The first step in solving any problem is admitting that there is one. On 1 March 2014 the online photo campaign I, Too, Am Harvard launched in support of an upcoming play that highlights the experience of black students at Harvard University. The campaign looked to address the lack of ethnic diversity on Harvard’s campus, students feelings of alienation about being considered a single ‘ethnic’ voice and their anxiety about addressing those feelings in the classroom.
The campaign has furthered discussions over affirmative action in college admissions, declining African-American enrollment in universities, and lack of diversity on university campuses. All of these are issues that we need to discuss and all of them generate contrast- ing opinions. But if nothing else, I, Too, Am Harvard addresses the unspoken assumptions in our society about race.
Multiple posts address the experience of Harvard students being talked down to, having ‘old friends’ who synonymously equate race and socioeconomic status or who use pejorative stereotypes.
Too often, we assume universality in the voices of ethnic groups. For instance, one post reads: “The lack of diversity in this classroom does not make me the voice of all black people.” The obvious problem with that situation is not only the assumption that the student’s skin colour means they identify with the black community, but also the assumption that there is a singular voice for the black community.
The influence of I, Too, Am Harvard has been seen across campuses in the US, as well as at Oxbridge, and now here at St Andrews. The Tumblr page for I, Too, Am St Andrews claims that: “This campaign is not an ethnic minority campaign; it’s a campaign for all of us who are against discrimination and false stereotypes”. Okay.
Their Tumblr page also claims that this University has an image problem: some people believe that we all just bop around town wearing Barbour and texting from our iPhone; that we blow ungodly amounts of money keeping up with the social life and struggle with such existential questions as ‘where will I drink tonight?’; and that the University is full of wealthy, upper-class students who don’t appreciate, or even accept, diversity. According to their Facebook page, the goal of I, Too, Am St Andrews is to show that the “true side of St Andrews” – whatever that means – is an accepting community.
While I will remain hopeful for them, I don’t think that this is the answer. St Andrews does have a problem with conformity, lack of diversity, and stereotypes. The simple fact that an online campaign has to be started to show that some diversity exists in St Andrews is proof of that. Don’t get me wrong, I am not discouraging them; I think that I, Too, Am St Andrews are beneficial contributions in the discussions of diversity at this University.
But weaseling out any kind of diversity is not the appropriate response to actual issues of stereotypes and conformity. Is it going to help students who feel defined by their peers solely by their race, sexual orientation or gender? Will it end the stigma of being from certain parts of Glasgow or northern England? Will it ease the humiliation of people ashamed to be associated with the ‘lad culture’ perpetuated by the student body? Will demonstrating diversity end unfair stereotypes or ease the pressure to conform?
No. Showcasing what little diversity there is in St Andrews may look good on the Student Prospectus, but it does little beyond acknowledging St Andrews has people from relatively diverse backgrounds. I, Too, Am St Andrews was well-intentioned, but will not effect change, especially not in a town where being considered American as a Canadian is considered a significant racial slight.