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.
When Charles Murray came to Harvard to speak about the controversial findings of his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which linked low African-American test scores to genetics, the Black Students Association organized a spirited protest on the steps of Widener Library. The BSA brought social psychologist Jeff Howard, president of the Efficacy Institute, to campus. In a moving and memorable lecture, Howard talked to us about achievement and success, about working together on our problem sets and sharing our lecture notes, about going to office hours and getting to know our professors, about just how very capable we all were.
These organizations and events allowed us to experience racism without internalizing it.
We worry about the potential negative effects of “I, Too, Am Harvard” on the university, alumni-giving and Harvard’s reputation. Most concerning are the likely effects on recruitment. There is no doubt that most Harvard alums had overwhelmingly positive experiences, microaggressions included. 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.
Microaggressions are not unique to Harvard or to the Ivy League. African-American students at universities all over the country confront hostile situations in which they feel they must prove that they belong and that they earned their coveted acceptance letter.
It is clear that we need better ways of understanding the many different kinds of diversity on college campuses. 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.
The creators and participants of “I, Too, Am Harvard” showed extraordinary courage. Now Harvard must show equal courage and conviction in taking the steps necessary to create a more inclusive campus. College is a time of uncommon intellectual and personal growth. It must also be a time when students face different types of diversity and learn the profound meanings of inclusivity, acceptance and tolerance. All students have the right to feel that they, too, are Harvard.
Allyson Hobbs is an assistant professor in the department of history at Stanford University. She graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in social studies in 1997. Florencia Greer Polite, M.D., is an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Louisiana State University. She graduated cum laude with a B.S. in biology in 1997.