Harvard placemat serves up social justice for Christmas

The Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Harvard University distributed what it is calling “Holiday Placemats for Social Justice” on campus to help freshmen students navigate difficult conversations when they return home for Christmas break.

The placemat, a copy of which was obtained by Campus Reform, offers students tips for talking to their family members about controversial topics such as “Black Murders in the Street,” “House Master Title,” and “Islamophobia/Refugees.” The placemat, divided into four possible topics of conversation, provides students with a series of sample questions they may encounter when they return home to their families along with an acceptable response to each question.

Under the topic “Black Murders in the Street,” students are advised to prepare answers to the question: “Why didn’t they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn’t have happened.”

Students are advised to say to their families: “Do you think the response would be the same if it was a white person being pulled over? In many incidents that result in the death of a black body in the street, these victims are not breaking the law and are unarmed.”

To prepare for discussion of the topic of “House Master Title,” students should prepare answers to the question: “Why did they change the name? What does a housemaster have to do with slavery? It’s not related to that at all.”

When responding, the placemat suggests students say: “For some, the term master, used to describe stewardship of a group of people (such as a house), is reminiscent of slave masters and the legacy of slavery. The title, ‘House Master,’ is no longer actively associated with its historical antecedents nor is it used to address House Masters. Given the name is offensive to groups of people, it doesn’t seem onerous to change it. The mastery of a subject is an understandable use of the word. However, within our cultural and historical context, implying mastery of people feels both inappropriate and ill-founded.”

The placemat implies that they should be prepared to defend the motives of black student activists at other universities.

“Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?” the placemat puts forward as a possible question.

When answering, the placemat recommends students acknowledge their privilege rather than criticize the experience of students of color.

“When I hear students expressing their experiences of racism on campus I don’t hear complaining,” the placemat suggests as a response. “Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I may not experience. If non-Black students get the privilege of that safe environment, I believe that same privilege should be given to all students.”

Harvard Crimson columnist Idrees M. Kahloon took issue with the placemats, noting in a column that the majority of the placemat's content was taken "word-for-word" from a poster created by a group named Showing Up for Racial Justice.

"That organization’s professed aim," Idrees wrote, "is to move 'white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.' To gain some perspective on their viewpoint, examine a recent article on their site that claimed, 'we know that racist vigilantes and the police force have a long, collaborative history with one another.'”

Associate Director of Communications Rachel Dane confirmed the placemats were created by the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in collaboration with the Freshmen Dean’s Office.

“The project came about as we thought together about how we can acknowledge the issues happening nationally and internationally and was intended to provide a framework to help first-year students with potentially difficult conversations during their first visits back home,” Dane told Campus Reform.

The placemats were distributed in Annenberg Dining Hall, an undergraduate dining hall at Harvard.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski

Ed. Note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.