My good friend and classmate, Leila Meliani (MBA ’20), tipped off Black History Month with an amazing reflection on her family history. As she told her story, I couldn’t help but cry and reflect on the pain my ancestors endured so I could be considered human. Even more serendipitous was the shirt she wore which read, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” As she wrapped up her story, I sank deep into my seat and wondered, “how am I leveraging my time at HBS to honor their legacy and advance the fight for equality and opportunity?”
Being unapologetically Black. As one of few Black students in my section, it can be uncomfortable to bear the weight of your race on your shoulders in case discussions and social outings. I’m often conflicted by whether or not I should speak up when the topics involve race or marginalized people, understanding that my audience hasn’t lived the same experience as me. While I am concerned about being pigeon-holded into making comments about the Black experience, I still find the courage to raise my hand and make the statement that needs to be made. As history has taught us, sharing the unpopular opinion as a Black American doesn’t often yield the best result, as is the case for former NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick. You run the risk of being labeled “controversial” or an “agitator,” and while the case method certainly encourages that sort of commentary, the HBS experience extends far beyond the classroom, and as such I am very cognizant of the fact that my commentary follows me around campus. That being said, I am not here to make my Black identity more palatable for other people. I am here to be my authentic self and share my experience through my lens. At times, that might make other people uncomfortable and that’s OK. I’d challenge the Harvard community to lean into that discomfort and uncover something new about their understanding of Black culture, people, and history because it’s in these moments that we grow.
Promoting Black history as American history. Black history is American history. While the month of February forces us to pause and focus on the achievements of Black people in America, it is certainly insufficient in capturing the degree to which Black people have shaped this nation. This is further exacerbated by the lack of diversity in our history books, cases, and curriculum. The responsibility for promoting diversity (in any form) often falls on the shoulders of the diverse individual, but there are limited opportunities to provide input when you don’t have a seat at the table. This is why allyship is critical to progress. As an ally you may have the access and opportunity to speak up when diverse opinions and insights aren’t being considered. This mindset is even more critical when making hiring decisions, building corporate partnerships, or investing in new companies. I’m hopeful that the insights I’ve shared with my friends about the my experience in non-diverse settings has really helped them understand some of the challenges marginalized people face on a regular basis. I encourage the student body to go the extra mile and spend time learning more about the people and events left out of many history books so you can understand how our past has laid the foundation for America’s present.
Operating outside my comfort zone. Honestly, living in a majority non-Black environment can be very exhausting. Minorities in America experience this every day when they go to work, to school, and out to bars. Sometimes it’s just easier to spend your limited free time in environments where you don’t have to code-switch or filter your thoughts and commentary. Many of us find solace in clubs like the African-American Student Union (AASU) to help foster that sense of family and familiarity. There is, however, a lot of value in investing in relationships with people who have vastly different experiences, cultures, and outlooks on life. The HBS social environment offers a great opportunity to build strong relationships with future leaders from across the world. Small group dinners, section events, and cultural holidays are a great way to learn what your classmates value and how their culture and background inform who they want to be. I intend to make the most out of this experience by taking advantage of my proximity to this diversity, and I encourage my classmates to do the same. Take advantage of parties and outings where you may be the only person that looks like you in attendance. Immerse yourself in those classmates’ culture and don’t worry if you’re the only person in the crowd that doesn’t know the dance. This is the place to explore and learn.
It’s tough to say what my ancestors expected of their lineage, but I’m sure they’d be proud to know that their sacrifice was not in vain. The same plantations they sowed are now homes to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and the children they raised grew to be leaders of Fortune 500 companies. As Black History month comes to a close, we should recognize how important it is to continue these conversations throughout the year because creating a more inclusive society that celebrates cultural diversity would most certainly be my ancestors’ wildest dream.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
— Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
Tyler Simpson, a native of Cartersville, Georgia, graduated from Columbia University in 2013 with a B.A. in Psychology. While at Columbia, she was a member of the Women’s Basketball team where she spent most of her time running sprints for missed layups. Upon graduation, Tyler joined the National Basketball Association and held roles in Global Partnerships and International Licensing. When she’s not singing karaoke with her friends in AASU, she’s hanging out with the Section F Fuegos.