Column | March 5

Erasable expressions

The Tumblr page for the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign that launched last week has already attracted thousands of page views. The initiative began last spring when Harvard sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence interviewed Black undergraduates to gauge their responses to life on campus. As a supplement to Matsuda-Lawrence’s play inspired by these conversations, the Tumblr features photographs of African-American students holding dry-erase boards with racist remarks that were either directed toward them, or that they otherwise overhead on campus. Having received positive feedback, organizers of the campaign have been contacted by Black students on other campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania, some of whom would like to recreate the project within their own communities.

Of course, the manifestation of the project is not itself new. A couple of years ago, for example, YouTube was an especially visible forum for individuals (most of whom were adolescents) to communicate a personal narrative through a series of index cards. These narratives were often deeply affecting, as they dealt with such issues as bullying, depression and suicide. Unfortunately, some of the youth who had made these videos subsequently took their own lives, even though many had sought psychiatric help and expressed feeling happier only days before these tragedies. If you were to scroll beneath the videos, you would cross into the jungle of the Internet, where sympathy seems to always be forced out of the room by invisible aggressors. Some YouTubers would upload “mock sad stories” that showed them exaggerating their “afflictions.” Evidently, these people had no empathy for an unorthodox, yet nonetheless genuine, display of pain.

While I do not mean to suggest that these silent expressions of discontent seek the same ends, I am interested in this voicelessness as a mode of communication and even as a tool for social and individual change. On the “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr, a message on the home page details the campaign’s goal of “highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College.” At first, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss the initiative as an experiment that perpetuates a trendy expression of frustration. I myself have questioned the efficacy of index cards and dry-erase boards to communicate something that might encourage action or reform in other people. Although I was touched by the stories of people who had been hurt by others, I never felt as though I could do more than shrug and think, “Hope everything works out.”

The immediate success of the student campaign, however, indicates a few interesting things. First is the unspoken truth that a widely known institution or organization is likely the best platform for underrepresented people to tell stories that will probably be heard. Where one child recording a video in his basement may primarily reach people within his own community, students at a place like Harvard (and Princeton, etc.) simply need to whisper, and thousands of people will hear. I would like to emphasize the plurality of “students” which relates to my second point. I suspect that the power of voiceless crusades rests in the interlocked hands of the many. Each photograph in the student campaign is an echo of the one that precedes it, a magnification of individual pain that stretches down the computer screen.

This mode of expression is particularly beneficial for members of minority groups who share similarly discomforting experiences. As I looked through the photographs, I read many statements that I hadn’t personally heard, and quite a few that were too familiar. The power of the photographs derive from their visual and textual resonance. One sees, for instance, a young Black man in a hoodie and is reminded of the stereotypes that are imposed on him. As if this were not enough, the dry-erase board displays a checklist of stereotypes: “thug,” “ghetto,” “hood” and “ratchet,” to name a few. Reading the stark, handwritten statements is similar to reading a powerful line in a story that is enhanced by the absence of sound. Likewise, interpreting the oft-ambivalent expressions of the person who holds the board can be like analyzing a painted portrait; one wishes he could know how the subject felt in that moment, but the moment is gone, now only preserved in an image.

I am glad that other schools want to incorporate this very modern brand of expression in their own communities. While the Harvard students focused on the issue of race, I can imagine how college students might also use dry-erase boards to emphasize any kind of personal issue that may be difficult to speak about. In the wake of the recent Penn student suicides, one might be compelled to create a powerful display that exhibits the frustrations and anxieties of all students who feel pressure to perform well academically and socially. These kinds of initiatives may yield the intangible profit of knowing that one has sympathetic peers in colleges across the nation. The “dry-erase model,” though familiar, becomes more relevant when many people use it for the same goal. It is a model that I support and one that will hopefully result in more dialogues about student well-being in times to come.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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