Last week, I found out that anonymous law students created a website criticizing me, Mawuse Hor Vormawor, and AJ Clayborne because we are members of Royall Must Fall.
This website is a reminder that overt racism and homophobia continue to exist at Harvard Law School. Our classmates claim that Mawuse, AJ, and I do not know how to read or write and that we were only admitted into Harvard because we are minorities who care about minority issues (the website “calls me out” for being gay and for being from Kentucky and Texas).
The website speaks for itself in urging us to do exactly the opposite of what its creators want: to confront and dismantle systemic racism that pervades our school and society. Tellingly, the website’s creators also ignore an important criticism against me: that I am a lifelong beneficiary of white supremacy.
My ancestors were coal miners in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the kind of people for whom the term “white supremacy” initially seems inapt. But systemic racism is invisible, silent, and easily obscured. It is difficult to distinguish between the benefits that come from white supremacy and individual achievements that come from hard work. This is the power of systemic racism. The advantages of whiteness are ever-present but readily ignored.
White supremacy is not responsible for all of my achievements, but it is responsible for some. White supremacy paved the way for my parents to get college scholarships and to secure credit to buy a house. White supremacy allowed me to feel comfortable in every academic environment I have been in and to get a scholarship to go to Uganda, where I continued to accrue benefits because of my skin color, nationality, and relative wealth.
By simply being born, I am complicit in a white supremacist system that was built by slavers like Isaac Royall, Jr. By attending university, I am complicit in a system where white voices have always been accepted and black voices have mostly been suppressed. By joining the practice of law, I am complicit in a system that was created by white men to maintain their power and privilege and a system that continues to justify police shootings and locking black men in cages.
By living in this world and absorbing its racist messages, I am racist. We are racist. Racism is systemic.
So what can be done? Acknowledging white privilege is important but not enough. We must actively undo the legacy of people like Isaac Royall, Jr. and be anti-racist. We must listen to students and staff of color and affirm their lived experiences. We must examine structures of power and privilege, even when doing so makes us deeply uncomfortable.
For myself and others, this often means taking a step back. Systemic racism privileges white male voices above all others, and we are not taught in law school to step back and let others be heard. The same applies to tenured faculty. Though brilliant and revered, they hold too much power at this school. If our professors have a genuine commitment to ending systemic racism, then they sometimes need to step back, listen to staff and students, and share some of their power and privilege.
Brian Klosterboer is a 3L at Harvard Law Schools and a co-organizer of #RoyallMustFall.