As we watched the video for “I, Too, Am Harvard,” our hearts broke.
Harvard undergraduates recounted painful experiences of isolation and alienation. They spoke of being maligned, underestimated and underappreciated. One student said that he did not feel valued or valuable. Another student said that although she went to Harvard, she was not “of Harvard.”
Scholars have a term for the insults described by these students. “Racial microaggressions” are defined as “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.” Hurtful words are spoken, but the speaker has little or no awareness of the meaning or effect of what he or she has said.
“Microaggressions” sounds like a misnomer to us. In the powerful delivery of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” we found nothing “micro” about what these students experienced.
How could this be, we wondered? We graduated 17 years ago, in 1997, and we had very different, and far more positive, experiences. Were we looking back at our years at Harvard through rose-colored glasses? Or had the campus’s racial climate gravely deteriorated since we graduated?
To be sure, Harvard was no racial utopia when we were there in the mid-1990s. Friends were charged with shoplifting at the bookstore. On move-out day, two students were accused of stealing their own computers as they packed for the summer. One student was suspected of stealing his own jacket from the Science Center. Black students appeared before the Administrative Board (Harvard’s disciplinary arm) for small infractions.
Cambridge neighbors Boston, a city with a well-known and bitter history of racism. We felt anxious anytime we rode the subway beyond Harvard Square. We did not dare venture into Southie or Charlestown or any other neighborhood where our presence was unwelcome.
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.
So what was different? And what can be done now to stop these racial “microaggressions” and change the social climate of the campus?
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.