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The Truth about “Section X”…and The Black & White Society

Jodi Kantor referred to “Section X” last year with her article in The New York Times about HBS, and we thought we’d give you some perspective. First off, if you think that we’re giving this topic more attention than it deserves, our answer is that it’s already out there. Even if we don’t care about it, we’ll be asked, judged, and maybe bothered about it. Therefore, we might as well put this topic to rest once and for all.

As far as we’ve been able to uncover, we’re fairly certain that there is no “secret” group of people with any sort of code, credo, mission or pact that call themselves “Section X”. At least not within the classes of 2014 and 2015. We don’t know where the original “Section X” term came from. As far as we’re concerned, the name itself is more glamorous folklore than an actual reality – along the lines of Bigfoot and Area 51. As it happens, people at HBS have come to associate being in “Section X” with being waspish, carelessly rich, arrogant, exclusive, and in a general sense the very antithesis of the understanding, inclusive leader that HBS aspires every one of us to be. Indeed, upon our investigative deep-dive, we learned that some of the people we asked for interviews took great offense at being “accused” of being in “Section X”. Upon exploring the negative vibe that comes with the name, we understood why these people were offended and we honestly don’t blame them. I mean, who likes being singled out as, basically, a terrible person?

But here’s the next question: Does there exist some group of relatively well-off people who hang out together and relate to each other? And the answer to that is: yes, and they’re probably more than just 1 group. And they don’t call each other “Section X” or anything else for that matter. They call each other…wait for it…friends. Is it THAT surprising that people with similar hobbies and priorities end up spending time together?

“It’s a matter of lifestyle”, said an RC who is part of one of these ‘well-off’ groups. “We basically go on trips and outings that definitely cost higher than average. We don’t like to flaunt it because that’s just not what we’re about. Also, we’re not exclusive at all, and there is no reason to prevent anyone at HBS from befriending us and traveling with us. It’s usually just a mailing list or a Groupme with a funny name. No skulls and bones, no free Breitling watches when you join, and no US Senators mysteriously disappearing from Washington to attend ‘meetings’ in Boston. Just a group of friends”.

The reality is that people with similar interests find each other and form smaller, more intimate groups based on these shared interests. And interests are a product of background, exposure, natural tendency, and, sometimes to a large extent, financial capacity. If I made 40K a year before Business School in a country with a hot climate, I naturally wouldn’t be well-versed or interested in investing in, say, skiing. Does that make me better or worse than someone else? Of course not. It simply defines, to some extent, the range of interests I would have and the budget I’m willing to allocate to them. And that’s that.

As for the Black and White society, you don’t need us to tell you that that one definitely exists. But just in case, let’s go over some general facts:

• The Black and White society is an organization that invites a group of people to an annual masquerade ball

• About 300 students attend (RC’s and EC’s combined)

• Tickets cost about $90. The ball is open bar and food, no set dinner, and black tie

• The organization adopts the slogan “Only the Finest Individuals”, and sends a protected link featuring photos of the event to those who attended

Most people who were invited to the Black and White masquerade ball happily accepted their invitations, and, based on the results of some surveys we did, most people who were not invited did not really care. Interestingly enough, however, some of those who were invited chose to decline the invitation.

“It plays to peoples’ insecurities” said an RC who was invited but chose not to go. “For those who were invited, it feeds their self-esteem by giving them the sense that they were ‘selected’ to something based upon how cool or special they are. When it later comes to light who was invited and who was not, the effect creates a sense of antagonism among the student body. And I don’t want to encourage or take part in that”.

Another EC who when invited last year chose not to go commented: “The problem is for those (…) who (…) feel that even though they made it to HBS they still don’t belong to the ‘elite’. I have nothing against list-only events, but it makes me uneasy when a faceless group cherry picks people to invite them to a ticketed event. Besides, I am pretty sure that self-selection would have accomplished the same result”.

“The result, regardless of the way the event was planned,” said an RC who wasn’t invited “is that a bunch of people get together and party. Am I correct? I don’t understand what annoys people about this. If I choose to invite some friends of mine to a dinner that I’m hosting, would others at HBS feel offended or antagonized?!”

“But this is different” said another RC who wasn’t invited. “This is a continuous thing. It happens every year. It’s not like a one-time dinner. It is a statement by a self-sustaining organization that some people are special and some are not. Who are they to decide who is a ‘fine individual’?”

We had the pleasure to interview more than 30 people about this, and, in classical HBS fashion, what they had to say was both convincing and covered a spectacularly broad spectrum of views on this topic. In other words, we can go on about this forever. But we’d rather not, because we want to give you time to digest and debate this amongst your friends.

It’s worthy to say this though: one thing we couldn’t help noticing time and time again through our interviews was how closely (and dangerously) some people associated their internal feeling of self-worth to whether or not they were invited to a party. While others truly couldn’t give a rat’s behind (some of those interviews were outright hilarious), we were struck -without going into details- by how extremely justified some of the people who were invited felt. Equally frightening, we were struck by how upset, anxious and self-questioning some of the people who weren’t invited were.

We previously promised to give you perspective and not just news, so we’ll leave you with what one of the people quoted above said when asked about his 2 cents on this whole topic. We happen to agree.

“Grow up” he said, to nobody in particular. “If you were invited and you went and came back and continue to treat people with humility and understanding, good for you. If you were not invited and this did not affect your confidence or sense of self-value in any way, good for you. But if you were invited and because of it you think you’re better than anybody else, grow up. And finally, if you weren’t invited and are upset, indignant, and wounded because of it…grow up. There are a lot of problems with the world, and we’re here at HBS trying to solve them. Not being invited to a party is not one of those problems”.

May 6, 2014
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