First Person
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What is it like to be black at Harvard? Let me tell you.

I was not surprised to see that racist police brutality had come to Harvard — it’s already been here.

The author, Brianna Suslovic, during her freshman year at Harvard. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Suslovic).
The author, Brianna Suslovic, during her freshman year at Harvard. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Suslovic).

I opened my “Black Harvard 2016” group text last weekend to find multiple worried messages about a possible instance of police brutality near campus, apparently perpetrated against a black undergraduate student. As the details — and a video — emerged, I felt myself getting nauseous watching Cambridge police officers tackling and punching 21-year-old Selorm Ohene as he stood naked in the middle of the street. The police later said Ohene was apparently high on drugs.

Given the violent behavior directed at black people in all corners of our country, I cannot say I’m surprised at the excessive use of force by the Cambridge Police Department. This lack of surprise does not mean that I’m not upset, dismayed, and disgusted. But perhaps some context would be helpful:

Going to Harvard taught me a lot about being black.

Coming from a predominantly white suburb, I had a lot of learning and identity development to do on campus. As fate would have it, two months after I arrived on campus, a fellow undergraduate decided to share her opinion of affirmative action in an Op-Ed. “How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school?” she wrote. “I do not see why higher academic institutions should lower their standards for admission.” The implication was that Harvard had made a mistake in maintaining a standard of diversity in admissions — by letting in people like me. This, despite the fact that affirmative action benefits white women more than any other marginalized group.

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In the dining hall and the dorms, I couldn’t escape conversations about this Op-Ed. I also couldn’t shake the words of a white high school teacher of mine, “Well, the black thing is really going to help you out in college admissions, you know” — as if I were only good enough for Harvard because of some mythic diversity quota.

In my classroom experiences at Harvard, I found myself falling into the angry black woman trope. It would go like this: a white student would make an offhand comment about how slavery “wasn’t really that bad” or how “Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been walking suspiciously that night.” I would challenge these comments in measured tones. The aforementioned white student would get defensive, and the class’s sympathies and attention would go to the white student. The result? There was no space to learn about the past or present atrocities faced by black Americans. Over and over again.

During my sophomore spring semester, a friend of mine created “I, Too, Am Harvard.” Through this multimedia campaign and play, I was finally given space to process the microaggressions associated with existing on a predominantly white campus in Cambridge. White students were confronted with their own complicity in racist dynamics playing out in our institution. What came from “I, Too, Am Harvard” was a flood of other initiatives: an initiative to diversify campus mental health services, a demonstration intended to highlight the lack of inclusion on campus, and a second play about black experiences on campus.

As my junior year rolled around, another campus home for people of color emerged. Renegade Magazine, a writing and arts collective for students of color, sparked backlash from white students. Renegade’s posters were torn down, and “parody” posters mischaracterizing the intention of the collective were posted instead. The students who intentionally attempted to misrepresent students of color in our collective were never disciplined, to my knowledge.

During the fall of my senior year, at the law school, portraits of black law professors were covered in black tape. The Harvard University Police Department closed its investigation after two months, concluding that they were unable to identify the perpetrator.

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I am only able to forgive my alma mater for the racism and microaggressions that I experienced because of the insights and strengths I’ve gained as a result of these experiences. Harvard gave me an education in my own identity, but at times, it came at the cost of my well-being. As I was exposed to the microaggressive attitudes of my white classmates and professors, I sought solace in communities of color. I learned about the fraught history of police dealings with black Harvard community members. I also looked on as the nation’s consciousness about anti-black police brutality rose.

“Harvard gave me an education in my own identity, but at times, it came at the cost of my well-being.”

This is why I was not surprised to see that racist police brutality had come to Harvard — it’s already been here. My black male friends, professors, and teaching assistants have talked openly with me about their own experiences of being followed or being asked to show their college IDs. As a relatively open campus with diffuse boundaries between the city of Cambridge and the grounds of Harvard, the university has significant policing problems — issues with policing of identity as well as policing by officers from the university and city departments. As a student, I was encouraged multiple times to call Harvard University Police Department if I saw someone who didn’t look like they “belonged” trying to enter a building. This standard of “belonging” at Harvard has a lot to do with racial and economic assumptions about who looks like a Harvard community member and who doesn’t.

As a black Harvard student, perhaps Ohene was also introduced to the fear and suspicion that black Harvardians rightly harbor toward the police. While his judgment and executive functioning were apparently impaired, I’m not surprised that the situation escalated after Ohene saw blue-shirted police officers with guns approaching.

Whether or not police are trained in de-escalation, being black in America means living in fear of police officers. Police officers trigger a panic response in so many of us — and for good reason. Ohene was clearly unarmed, naked, and presumably afraid. Why did police officers intervene with such forcefulness toward a visibly impaired, unarmed college student? Where were the on-call clinicians from mental health services? Where were the resident deans and resident advisers trained in de-escalation and crisis intervention? Instead of mobilizing in a racially-informed way, Harvard and the Cambridge Police Department put a black student’s life at risk. For that, I cannot forgive my alma mater.

Brianna Suslovic is a black, queer social work student at Smith College School for Social Work and an alumna of Harvard College. Her work has been published at Black Girl Dangerous, The Tempest, and The Establishment. For more, check out her website.