By Brian Hull, MPP2
Recently, an email was sent out by KSSG that contained an image depicting a certain female Black student as “Muffy,” the monkey character from the cartoon Arthur. This, understandably, led to a school-wide conversation on diversity attended by well over one hundred students. While I do not wish to discuss the specific incident or the racial narrative it evokes, I felt the context was important to better understand why I’m writing this article.
I hope most of us agree that diversity is important. Individuals coming from different backgrounds bring their own unique perspectives on the critically important issues we’re all discussing at the Kennedy School. Engaging in these discussions helps us learn from each other, promotes creative thinking and expands our own worldliness. Diversity helps us develop socially and intellectually, and prepares us for our future careers in a globally integrated society. Most importantly, diversity helps us be more socially and self-aware.
Being a part of a diverse community can break down stereotypes that are typically the unjust historical artifacts of past racial, ethnic, and cultural narratives that have unfairly sorted groups into social and class categories which are perpetuated over time. It is important to remember these historical legacies of oppression and segmentation because they can and do compose a person’s identity. We generally fail to recognize these hierarchies and assume that because “we’re not racist,” a supposedly racially benign system is fair. This is unfortunately untrue.
Addressing diversity in a proactive manner and really engaging in a process of cultural humility brings attention to the structural, institutional, and bureaucratic injustices that have developed and ossified over decades and centuries. Long-standing historical legacies of social, racial, and ethnic sorting not only shape how people view themselves, but how the broader society views them.
Maybe I’m naïve to think that people should have equal value, that no one in the world is better or worse than anyone else, that all people regardless of the arbitrariness of their birth are deserving of human dignity. People’s feelings, their histories, their experiences, their cultures, their personal values all matter, not just to them, but to everyone. They should be acknowledged and validated as important and meaningful.
Likewise, words and actions matter. Being aware of how one’s words and actions are perceived by others is invaluable in a world as wonderfully diverse as ours. To look past a person’s history and experiences, to gloss over the fact that everyone has a past that is important for who they are, to disregard the impact one can and does have (intended or not) on those around them is to ignore everything that is meaningful and special to an individual’s self-worth.
To me, all the tension surrounding individuals’ identities requires us to have very difficult conversations about race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and all the other ways people can be and are subject to oppression, exploitation, and devaluation. I cannot begin to articulate the immensity of knowledge I have gleaned by talking to amazing people from around the country and the world about these and other topics. It may not be easy, nor should it be, but understanding who people are is critical to understanding who you are.
Our microcosm here at the Kennedy School, while trying to reflect the world’s diversity in the student body, in the faculty, and in the administration, has come up short. I acknowledge that efforts are being made to be as inclusive as possible, culturally, racially, ethnically, etc., but it appears that there are missed opportunities for the school to do more in this regard. To name a few critical first steps that would engender a better understanding of the importance of diversity and cultural humility, HKS should work toward: a more robust orientation that includes discussions on diversity, implementing mandatory faculty diversity training, holding regular diversity conversations (that include professors) similar to the one held on November 16, and instituting a thoughtful process for properly responding to issues as soon as they arise. To their credit, KSSG is moving in a positive direction on some of these and other changes.
Talking about diversity is hard, and engaging in proactive efforts to critically examine the shortcomings found within specific communities can be a distressing and challenging experience. But no matter how laborious this task may seem, it is even more important to do. The richness of our experience as Harvard Kennedy School students is diminished when the administration fails to live up to its commitment to diversity.