This trend takes on its own unique shape at Harvard. Amongst Harvard students, empathy merch and posts on Instagram stories abound, stating or implying that if we only felt more empathy for each other, we could solve the world’s problems and amend political cleavages.
This ideology of toxic self-reliance is especially pervasive at universities like Harvard. It creates a culture that relies on a fixed privileged view that assumes all people should be like the (white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, male) default who are (supposedly) entirely self-reliant. Yet, mental health should never be an individual battle. Harvard’s expectation of excellence currently relies on a deeply rooted ableism, both mental and physical, creating a campus that is not built for people who have different capabilities, implying that differences are deficits.
It is clear to me that despite the many claims I’ve heard about wanting to create a safe and equitable environment for marginalized students, their wellbeing is rarely prioritized. In conversations about how Harvard should handle members of its community that spread racism or other forms of bigotry, I’ve been frustrated because the potential growth of the perpetrator, and the debate over how much they are to blame, often takes center stage over the healing, safety, and comfort of those harmed.
I was used to being confronted with Trump signs on the walk home from the bus stop, but instead, I ran into Black Lives Matter signs on what felt like every street corner and shop. Students at Harvard included BLM slogans and iconography in their Undergraduate Council campaigns, whereas at my high school students actively tried to dodge questions of race; they claimed that it was a “racism-free” environment when a question was raised as to why the student government candidates were disproportionately white.
New students need to confront and reject the logics and values of the multiple systems of oppression that have and will continue to warp their educational experiences. However, this is no simple task: Many of these harmful ideas disguise themselves in seemingly benign and ubiquitous social values and practices, at which most people would never blink twice.