on this campus and I guarantee you, they will have a personal account to share. Many of them are more direct, biting, and outrageous than mine. My story doesn’t even end there, but for the purposes of this piece, you get the point. This moment was eye-opening for me.

In theory, I knew black students were accused of taking the spots of our white and even Asian-American counterparts in top universities because of so-called “affirmative action.” However, even though I attended a public high school in Texas, no one had ever questioned my college admissions success, at least to my face, that I had heard of. Maybe they were thinking it — I don’t know — and I never cared. I knew how hard I had worked and I recognized the miraculous grace of God on my life. Yet, witnessing that student raise his hand and boldly ask that question without regard for his fellow classmates of color was a wake-up call. Some of the students I share this campus with really consider me an affirmative action admit that filled a diversity quota.

So, when The Crimson broke the news last fall that Harvard favors those who fund it in the admissions process, I cackled. Though amusing, the news didn’t surprise me: I thought back to that moment from sophomore spring, and the irony was so clear. My response to the news story was only one out of a sea of people who looked like me and had experienced something similar.

Earlier this month when we learned about the college admissions fraud scandal, I was again unsurprised. This time though, the reactions saddened me. There were expressions of amusement, shock, anger, and justification. Some shed light on the more accepted inequities in the college admissions system. Others expanded on how wealth and power covertly operate within society’s fallacious meritocracies throughout the entire lifespan of the privileged. But, no one asked why we care so much?

Why do these stories matter enough to elicit such a response?

Surely, the public reveal of criminal or even ethically questionable, but accepted, methods of gaining college admission prove the realities of rampant inequality that many of us experience in our daily lives, try to speak out against, and raise awareness about. Nevertheless, it also says something about us that we look to these stories to secure our wavering sense of belonging in our environment.

I get it, and I don’t say this to silence us. Continue to speak. Post. Feel. But rather than allowing the question of our belonging to haunt us and allowing these stories to validate our existence here, why not turn the question on its head? Instead of asking if we, as black or underrepresented minority students, belong at Harvard, ask: Who does Harvard belong to? This question may open up even more complexities as we consider an answer, but it also shifts the focus. Is Harvard worthy of us? This bastion of education and excellence that was built for the privileged, many of who rose to power by oppressing others?

Harvard belongs to us, and we must refuse to let the actions, words, or structures that we encounter shake our resolve. We must continue to press forward, to uproot the dark foundation, and lay the groundwork for equality and justice. We, who were shut out not even 200 years ago. We, who have been. We, who grow in number. We, who are to come in a future that I pray will be more fair to us. We have just as much of a right as anyone.

Many of us struggle with imposter syndrome for different reasons. Sadly, the real deception — that we are the frauds — is something we have internalized. Yet, if anything, the recent news has shown us who the real impostors are.

Ifeoluwa T. Obayan ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Biomedical Engineering and Social Anthropology joint concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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