Harvard’s Powerful and Deafening Silence for Black Lives

Tiffany Thompson
Tiffany is a social innovation and social impact equity consultant and a 2019 graduate from the MC/MPA program at HKS. She has ten years of experience working at the intersection of philanthropy, local and federal government, and youth engagement, to eradicate the injustices impacting young people of color. She works to dismantle systems that prohibit Black and brown children from dreaming and living out loud.

Photo credit: Lamar Metcalf

This article is re-posted with permission. It was originally published on Medium here

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. We know what their last sounds were.

Desperate for air, gasping, “I can’t breathe.” Knowing that the end was near, a desperate cry, “Momma.” I too found myself struggling to breathe. What if this was me? Yet, for the 27 days that passed since the media decided to cover Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching and all that followed, the resounding message from my classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on our 220-person WhatsApp group was an overwhelming and deafening sound of silence.

Instead, gifs featuring squirrels, cheers to new engagements, and declarations of sheer pride as we approached the one-year anniversary of our graduation peppered our WhatsApp. Where was the leadership — the “ask what I can do” — for those Black men and women who were murdered? As others spoke out against the innocent killing of Black people in the USA, my WhatsApp community of Harvard Kennedy School graduates — elected officials, non-profit and corporate executives — sat largely silent. This may come as no surprise when African Americans represent a paltry 3.1% of the cohort. And even if you include Black people outside of the United States, representation only rises to 8.5%.

Sadly, this deafening silence isn’t new to me. It’s not simply an individual or class collective silence, but an institutional one. Harvard Kennedy School may be a global institution, it is also inherently, Ameri-centric. However, HKS neglects to instruct policy and build room and space for conversations that center, as Baldwin stated, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America — or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.”

The silence that I hear from my peers is simply echoing that of the school and the decades of inaction throughout America more broadly.

This apathy and lack of cultural competency towards Black people ran rampant throughout the school year. I remember vividly a student saying to me, “Why do we need to fight for more Black professors? You don’t see me complaining about the lack of Asian professors.” Or the moment a white classmate took it upon herself to touch my hair as if my blackness made it okay to reach out into my space and own me. These memories of apathy, silence, and complete disregard for the Black experience are ingrained in my mind and emblematic of my time at Harvard.

Their silence towards issues impacting Black people in this country is intentional.

These are not quiet or unopinionated people. Never afraid to raise their voices and passionately fight for what they believe is important. Whether it be the uproars in Venezuela or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this group of 220 leaders has vocally expressed their thoughts, most notably in our coveted WhatsApp group. It leads me to believe that while we all came to Harvard Kennedy School to contribute to the social good, we all didn’t come for equity and justice for everyone. The issues affecting Black people in this country aren’t a fight my colleagues have shown me they are prepared or willing to have.

Almost to this very day, I stood in a theater-style classroom a year ago at Harvard Kennedy School and delivered a speech. It was a rallying cry to my classmates begging and demanding they leave this institution understanding the importance of them standing in solidarity with Black America. Stand in solidarity with me.

Unlike medical students, we do not take formal oaths. As public servants, I reminded my classmates that our duty is both implicit and explicit: to stand and act in solidarity. It is one of humility, a thankless act. I shared the importance of Frederick Douglass’s use of photography as reflection, reason, and progress. “Take out your phones,” I said, “and scroll through your pictures from this year. These pictures tell us many things. But what they don’t tell us is — who is missing?”

This crucial question must be asked as we embark on a road to freedom and justice. Who are you not convening with? Who was left out? Why?

As members of the global and privileged, sworn to the unwritten oath of public service, it’s time my peers step in the ring and fight for what’s right.

Because for 400 years, that’s what Black people have been doing in America.

My upward mobility and better education and class have nothing to do with how I will be treated. I cannot educate myself out of being a victim of racism, as recently exemplified by the white fragility of Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper, a fellow Harvard graduate.

Even Christian Cooper’s common Harvard pedigree did not spark solidarity from the group.

Upward mobility and a world-class Ivy League education does not give you a first-class ticket out of this fight. In fact, it gives you a front-row seat to being a contributor of change.

As a simple first step:

Join the world in #SayingTheirNames. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And countless others.

Then:

  1. Spend your privilege. Remember, you didn’t earn it, so give it away.
  2. Put some (white) skin in the game. Move from inaction to action. And if you think you are already acting, do more!
  3. Risk your professional capital.
  4. Move from being an ally to an anti-racist.
  5. Don’t be a complicit bystander — even if it’s in a WhatsApp group.

It is no longer a request; it is a demand. It is no longer a choice; it is a responsibility.

The time is now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email