Co-Existing Self: A Conversation about Passing and Identities at Harvard

Grace Chen '15 & Irfan Mahmud '16

On the evening of November 13, the Harvard Foundation, in partnership with the Leverett House Race Relations Tutors and the Harvard College Women’s Center, hosted an open discussion on the coexisting identities Harvard students have in the different roles they assume on campus. The event, titled “Co-Existing Self,” was one part of a two-part initiative to explore this idea of multiple identities coexisting in one person.

The first angle of Co-Existing Self was a video campaign.  In the Harvard Foundation office, interns filmed students speaking about their own identities on campus.   The video interviews focused on the individual’s experiences with or conception of “passing” at Harvard.  Sociology defines passing as “the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different raceethnicity , caste ,social classgender , intelligence , age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance.” These videos were then edited and launched on Facebook and YouTube to kick off the video portion of the Co-Existing Self programming.

Following this portion, the Harvard Foundation hosted an open discussion in Fairfax Common Room to discuss these topics. Race Relations Tutors in Leverett House, Jessica Tollette and David Williams, helped to facilitate the event and reserve the space. Intern coordinators Grace Chen ’15 and Irfan Mahmud ’16 moderated the event, which was formatted as a candid discussion.

The event began as people trickled in, chatted with their friends, and enjoyed the desserts and refreshments. To start the discussion, we played one of the Co-Existing Self videos that interns had prepared. Following, Grace Chen facilitated an activity that gave attendees the chance to start reflecting on their varying identities across the campus spectrum. The four corners of the room were labeled with “Social Life,” “Extracurricular Life,” “Residential Life,” and “Academic Life.” The first question was, in which of these spaces do you feel most comfortable and most truly yourself? And the second question was, in which of these spaces do you feel you are passing the most?

After getting a gauge of how other attendees felt in these different spaces, the conversation began. Students had the chance to explore the idea of passing itself.  Questions such as “Is passing necessarily bad?” and “How did your areas of passing change after you came to college?” naturally arose in the course of conversation.  People developed the idea that passing is often used for purposes of privilege, convenience, or bridging gaps.  The attendees approached passing from many different angles of identity-- from sexual orientation to racial and cultural affinity groups.

This event was a great opportunity for people from many different pockets of campus life to come together to discuss how their identity has been formed at Harvard. It gave students a chance to stop and reflect on intellectual and social development while on campus and how a cohesive self forms from our coexisting selves.