Inspired By Harvard Students, Discussions of Race on Campus Emerge From Iowa To Oxford

When Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence and fellow Harvard classmates created their Tumblr photo blog, they did it to promote “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a play they wrote to speak out against structural prejudice on campus — but the site quickly went viral.

The images–in which students hold up signs they’ve written on–communicate their personal experiences with cultural insensitivity by recalling experiences where they felt isolated and “othered.”

The “I, Too” campaign has now spread to campuses from Iowa to Oxford and Cambridge. There, students of color have adopted the same mode of self-expression; telling their own stories on their own terms to challenge systemic racism they have experienced at school.

Harvard has been lauded for emphasizing diversity in its student body. The college announced a record 11.9 percent of the 2,023 applicants it accepted for the Class of 2018 are African-American, while 13 percent are Latino.

Matsuda-Lawrence is excited about the admission figures, but she stresses that school officials and students need to pay more attention to the environment students of color encounter when they begin classes.

“We need to be asking the question: how are these students going to feel once they arrive on campus…are they going to be feeling the way we’ve been feeling? Which is, to quote W.E.B. DuBois, that we are ‘at Harvard, but not of Harvard?’”

While the “I, Too” campaign has resonated at Harvard and beyond, the question remains–what actions can school officials take to address the concerns expressed by students?

On Monday, Harvard College Dean Donald Pfister and Incoming Dean Rakesh Khurana wrote in an official statement: “we are committed to continuing this conversation and to help us do this, we are putting together a working group that will include students, faculty and staff to examine how we can better support the needs of all our students, especially those who don’t feel a full sense of inclusion at Harvard.”

The Deans’ letter validates “I, Too, Am Harvard” and its mission, but their suggestion of reform by committee doesn’t address the campaign’s demands for an on-campus multicultural student center and a freshman pre-orientation program focused on issues of race and identity.

Matsuda-Lawrence underlined this deficit in an interview with Fusion–she even wonders if Harvard has fallen behind a certain rival.

“We should be asking–why don’t we have a multicultural center on Harvard’s campus? Why is there no physical space for students of color that our peer institutions such as Yale and Brown have?”

Credit: Andy Dubbin and Andrea Torres