Shamarah J. Hernandez ’12. Course 14. McCormick resident. What are the first thoughts that come to mind when you read those four facts about her? Oh, she must be a minority student? Course 14 … um, is she double majoring in something else?
Or do you just say, cool, she’s from MIT?
Name, year, major, and residence — these are the first four things you find out about any MIT student you meet. Just knowing those simple bits, it’s already easy to form an opinion. Of course, one is entitled to possess an opinion — but since the publishing of Brandon Briscoe ’12’s opinion article on affirmative action last Friday, in which he states that MIT is heading in the “wrong direction” with this admissions policy, much discussion has spawned among the student body about the fine line between the right to express an opinion and the need to correct prejudices.
Hernandez noted that Briscoe’s article was just another incident of discrimination that had been “haunting” her whole life. “After 21 years of hearing [things like], ‘Congrats, I’m glad you got into MIT … but I couldn’t because I’m white,’ … I think people need to know the truth.”
Hernandez spent her long weekend setting up a Twitter feed, helping organize an affirmative action forum, and making a point to read all student responses to Briscoe’s article. She has been encouraging students to write letters, and emphasizes the crucial importance of individual responses. “This is a movement about the individual, after all,” she said.
Briscoe, on the other hand, did not expect the amplitude of this reaction to his piece. He described how, during his time at MIT, he felt he only ever heard one “predominant” opinion from the administration about affirmative action. “I believe I was writing the opinion of the ‘silent majority’ — whether it’s a majority or not,” Briscoe said, in an interview with The Tech. “It was unspoken.” He noted that the reaction to his article is not as negative as it appears externally, as he had received several statements of support from other students.
In fact, what Hernandez and Briscoe both agree on is that there needs to be more open discussion at MIT. As differently as they feel on the issue, both want the conversation to move forward and to see students come out to express their opinions. Encouraging more discussion in general would be a big benefit and change especially for MIT, where students, Briscoe commented, are less active in political issues than students at other “elite” schools.
It was not lack of caring which made MIT students seem to keep their viewpoints to themselves. Briscoe’s piece sparked response after response, from Facebook conversations to a number of formal letters to The Tech. Over the weekend, more than 100 comments on his piece, expressing a spectrum of opinions, were posted on The Tech’s website.
Wednesday’s Affirmative Action Forum, sponsored by the Office of Minority Education and the department of Women’s and Gender Studies, was mobilized in just a few days solely by a group of undergraduate students. Approximately 70 people were present at its peak. After nearly two hours of discussion, participants began suggesting ideas for larger movements for change, including writing to President Susan J. Hockfield, said Celeste I. Faaiuaso ’12, one of the forum’s organizers. In addition, Quinton McArthur, Assistant Director of MIT Admissions, was present to clarify and answer questions about the affirmative action process.
Faaiuaso, too, hopes that the “learning process” of a discussion will continue to spread from the Forum throughout the Institute.
Ultimately, the message Hernandez is trying to spread extends beyond stereotypes about race or gender — the underlying principle is to consider each person as an individual in every regard. “Hearing people make remarks like how Brandon is in his fifth year, how he’s switched [to humanities] majors, is just as offensive as anything he wrote,” Hernandez said. “Why can’t you just accept someone as a person?”