I’ve been encouraged by several classmates to share a comment I left on the Royall Asses blog several days ago. Although the introvert in me would rather not seek out attention and the pessimist in me doubts my words will achieve much in the way of change, I’ve decided that neither of these concerns presents a justifiable basis for slinking quietly back into the background.
I’ve spent the better part of my life lurking contentedly in the background, often because I’ve convinced myself that either no one will care what I have to say or that nothing I say will likely have any meaningful impact. Unfortunately, I suspect there are many more like me who sit silently by feeling as though their participation will amount to little. I further suspect that our collective silence, based on a lack of individual confidence, is significantly contributing to the ongoing and problematic status quo. So, although my original comment was written for the author(s) of the Royall Asses blog posts and those similarly inclined, I repost it here, in edited form, for those who still lurk in the background. I would encourage you to resist the urge to sit comfortably and quietly in the background, leaving the heavy lifting for others. Speak up. Use whatever voice you have, big or small.
Why speak up? In my case it’s because I’ve come to recognize that the reason I can sit quietly and comfortably in the background is because of the very problem our classmates are attempting to bring to light: systemic racism.
I’m a white male who grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in America. My life has been adorned with more privilege than almost all other demographics in not only this country, but in the world. I know this. I’ve benefited tremendously by the simple privilege bestowed upon me by my chance of birth. I see this both in the circumstances of my own life and in the circumstances of others born into marginalized groups. Seeing this dichotomy underscores, in my mind, how important it is to address this privilege so that it no longer is a privilege for the few, but a right for all.
That won’t happen without proactive intervention. The most insidious part of institutional racism is that it continues to thrive in an environment where nothing is done. That’s why it’s institutional. It’s built into our society. I don’t have to do anything overtly racist to benefit from it. All I have to be is white. Or a man. Or heterosexual. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life—there’s a reason I didn’t come to law school until I was in my 30s, it takes time to screw up—and I can promise you this: I would not be at Harvard Law School were it not for the privilege I have experienced as a white man. I don’t say this to mean that Harvard has somehow consciously or unconsciously admitted me because of my race; rather, I mean that I have been the beneficiary of significant societal forgiveness of my wrongs because of my race. I very much doubt a black person would have been given the number of second (third and fourth) chances I have been given. Where society gives me the benefit of the doubt, it assumes the worst of them.
Given this, how can I claim any right to the privilege I’ve experienced? How can I argue against others who seek the same privilege I have? I can’t. I’ve done nothing to earn it other than be born. In fact, those who are seeking the privilege I’ve lived with have done far more to earn it than I have. They seek it. They fight for it. I’ve done nothing. And that’s the problem. I’ve done nothing. I’m sorry for that. I need to do more.
Whomever is behind or aligned in thought with the “Royall Asses” blog posts, I am left wondering what specifically you are fighting so vehemently to maintain. There is a demographic at this school who feels they are subject to explicit and implicit discrimination. The school has responded to these concerns by giving them an opportunity to air their concerns and experiences. Furthermore, the school is taking steps to investigate possible opportunities to address these concerns. How is this threatening to you? As I said, I’m a white male, and I’m hard-pressed to identify any specific negative impact this movement has had on me.
So people posted pictures of quotes on professors’ portraits last year and notes of encouragement this year. How does that impact you? No class or group of professors were singled out in a negative manner. What’s the threat you’re so worried about?
So two classes diverted their attention to the placing of black tape over the faces of professors. So you missed an hour or two on instruction to engage in a conversation with your peers about a pressing current event, while being moderated by two professors renowned for scholarly work in the area of law and inequality. That’s a tremendous opportunity to learn from several incredible minds. What’s the threat you’re so worried about?
So a group of students is advocating changing Harvard Law School’s coat of arms. Again, how does this threaten you? It’s very clear that there is a significant population who find the current symbol’s roots in slavery make it an entirely inappropriate symbol for Harvard Law School and one whose continued use contributes to an atmosphere where minorities feel marginalized. Alternatively, I stand to lose nothing if the coat of arms is changed other than owning some misbranded HLS clothing. Given what’s at stake on both sides, compassion and empathy strongly encourage making a change to the crest. What’s the threat you’re so worried about?
In closing I say this: I support the “racialist activists” and their efforts with all my heart. I do so with hopes that my three children will grow up in a world that rejects white privilege in favor of equality and harmony. I do so recognizing that I have no right to the privilege I have experienced. I do so out of love and compassion. I do so out of hope. I encourage you to do so, too.
Mark Hamlin is a 3L at Harvard Law School.