(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”)By Diana Lee
“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned – this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”
Launched on March 1, 2014, “I, Too, Am Harvard” is a photo campaign that features portraits of over 50 black students at Harvard College holding up dry-erase boards with handwritten examples of racist comments, microaggressions, talk-back messages and quotes, or other difficult interpersonal and institutional interactions they’ve experienced as students at Harvard College. Touching on issues of tokenism, assumption of lack of intelligence, the myth of meritocracy, color blindness, devalued and dismissed perspectives, stereotypical exchanges, and other problematic interactions, the visually impactful campaign resonated with many people and rapidly spread across the Internet, including inspiring minority students on other campuses to create and share similar projects (e.g., “I, Too, Am Oxford,” and “I, Too, Am OSU”).
Through the powerful images of black college students holding the racist comments or response statements in their hands, with “#itooamharvard” boldly printed next to their faces, the Tumblr campaign challenges stereotypic representations and public imaginings of who attends and belongs at our nation’s universities, increasing visibility of not only a diverse group of black students on Harvard campus, but also working to shed light on the kinds of institutionalized and interpersonal racism students of color face on a daily basis.
Race (together with other aspects of identity, like gender) is a fundamental, hierarchical organizing system in U.S. society, and the way we interact within our institutions, systems, and interpersonally are governed by our respective positions (or perceived positions) in the matrix. The extent to which these identities and positions are challenged also changes depending on context. Contrary to the idea that race doesn’t matter anymore because we have a black president and are post-Civil Rights, racism is unequivocally not a thing of the past, nor does it only manifest in intentional, individual, overt acts of discrimination. As illustrated by the many examples in “I, Too, Am Harvard,” racism oftentimes takes the form of microaggressions.
“Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010, p. 5). The key here is that unlike overt, deliberate acts of discrimination, microaggressions are frequently unintentionally committed, with the perpetrator either unaware of the actions or comments, or considering them to be neutral or even positive (for example: “You’re so articulate for a black person”). Although each individual microaggression may seem to be small and easily brushed off, the impact comes from the cumulative experiencing of these interactions, which “have the lifelong insidious effects of silencing, invalidating, and humiliating the identity and/or voices of those who are oppressed” (Sue, 2010, p. 66). Microaggressions have tremendous effects on the well-being of individuals, including impacting short and long-term psychological and physical health, and impeding equitable access to educational and employment opportunities (Pierce, 1995; Solórzano et al., 2000; Steele, 1997; Sue et al., 2007; Sue, 2010; Yasso et al., 2009).
For those of us who care about access, justice, and equity in formal and informal educational spaces, this is something we should take seriously and work to address, now.
Aside from first understanding and acknowledging that these interactions occur and are in fact important (which is another thing “I, Too, Am Harvard” effectively makes you do), it is also important to think about how best to support students who have already been experiencing these kinds of interactions, for years. Some of the key protective factors against microaggressions have increasingly been researched by scholars, and they include helping people cope and learn to navigate these situations through building supportive peer and mentoring relationships, and communing with communities of people with similar experiences.
“I, Too, Am Harvard” is an example of young people anchored in supportive peer groups and communities, coming together to take a stand both on and offline against institutionalized, systemic, and interpersonal racism. The photo project is part of a larger campus movement seeking to raise awareness and change institutional practices and policies regarding racism on college campuses. Like the genesis of so many other powerful movements, the organizers came up with the idea for the campaign rooted in their own experiences and in conversation with friends and community members. Sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence wrote a play called, I, Too, Am Harvard, based off of 40 interviews with black students on campus she conducted last semester, and fellow student Carol Powell photographed the Tumblr photo project participants. Both students are members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the oldest existing Black organization at Harvard, whose website states that “Kuumba strives to do what we can with what we have to leave a space better than it was when we inherited it. This essence permeates our performances, our community work, and the relationships we build with others.” Where are these spaces and people on your own campus, workplace, or community?
Young people are increasingly using the Internet – through blogs, spoken word, comics, gifs, Facebook and Twitter hashtags, Instagram and Tumblr movements, videos on YouTube, and more – to connect and organize online and offline, using whatever tools and resources they have to actively participate in their world, including, in this case, challenging limited and problematic conceptualizations of race in the U.S. and beyond. The students that started “I, Too, Am Harvard” used their experiences and resources and put forth this campaign that resonated with a lot of people domestically and internationally, inside and outside of college campuses. They came together, organized, and stood up, collectively saying, “This is not ok, we are here, and we belong too. This is a problem. What are you going to do to help?”
Administrators, faculty, and school staff can ask what structures, systems, and organizations are in place for students to share and learn how to address these kinds of experiences in a receptive environment that does not silence their voices and invalidate their experiences, nor unfairly place the burden of change on the students experiencing these daily forms of racism (and other forms of -isms). Students of color are already asked explicitly or taken implicitly to speak on behalf of their racial, ethnic, or national groups. In addition to the cumulative everyday burden and stress of micraoggressive and oppressive institutionalized interactions, a top-down approach to addressing these kinds of issues perpetuates the inequities and misses an opportunity to collectively address these problems. And furthermore, this false dichotomy I’ve emphasized so far, between students and staff, is only used to illustrate different power dynamics and positionalities within colleges and universities. Faculty and staff of color (and those of other marginalized groups) also experience microaggressions in multiple directions (from bosses, peers, students, etc.). This is a huge issue that impacts the everyday lived realities of a lot of people.
We live in a society where multiple, interlocking, hierarchical organizing systems (such as race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, ability) are systematically working to maintain and perpetuate privileged groups benefiting unequally over others, and these systems are replicated in our institutions (such as schools) and interactions (such as with microaggressions) at the political, economic, and cultural levels. If we can agree that putting the common good above individual interests ultimately serves to benefit us all, once again the question then becomes, what can we each do, with where we are and what we’ve got, to help make this whole system work better for more people? Whose voices are being heard? How are people at all levels being included in the process of working together to identify issues and come up with short and long-term solutions? The students have spoken. What will be the response?
Pierce, C. M. (1995). Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster. In Willie, C., Rieker, P.P., Kramer, B., Brown, B.S., (Eds.), Mental health, racism, and sexism (277-293). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press.
Solorzano, D. G. (1998). Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 121-136.
Solórzano , D., Ceja, M., Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: the experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69, No. 1/2, 60-73.
Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.