November 19 was one of my best days at HBS. We had two case protagonists in my section – one resurrected the Swiss watch industry and the other developed profitable business models to fix global environmental problems. Everyone seemed to have at least skimmed the cases. The combination yielded engaging discussions on important questions like can you be a visionary without being a jerk, or how much money can you make from trying to save the world? Sometime during the section selfies with our CEO guest I remember thinking, this is why I came to business school, for days like today.
While I was blissfully basking in the Harvard Business School experience that morning, students at Harvard Law School were dealing with a potential hate crime. Someone had placed black tape over the portraits of black professors throughout the Wasserstein student center. After class, as I was reading about what happened across the river, I reacted as though someone had defaced the portrait of H. Naylor Fitzhugh that sits outside of my classroom in Aldrich. It felt like someone was not only challenging the place of black professors at Harvard, but also black students; not only at HLS, but HBS too. It felt personal.
Over the course of the day, I was grateful to receive personal messages of support and solidarity to counteract my outrage and confusion. A section-mate called to check on me and offer his support; the phone call was a kind gesture, made even more meaningful by the fact that his hometown, Beirut, had suffered from a bombing attack less than a week earlier. I will admit that I teared up thinking about the wondrous human capacity for empathy. This was HBS at its best.
During the hours and days that followed, I was disheartened by responses I heard from other students of color around campus. Doubtless, no one had purposefully said or done anything to be insensitive or hurtful. When emotions are raw, messages can be received very differently than they were intended. But when someone says “this isn’t racism, it’s free speech” in the immediate aftermath of an incident like this, it sounds a lot like “there’s nothing to be upset about, so stop whining.” When a section’s leadership team sets aside a full 60 minutes during lunch for “Coming Out Day,” but only 60 seconds to mention, offhandedly, a hate crime against black Harvard students, it seems like diversity on one axis is worth celebrating, while diversity on another axis is not even worth protecting. When someone messages their section expressing shock and anger over a hate crime they feel affected by, and no one responds, that silence sounds like a deafening indifference.
From personal experience, I would suggest that the mere perception of indifference can have catastrophic effects on a black student’s capacity to feel safe and supported in his or her community, thereby preventing important discussions that would benefit said community. If your classmates appear not to care about overtly racist incidents, will you trust them to care when you get pulled over in New Hampshire while driving back from section retreat? If you couldn’t talk to them about the hate crime across the river, would you feel comfortable sharing how a gun-carrying HUPD officer stopped to question you inside your HBS dorm, while you held your Harvard ID in your hand, because you looked “suspicious”? We cannot reasonably expect anyone to force their experiences on an unwelcome audience, and yet the absence of such discussions, and the cultural competencies they can foster, make our community less rich.
Hate crimes happen once in a while, but subtler forms of discrimination can be burdensome daily occurrences. This community should be a place where black students can openly and honestly engage on the struggles we face as black people, beyond these crimson archways and manicured lawns. Statements from the Dean and solidarity stickers from the SA are strong steps in the right direction, but moving forward will require us to critically examine how we engage each other not only when racism rears it ugly head, but also when it’s just a beast sleeping in the shadows.