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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

I, too, am Brandeis

Published: October 31, 2014
Section: Opinions

The phrase “I, Too, Am Harvard” might ring a bell if you have a Tumblr account or keep up with Buzzfeed. In March 2014, a student at Harvard University created a collection of photos to illustrate the personal experiences of black students at Harvard University. The messages may be accounts only of their specific lives, but they resonated with minorities in higher education all across the nation.

Some examples of captions that fall under “I, Too, Am Harvard” include: “Can you read?” “Don’t you wish you were white like the rest of us?” “You’re dressed like you might shoot me right now—such a thug.” “You’re lucky to be black … so easy to get into college!”

Students and faculty often dismiss the accounts of racism on campuses because they don’t seem to be “bad enough.” Blatant racism is heralded as the only signifier of a bad moral character; people are expected to condemn those who say, “I hate [insert racial minority here],” but anything more subtle or nuanced is gifted with ambiguity. Intentions suddenly come into play and the character and emotions of a person of color is put into question. We’re declared too sensitive, too aware, overthinking it or shoved into the box labeled “Brandeis Social Justice Warrior” to be made the butt of the next joke.

As a Brandeis student, it’s clear that many students and the administration try to take a progressive approach to racism. Students want to be allies—there’s no doubt in that. The administration strives towards social justice. But does the discourse on campus actually include students of color? Are we past shallow approvals of diversity and basic agreements about how racism is bad?

This is the question that we all should be asking ourselves. It is one thing to declare ourselves as racially aware and informed, and another to support and empower students of color. The way “I, Too, Am Harvard” succeeds is how it addresses the nuances of microaggressions and how it starts an honest dialogue without well-meaning, but misinformed, allies or devil’s advocates asking if it’s really racism or if it really matters.

According to “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice,” as seen in “The American Psychologist,” racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” Some know of microaggression theory, or have heard of the phrase in passing, but most people of color are familiar through firsthand experience.

We’re used to brushing microaggressions off. I’m not speaking for the entire community nor for any individual—the point of this is to emphasize how dismissed our voices are. We all have different experiences and pasts; we’re from a plethora of places, all with unique backgrounds and our own views. But we share connections and experiences that we should have the freedom to voice. We all have freedom of speech, but it’s more than that. We have the right to feel comfortable in the environment we’re in, the right to engage and participate in discussions of race without being delegitimated or silenced, the right to feel as if we are a part of this community and we have a place here.

Take the vandalization of the silhouettes placed around campus by the Brandeis Immigration Education Initiative (BIEI) in honor of Immigration Awareness Week. We can see a range of reactions all entrenched in racist beliefs. There are the extremes—those who vandalized the silhouettes and actively silenced BIEI and the students who connected with the message they sent out. But we also see ignorance in those who say the accounts on the silhouettes weren’t impartial enough, or that it isn’t important enough to make an emotional impact, and so on, people playing judge without realizing their power. Or even in bystanders who dismissed the silhouettes and stayed willfully unaware of an important voice in our Brandeis community.

Ultimately, I believe anger without any goal or mission in mind is not an agenda any of these activist groups on campus are trying to pursue. But to deny the emotion, frustration and personal investment we, people of color, have in our lives, our futures, our families and our identities, is to dismiss racism and silence our voices. I say do more than listen—start awareness, start taking action, start empowering.