29th Feb 2016, Cambridge, MA
Perhaps my biggest frustration with Harvard is its white-ness. That sounds like a weird, even bigoted thing to say about an institution that boasts such a diverse, international student body and faculty, but I’ve felt its whiteness everywhere. From the fact that I know of only two Iraqi students across the graduate schools to the fact my beloved home department is reticent about using the word ‘Palestine’ on its website when it has no problem using ‘Israel’, thus contributing to the Palestinian erasure taking place across American (and increasingly British) universities.
And with the white-ness I have found a lack of critical or radical thought. At Warwick, my ‘Critical Security Studies’ class taught me how to use post-structuralism and discourse analysis to break down the power dynamics inherent in the micro and macro political spheres. But at Harvard, I felt these tools getting rusty. I have found myself sitting in classes frustrated, unable to articulate why in a coherent or critical way. On my very first day at Harvard, I was told that the Palestine-Israel conflict was not taught in a human rights class at the Kennedy School because it was too ‘explosive’. On Thursday, I was told by a student that the Middle East was ‘tribal’. And despite being called ‘outspoken’ on several occasions, I have found myself asking the hard questions in my head and seldom in reality. I have felt marginalised, even oppressed at times. I have often succumbed to the pressure of being ‘diplomatic’ or ‘politically sensitive’ or whatever bullshit terms we use to disguise what I believe is blatant normalisation of things that are wrong. Even my poetry has felt sanitised and it has taken 10 days for me to decide to publish this. Increasingly, despite smuggling contraband incense into my dorms and having two Palestinian flags in my room, I have felt disconnected from my roots and my people. That upsets me.
I have often wondered where these critical spaces are at Harvard. After all, it’s not like students here are stupid, far from it. I have met some of the sharpest minds over the past six months. Nor is there a dearth of critical courses. But that radical student underbelly that exists at Warwick seemed non-existent across the pond. That changed on Wednesday night: one of my favourite places to work is a large room in the Law school with sofas and homely fires at each end. It looks something like a cross between a library and a swish Marriott hotel. As I settled down to finish my novel for my comparative literature class, I noticed a large group congregated. Above their heads was a hand-drawn sign that read ‘Critical Race Theory’, in fact on closer inspection the whole room was covered with home-made colourful signs with phrases like ‘contextual learning’, there was even the Harvard logo with silhouettes of slaves carrying loads on their back – a clear reference to the toxic connection between the Harvard Law School and slave-owning Royall Family.
The students themselves were made up of different races, nationalities and ages, discussing everything from white supremacy to the role that victimhood plays in the black experience in academia. Naturally I joined them. I discovered afterwards that they’re Law Students organising the #ReclaimHLS movement, a movement which aims to combat the school’s systemic racism and exclusion. The brazenness of their accounts and the honesty with which they spoke was liberating. I felt myself breathing deeply, holding onto every word and involuntarily joining the debate. Satisfaction was expressed in clicks and nods and the educational reading (which was the basis of that meeting) was met with contrasting and colourful opinions with none of the usual Harvard jargon such as ‘I just want to push back on that…’
It was empowering to see really smart, really beautiful women of colour leading the discussion. It was liberating to know that these conversations were taking place and that there was a space for my two cents. My fears that someone would yell out ‘she doesn’t even go here’ Mean Girls style rapidly evaporated as members came up afterwards and introduced themselves to me. One student was even organising a Palestine reading group. This, out of a school that has just lost a gift of $250,000 from Milbank Tweed because $500 of that money was spent on pizza for a pro-Palestinian event, was emboldening. They are staging an occupation in the space (which explained the blow-up mattress I was sitting on) and were splitting into workshops, attending rallies and regrouping at plenary – all with a view to contextualizing the race discussions that were lacking in the classrooms and engaging in self-teaching and learning in an environment that seeks to welcome everyone. The people I met were intelligent and unashamed. Powerful and driven. Idealistic but unapologetic.
For the first time since I started Harvard I saw several shades of grey breaking up the white-ness. I understood again how the Occupation in Palestine was linked to police brutality in America, and with it I understood again the necessity of making ourselves heard. I understood again the importance of consciousness. The importance of self-care. Of solidarity. Of friends who just get it. I’m not worried about Harvard anymore, the #Reclaim movement will undoubtedly meet resistance but with students willing to stand up to those who shut them down, I am in no doubt that they are fighting a worthy fight. Or at least a critical one.
Like: Zena Agha