In what Assistant Dean Chris Ciotti called “a comfortable and safe place for an uncomfortable conversation,” scores of Harvard faculty and administrators gathered Thursday morning to discuss racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, politics, white privilege, and economic equity as part of the FAS Diversity Conference “A Decade of Dialogue.”
And while one speaker said that “the world needs Harvard to become a leader” in fostering an inclusive environment, keynote speaker Tim Wise noted that institutions everywhere are increasingly examining whether they foster or impede climates of belonging — because, he said, since the 2016 elections, “the deep divisions that were always there [in American society] are more apparent.”
“What does it mean when conservatism in the modern era is not just, ‘I would like my taxes to be lower and businesses to have some deregulation,’ it’s actually a debate about the fundamental humanity of certain people and whether or not they’re going to enjoy equal rights?” he said. “We’re at that point right now.”
Wise, an educator, author, and anti-racism activist, said the societal divisions that are often expressed in racial or other bias are rooted in both white privilege and a failure to understand that the system is rigged against most people by “rich white men telling not-rich white people that their enemies are black and brown.”
“That is page one in the playbook,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Wise pointed to “Minnesota Nice”: A version of the Golden Rule that three liberal college students told him during a visit there in the ’90s explained why they had no racism on their campus.
“I thought, now, that is weird. First, because I’m an antiracism educator, so why would you bring me here? It seems like a waste of my time and your money, because I most assuredly am cashing your check,” he said.
“Second, I always find it odd when white people tell me there’s no racism anywhere. I’ve been white a long time. It’s like when men tell me there’s no patriarchy and no sexism; I’m inclined to check with women. So I started asking black folks and Latinx and Asian and indigenous people and they all went, ‘Oh, God,’ with the kind of eye roll you can actually hear, and they all said, ‘Minnesota Nice is killing us.’”
“Minnesota Nice,” it turned it out, was a quiet cover for sustaining the status quo. If the marginalized minority groups wanted to question it they had to raise their voices, “and then they got tagged as Not Nice,” Wise said.
What diversity meant to the young Minnesotans, Wise said, “was, ‘Y’all can come be part of our thing, but don’t you dare forget that it’s our thing. You can come and you can dance, but we pick the music.’”
Wise said that changing an unjust status quo cannot be left to moral suasion (“White folks have never given an inch because they realized they’d been wrong”) but to advocacy and interest convergence — Derrick Bell’s theory that white people support racial equity only when it benefits them, such as when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to save the union, or the Civil Rights advances of the 1960s that let America claim to be land of the free while it promoted capitalism against communism.
“Think about some of the things that have changed since ’01. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was still policy. You had presidential candidates who wouldn’t have dreamt of talking about marriage equality. We weren’t talking about transphobia. How did that happen in 17 years?” he said. “Because of the work of advocates throughout society pushing to change the narrative.”
To effect change, he said, “We have to have that moment of interest convergence where we go to the dominant group and say, ‘We get that you’re scared, but it’s more frightening to see the division in this country because we haven’t learned to share.’
“If you think that division is painful now, stick around and don’t do anything about it, and then see where we are in 15 or 20 years. This is self help.”
During a lead-in discussion moderated by Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham, panelist Allison Manswell, the results officer of Path Forward Consulting, agreed with Wise’s point that “Power doesn’t concede power.”