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Unlearning Blame and Reimagining Responsibility

By David E. Lewis, Contributing Opinion Writer
David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

Over my short time thus far at Harvard, I’ve been shocked at some of the racist comments and actions of my professors. Even more disturbing, however, have been the discussions and debates over what to do with these professors when their words and behavior are brought into the limelight.

It is clear to me that despite the many claims I’ve heard about wanting to create a safe and equitable environment for marginalized students, their wellbeing is rarely prioritized. In conversations about how Harvard should handle members of its community that spread racism or other forms of bigotry, I’ve been frustrated because the potential growth of the perpetrator, and the debate over how much they are to blame, often takes center stage over the healing, safety, and comfort of those harmed.

Even when students make bigoted comments or ask questions with bigoted assumptions or implications in class, the problem is often brushed aside; in fact, people sometimes comfort and reassure the commenter that although they may have said something problematic, it is a “learning experience” and that it is okay to make mistakes. While perpetrators are being coddled, the harm or hateful environment they create for other students remains unaddressed. While the centering of whiteness at Harvard is clearly on display in these situations, another insidious problem that forms the core of many people’s approach to accountability is also rearing its ugly head: The concept of blame itself must be unlearned and responsibility reimagined.

The specific conception of blame I’m referring to is rooted in the common idea that all people have the power to decide their actions and thus could have made another choice. However, this standard is not applied to everyone in our society equally. A “you get what you choose” logic is applied to marginalized people to justify their suffering under systems of poverty, inequality, and the criminal justice system. Yet, when the subjects become predominantly white, male, and upper-class, the idea of blame flips to defend them.

Suddenly, multiple scenarios and circumstances are recognized as compromising people’s ability to make choices, such as being tired, being too young to know better, experiencing peer pressure, etc. Now the concept of blame introduces a game in which the actual harm done is deemphasized as the circumstances surrounding the perpetrator are examined to determine their moral status and, therefore, how much suffering they deserve, how guilty they should feel, or how much they should be resented.

In addition to the disparate application of blame between the marginalized and the privileged, the exercise of trying to ascribe agency and intent in any situation is a fruitless endeavor. No one can go back in time into someone’s head to truly understand all of the factors influencing their decision. Instead, the concept of blame should be thrown aside in favor of a new concept of responsibility: One in which people are responsible for the harm they cause others whether or not they intended it. We shouldn’t focus on moral culpability, but rectifying the harm done.

Holding people responsible thus becomes about creating a safer space, disincentivizing future harm, and rehabilitation. When determining what to do with a professor who made racist comments, the well-being of students of color should be all that matters. If students cannot be sure whether their professor still believes that they aren’t worthy of being in Harvard’s classroom because of their race, no excuses can justify keeping the professor in the position and forcing students to figure out how to navigate their classes or rearrange their academic plans.

This conception of responsibility also frees perpetrators from the need for self-resentment, which isn’t actually productive or helpful. We can be kind to ourselves and others while still holding each other responsible and not decentering those harmed.

However, I am not saying that anger or a desire for perpetrators to recognize wrongdoing isn’t justified. The acknowledgment of wrongdoing can help victims feel valid and gain closure. Regardless, it is critical that as a community we make sure that victims feel valid whether or not perpetrators apologize by centering their healing and caring for their needs.

Marginalized people are also valid in not wanting anything to do with those who make bigoted comments. Those who claim to be allies, however, cannot just assign blame and call it a day. Allies of marginalized people are also responsible for confronting and engaging with perpetrators to prevent them from doing future harm.

While the personal growth of perpetrators should never take precedence over the harm and consequences for marginalized people, I would not advocate for an elevated understanding of responsibility if I did not believe in people’s power to change and grow. In fact, because learning to treat others with respect and unlearning bigotry is a critical part of preventing future harm, this reimagined concept of responsibility promotes more growth than making excuses and playing the blame game.

David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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