Snap Judgments. Stereotypes. Implicit Bias.
They exist everywhere, across and beyond Harvard.
When I was a graduate student in the Regional Studies East Asia Program, I had experienced attitudes and comments that were sprinkled with presumptions from faculty and administrators whom I thought, would or should know to suspend judgment before they begin an enquiry. That enquiry could be as simple as a casual conversation or a probing question that would lead them to know me, as a person, before making reckless remarks. That was my assumption or expectation, you see. Well, I didn’t see it then. This is what I still recall.
The day I handed in my thesis (more than 20 years ago), I went into my department program administrator’s office and yelled, “I did it!’’ Margaret looked up from her desk, cluttered with piles of paper, and smiled, “Nice job! You’ve proved to be more than a pretty face!” “What? Wow…” My heart froze a bit. “Was that a back-handed compliment!?” I stood and wondered, stunned and speechless.
Margaret knew me as someone with a TV on-air background as an international correspondent with field experiences in a glamorous profession. Perhaps she thought I could run around the world covering breaking news but not buckle down to read books and write a paper? Perhaps she thought I would throw my hands up one day and just drop out? Perhaps she has seen that happen at Harvard? Whatever that was, I would never know. But what I know is this – it felt so out of line. What was particularly striking was the emotional gusto in her tone as if I was to be congratulated for having succeeded in surprising her, and proving her wrong. Obviously that was a rather harmless incident, one of several other instances where I felt like I was viewed as a “less than” until proven otherwise. My response?
I swallowed it, in silence, in disgust and brushed it off.
Twenty years later, Harvard is home to an ever-growing number of international students with complex and diverse backgrounds and experiences before they arrive. The university is increasingly active in exploring ways to invite them to speak up, share stories so we can understand one another better.
Earlier this Fall, I was invited by the Graduate School of Education to moderate and produce “Why Not Me?” the first open-mic storytelling event at Harvard (“The Moth” style) via live streaming on YouTube, and taped recording for my podcast “One in a Billion.” Tracie Jones (Assistant Director of the Office of Student Affairs at the Graduate School of Education) saw a critical need to better serve the rising number of Asian students who aren’t always ready to talk about anxieties and vulnerabilities due to race, class, sexual orientation or stereotypes. Their personal stories drive home the point “Why Not Me?” in their pursuit of a more fulfilling life.
Listen to this Special Edition of “ One in a Billion“ “Why Not Me? Part 1.”
Share your thoughts? Pitch me a story?
“One in a Billion” is listening to #China, one person at a time.
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