I grew up in a rural area where neighborhoods weren’t exactly integrated, and I attended an HBCU. Needless to say, I was constantly among a sea of black and brown faces. So it was rather shocking to attend a graduate school where I was only one of two black students – in Boston, no less. Some of the professors were rude and dismissive (like the one who told me mid-lecture to not write down everything he said as I took notes. Um, it’s a classroom.) The students were cliquish, including the one other black student who reminded everyone she was really from Paris. Whatever. You’re still black.
And bystanders stared as I walked down the street, entered the stores, and dined alone in restaurants. Hard. Clearly I was in the wrong neighborhood.
And then there was that time I asked a fellow classmate where I could feast on cuisine that was a little more “soulful” than Italian and I got a vague answer followed by “Oh, but you don’t want to go over there.” Um, you do realize I’m black, right?
Allyson Hobbs, assistant professor of history at Stanford University, and Florencia Greer Polite, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Louisiana State University, discuss these micro-aggressions, or “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated” in a piece they recently penned for The Root.
The pair, who are Harvard University alum, mention the heartbreak they experienced while watching the “I, Too, Am Harvard” video, where students share their feelings of being maligned, underestimated, underappreciated, not valued, and essentially “not of Harvard” at the Ivy League institute. They also express concern about how the video could affect the well-being of black students plus the recruitment efforts of future students on the campus.
They write, “The possibility that talented students might veer away from Harvard out of a fear that they will face an overtly racist environment is most troubling.”
I immediately read that as perhaps the video shouldn’t have been publicized because it would deter promising black students from pursuing an Ivy League education. While I agree no black student should forgo opportunities to attend the Harvards, Dartmouths, Cornells, or the Browns – Congrats to you Avery Coffey and Kwasi Enin! – I don’t agree that these young adults should be oblivious to the racial stigmas they may face while at these prestigious universities.
Perhaps someone ought to warn them they may be accused of stealing their own ish or that certain neighborhoods are off limits because of their color. Or that they may even be socially excluded and made to feel that perhaps they really don’t belong. These students should know in advance that they will be amongst not only some of the most elite, but also some of the most ignorant. And yeah, racist.
I would’ve been better prepared had I known exactly what I was walking into and less inclined to jet three months in with no intent to return. To the entire state of Massachusetts. Ever.
The alumnae also write, “Racism was all around us – indeed, it was in the air we breathed – but somehow, these incidents did not come to define our experiences at Harvard.”
My encounters totally defined my experiences. I’ve visited countless cities solo and never felt out-of-place. Yet I left Boston feeling the entire campus and city were racist, and I was unwelcome. But maybe that was because I didn’t have a video or the same escapes as Hobbs and Polite:
“Perhaps it was the presence of multiple “safe spaces” that made our Harvard experience so different. The Black Students Association, the Freshman Black Table, the Association of Black Radcliffe Women (now the Association of Black Harvard Women) and the Black Men’s Forum were active, inclusive and welcoming. These organizations helped black students negotiate Harvard’s rocky terrain…These organizations and events allowed us to experience racism without internalizing it.”
They are correct in saying that racism is all around us, though. It’s in all large cities, some of our neighborhoods, and it’s even at work. But I get to leave it behind when I go home at night. It’s magnified when it’s centered in a tiny community like on a college campus and equally prevalent in the dorms and the classrooms, and those on the receiving end are still teens.
Hobbs and Polite end the piece with:
“Universities must think creatively and be innovative in addressing the unique issues that each new cohort of students faces. Harvard is not the only campus that must address these issues in order to create more positive experiences for all students. More open conversations about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability and regional identity—just to name a few—are necessary. It is the charge of the universities to make sure that these conversations happen.”
What do you think Clutchettes and Gents? How should Ivy League universities create a more inclusive campus for all students? And do you think the “I, Too, Am Harvard” video steers black students from seeking an Ivy League education?