Life in Post-Affirmative Action America

The Black TableDuring mealtimes, something interesting happens at Harvard's Annenburg Dining Hall -- where stained glass windows split the light into purple and gold across the well-polished mahogany tables and marble busts of frowning old men adorn the walls.In this holy space, this hall of great accomplishments, the Black Table convenes.It's called the Black Table because all the black people are there. Of course there are white tables-- so many that no one considers it remarkable. But a table of black people? Segregation, when not enforced, puzzles white people. Why would all the black freshmen choose to sit together? Why, after all the years of struggle and progress, after all the work it took to get them into Harvard, would they choose to isolate themselves? The Black Table has been an object of great controversy at Harvard for years. Black freshmen in particular tend to herd together at mealtimes, parties, and other social settings. In discussions of this practice, words like segregation get thrown around. Arguments break out, usually dissolving into racially polarized discussions of things like affirmative action and school busing.But black freshmen continue to sit together. I sit at the black table. In fact, I'm often the first one to claim a table in the dining hall for "us." I self-segregate. And it makes me feel so good. The opportunity to sit at a table full of young black people, with shared goals and paths and dreams and knowledge, is something none of us would miss out on for the world.Sitting together, we do present a formidable picture to any white person who might want to join us. Sometimes, someone's white roommate or friend will be invited to join us, and they usually do, with a smile of nervous agitation. Suddenly, they know how it feels to be an intruder, the only one who's different. But white people don't approach the table unless asked. They choose to sit elsewhere. Does that hurt the struggle against oppression -- or does the chance to breathe in the community of one's peers, one's brethren, give the strength to fight the struggle? We rarely discuss anything deep -- in fact, it's usually brainless college talk: parties, who's wearing what, how much work we have, and so on. But there's something to be said for the opportunity just to sit together, and talk about nothing. One day, no doubt, something will happen on campus that will necessitate all of us getting together for a serious discussion. And it'll be good to know where to find everyone. The Gender DivideSomething odd is going on in my classes. Coming from four years of an all-girls school, I'm not used to seeing boys dominate the conversation. I'm not used to watching teachers ignore the female hands oh-so-delicately raised in the air. I'm certainly not used to being interrupted by men, thrust aside as if my comments couldn't possibly be as important as theirs.And unlike the other girls in the class, I don't usually accept it. I never appreciated the studies about gender divisions in classroom performance until I entered a co-ed classroom after four years' absence. Men truly do dominate, even when they are in the minority. What surprises me most is how easily the females seem to accept it as a way of life. My literature section consists of 13 female and seven male students, and a female teaching fellow, who gather in a small room each week to discuss the influence of the urban environment on Balzac and Dickens. I had read the books. I had good ideas to share--or so I thought. I was right in the middle of my discussion of conservative religious values in "Lost Illusions" when the guy next to me jumped in, saying, "I haven't read the book, but I think that..." "Excuse me?" I said. "I wasn't finished." Dead silence. Everyone -- including the female students and the teaching fellow -- looked at me like I was in the wrong. I guess I was in the wrong to challenge tradition. There is an agreement, however tacit, between the women of this school and the establishment that men are more important. Perhaps that was part of the deal for finally allowing women into the dorms and the classrooms back in the 1970's.Or perhaps -- and this is far more frightening -- the women don't even recognize their own passivity.I have no doubt the man in my section was wrong to cut me off. But what if the other women, after four years of male dominance in high school as well as constant exposure to the patriarchy that rules America, simply don't recognize their own right to speak? Am I forever consigned to the role of instigating bitch?I don't know if other women who went to single-sex high schools feel the way I do. Women here are remarkably isolated from each other. Meaningful discussion is furtive -- women mostly talk of classes, schoolwork, and, of course, how cute some guy is. It's a little safer, I suppose. But I'd like to know if someone else is being the instigating bitch. If enough of us call out the obnoxious guys, maybe female passivity isn't the root of the problem.Today I made an appointment with Cornel West, my African-American Studies professor, to talk about sexism in the academic world. I'm sure he'll agree with me. After all, there's a reason why he's at Harvard while black female intellectuals like bell hooks and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbothom are relatively unknown in the black community. But I want to ask if that doesn't frighten him as it frightens me -- and shouldn't it frighten my peers?Because I have just come to realize that I have two strikes against me in the intellectual world, two reasons why people refuse to take me seriously. And if there's anything that can be done, I want to know.


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