Do You Know What It’s Like?

David Harris gives his perspective as a college president and a black man on the events of recent weeks in Minnesota, Central Park and elsewhere.

June 8, 2020
 
 
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Over the past few weeks, prompted by the events in Minnesota, Central Park and elsewhere, people have been asking many questions, including some of our students, who have posted photos of African American Union College students and asked, “Would you care if it were me?”

I usually would not comment on national issues, as I know that I cannot speak as Dave. I am always speaking as president of Union College. But while I am a college president, I am also a black man, and I believe I have a perspective that could add to the national discussion. It has also become undeniable in recent days that this national issue is also very much an issue for every campus and community across the country.

People ask, “Do you know what it is like to be the victim of racism?”

I have been a black person for more than 50 years, so it would be nearly impossible for me to not know what it is like to be a victim of racism. Although I do not talk about experiences with racism very often because I do not want to let those people and those incidents define who I am, the truth is that the memories and the pain are never far from my mind.

My experiences with racism have been subtle and overt, ambiguous and unmistakable, very personal and anonymous. They have been in interactions with friends and with those who consider themselves to be progressives. In this, I am far from unique.

I went to Northwestern University as an undergraduate on a substantial need-based financial aid package. I am now president of a prestigious liberal arts college. As I have gained status and wealth, my personal connection to racism has taken some new forms -- but it has not disappeared.

People also ask me, “Do you know what it is like to fear what might happen if you were stopped by the police?” What happened to George Floyd was sickening. The fraud we saw Amy Cooper perpetuate in Central Park was disgusting. The shooting of Breonna Taylor was senseless.

None of this is new. Long before these incidents, there was Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Emmett Till and so many more. We are a country marked by more than 400 years of slavery, lynching, persistent inequality and all that they have spawned, large and small, simple and complex. We are like the fish who cannot see the water that is all around us.

Our history and my personal history mean that I am nervous every time I see a police car in the rearview mirror or I pass a police car parked on the side of the road. It is not that I think that all police officers are racist or that every police officer would do something to me. I am confident the vast majority would not, but there are too many who have. I always try to do the right thing because that is who I am, but it is also because some part of me fears what the consequences could be of not doing so.

People also ask, “What are you doing to eliminate racism?” Race and inequality were the focus of my undergraduate and graduate studies. They were the focus of my research and my work in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Living my life in in predominately white spaces presents many opportunities to disrupt stereotypes, force difficult conversations and call out implicit biases.

I appreciate that I am now in a position where I can lend a hand to people whose potential might otherwise be overlooked or constrained by unnecessarily inhospitable conditions. I relish this privilege. I also try my best to use my personal and lifelong experiences with racism to become a humble and committed ally and advocate for those who experience other forms of bias.

Many People and Many Tactics

Some people also ask me, “What is Union College doing to eliminate racism?” A key principle of our strategic plan is intentionality. That must be part of what we do here. It is not enough that people have the opportunity to grow. We must find ways to push all members of our community, regardless of their perspectives and experiences, to learn and engage in these critical matters of race and racism in America.

Courses across the curriculum expose students to others’ perspectives, experiences and constraints. Our student affairs and intercultural offices are increasingly finding innovative ways to broaden our perspectives and imaginations. One recent program for faculty and staff members, for instance, addressed how to talk about race and current issues with our children. Athletics and other student activities, especially at a small residential college, bring together people from many backgrounds and create a rare basis for understanding one another. Need-based financial aid and grant programs like Union’s Making U Possible aim to increase the range of life experiences present on our campus and expand the diversity of future leaders.

Our college’s vision statement emphasizes wisdom, empathy and courage. As we all grow in each of these areas, we learn why racism and inequality persist, and why our actions and words sometimes have effects that we don’t intend or may not have appreciated.

We learn how we can develop the strength to risk status, popularity and upsetting others as we call out words and actions that move us farther from what we as a society claim to be. We learn how to engage others so that they can hear us rather than feel attacked and become defensive.

I have long described racism and bias as a Sisyphean challenge. We think we have made progress, shift our focus and later realize that some of our gains have been lost. I firmly believe that long-term progress on these pernicious issues requires many people and many tactics.

That is what we enable through our direct work and by broadening the perspectives and challenging the assumptions of all members of our community. What we do will affect what happens today, and even more, what happens in the years to come at Union, in the country and around the world. Our work can and must continue and expand. We must get better at what we do.

Bio

David Harris is president of Union College.

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