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Unlearning Harvard’s Anti-Vulnerability Culture

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

When I arrived on Harvard’s campus as a first-year last fall, I felt a strong culture shock as I transitioned from my almost all-white conservative suburb to Cambridge’s predominantly white liberal environment.

I was used to being confronted with Trump signs on the walk home from the bus stop, but instead, I ran into Black Lives Matter signs on what felt like every street corner and shop. Students at Harvard included BLM slogans and iconography in their Undergraduate Council campaigns, whereas at my high school students actively tried to dodge questions of race; they claimed that it was a “racism-free” environment when a question was raised as to why the student government candidates were disproportionately white.

Suddenly, the combination of a far more liberal environment and the political awakening of the summer of 2020 meant that way more white people were displaying and affirming their anti-racism than I had ever expected to see.

A small part of me wanted to believe that these changes ran deeper than just iconography and social media posts. Yet, as I began to engage in discussions regarding issues of race in the classroom with non-Black Harvard students and staff, the hollowness of students’ purported anti-racism could not be ignored. Conversations regarding social justice in Harvard classrooms were shallow, starved of any critical self-reflection; instead, it was often reiterated that the Republican Party, Trump supporters, the criminal justice system, conservatives, and/or rural white voters were deeply racist.

Even when class discussions dealt with how we the students see race and race relations today, my white and non-Black peers rarely offered insight into their own experiences and past. They just continued to point to the “bad racists.” The only time they showed even the slightest bit of vulnerability is when they admitted that they had not known or not realized something — pleading ignorance. But even then, they often did not stop to ask why they were ignorant in the first place when Black people have been speaking up and begging to be listened to for decades.

My peers operate with the default assumption that they are unproblematic. I have come to realize that the assumption for many of them is that only outwardly hostile or “microaggressive” people are racist. To be a racist is the most horrible thing in the world and they are not horrible people, so they must not be a part of the problem. Thus, they feel they have no need to critically self-reflect. Self-reflection would require a degree of vulnerability that our current culture actively tries to suppress.

Anti-vulnerability culture is one in which everyone is expected to only present their best selves to be as appealing to as large a group of people as possible. Nobody feels comfortable being vulnerable by acknowledging or confronting the aspects of themselves that risk judgment from others.

The reality is this: A problem cannot be solved unless it is acknowledged. How can we pursue racial equity when we can’t acknowledge the full extent of racism in our culture or even confront the bigoted beliefs in our own minds? We must unlearn the idea that our vulnerabilities — things about ourselves that we are ashamed of or open us up to judgment from others — should be denied, hidden, or suppressed, rather than acknowledged, embraced, or confronted.

Anti-vulnerability, while a crucial aspect of white fragility, is not just an individual issue; it is a culture that incentivizes us to maintain any biases we might have instead of rooting them out. We encourage one another to suppress our vulnerabilities, which only serves to inhibit forward progress.

Of course, even in the absence of anti-vulnerability culture, opening up still feels extremely difficult. I know that it’s a struggle for me and that I often fail to be as vulnerable as I should be. I am still unlearning the ingrained ideas of patriarchy, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and internalized racism. I still catch myself thinking a problematic thought, using non-inclusive language, or failing to live up to my values in other ways. Even as I wrote this article I caught myself using the term “freshman” instead of the more gender-inclusive “first-year.”

I’m learning that unlearning takes serious work. It can also be difficult to show up to do this work when you’re struggling to keep up with a busy Harvard schedule or maintain your mental health. I certainly haven’t fully unlearned anything. I’m writing as someone who is also trying to figure this stuff out, and I’m disappointed that many other people seem to think they already have or don’t need to. How can you go to other people and say “you need to unlearn your racist ideas,” without acknowledging that you yourself still have unlearning left to do?

And so if one truly wants to be an ally, they will have to struggle. Being an ally should mean fighting systems of oppression in all of its forms — in your own mind, with your family and friends, in your church, community, and social clubs, and in the government and corporations. Doing so would inevitably result in consequences — such as lost friends, estranged family members, all the way to state violence — but these are just a taste of the consequences that marginalized people endure simply to survive.

Until students — especially non-Black students — unlearn their affinity towards anti-vulnerability and value the liberation of oppressed peoples enough to do real work, the BLM signs will remain empty platitudes.

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

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