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Columns

Realizing Race

From Winchester to Harvard

By Jennifer A. Gathright

UPDATED: October 21, 2014, at 1:11 a.m.

Two weekends ago, I got to watch “Dear White People” at I, Too, Am Harvard’s Blacktivism conference. This satirical film, set on a fictional but familiar-looking institution named Winchester University, takes an overwhelming and all too real look at racism on college campuses.

All attendees of prestigious institutions like Harvard and the fictional Winchester University undoubtedly reap the privilege of a top-notch education. However, students of color at these institutions still confront the type of discrimination that some might believe to exist only in the cruel Real World. A.O.  Scott of the New York Times writes, “This is in part a movie…about how deeply white supremacy is still embedded in institutions that congratulate themselves on their diversity and tolerance. It is, in other words, about how the distance from a place like Winchester to a place like Ferguson, Mo., is not as great as some of us might wish or suppose.”

Race relations at Harvard are not as bad as they get at Winchester–people here don’t host Blackface parties, our administration responded to I, Too, Am Harvard with a promising working group on diversity and inclusion, and conversations I’ve had with fellow students about race have been overwhelmingly positive and affirming. But sometimes Scott is right. Similarities between Harvard and the Real World reveal themselves to me in jarring and disheartening flickers.

My personal awareness of race came into focus during the college admissions process. I am biracial. If we’re talking percentages, I’m three-quarters white and one-quarter black. My whiteness meant that, before college, I felt that race was an important but not necessarily personal topic.

Race was relevant when I learned about slavery and Jim Crowe. I cared when those “Birthers” questioned my President’s U.S. citizenship. Within my family, we talked about race as it related to American politics or what happened in the news, but we rarely talked about it as it related to us as individuals. In our family’s biracial bubble, race hadn’t mattered. So I implicitly assumed that it wouldn’t really matter for me when I left home for Harvard.

Race’s newfound relevance to my life started with an offhand comment from one of my close high school friends: “Jenny, you’re so lucky you get to say you’re part Black on your college applications.” And it continued during the fall of my freshman year, when people I met began to automatically identify me as “black,” or “mixed,” or “white-looking,” or any combination of things without consulting me. Then, Sarah Siskind published her infamous article on affirmative action and seriously asked, “How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school?” This one brought me back to my high school friend’s comment.

One night last year, I cried the whole walk home from a party, after I excused myself abruptly from a conversation with two non-Harvard students and heard one of them say, “Hold up, don’t pull the trigger fast and walk away. This isn’t Trayvon Martin or something.”

My brilliant friend had to deal with some dude asking her “Can you read?” as she walked across Harvard Yard one night.

The Whiteness Project, a PBS Documentary that part of me still cannot believe is real, aims to interview 1,000 white Americans about race. In one of the 24 interviews released so far, a man talks about how he “[doesn’t] buy into the whole nonsense about discrimination.” The saddest part about watching this interview wasn’t that this man didn’t think discrimination was a thing–it was that I have heard people here at Harvard come dangerously close to his reasoning, insisting certain problems would just go away if we could all just be less sensitive.

Race is complicated. My light skin affords me an arbitrary but undeniable privilege- micro-aggression is not particularly pervasive in my life. But Harvard was the place where I first became aware of how much some identity-based comments can hurt. It was also the place where I learned to celebrate my black identity.

I, Too, Am Harvard was beautiful. It brought the conversation about being black in a white place back where it belonged–led by voices that are typically silenced. It empowered students of color to mutually affirm their value on this campus, and it inspired students across the country and world to do the same.

However, some students here don’t feel comfortable talking about race. Maybe it’s because they don’t feel they have the right vocabulary. Or maybe it’s because they genuinely don’t see the extent to which discrimination remains a problem.

So watch “Dear White People.” The film is far from perfect, but it performs the difficult and important job of forcing its viewers to think about those touchy things that might make them angry, or uncomfortable, or confused. And those feelings are certainly a start.

Jennifer A. Gathright ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

CORRECTION: October 21, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the title was "Dear White People, Watch 'Dear White People.'" In fact, the title of this article is "Realizing Race."

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