Black students in our community have spent the last few weeks grappling with the weight of a devastating truth: that our country and society has undeniably and systemically failed Black communities – and the false narrative that being well educated, professionally accomplished and palatable enough for predominantly white spaces is still not be enough to keep Black people safe – and there isn’t a job title or degree in the world that can protect Black communities from institutionalized and systemic racism.

Members of the HBS African American Student Union have written a series of Letters to our Classmates in an effort to elevate this message: “On behalf of your Black classmates: we’re not okay, and you shouldn’t be either”. The letters are meant to remove the onus too often placed on Black students to discuss and teach fellow classmates about the lived experiences of being Black in America. The MBA Voices blog will publish these letters, daily, with a link to the ongoing series as it unfolds. 

This blog is 5/5.

Alexis Jackson, MBA ‘21 Section F 

Dear Classmates, 

Last week I wrote a letter to a handful of non-Black student leaders. The purpose of the note was to acknowledge that after the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, the actions of Amy Cooper, and the killing of George Floyd, the anger and frustration regarding racial inequity in America had reached a boiling point. As student leaders, I felt like it was their role to take action instead of allowing silence to permeate their groups. Moments later I saw a similar plea from a former Black co-worker on LinkedIn – asking for his manager to utter at least one word on the current events. And now there’s this letter series where Black students are yet again exhausting their emotional capital in hopes that others might understand their plight. While having a conversation about race may feel uncomfortable to you, it is a reality I can never avoid. As your classmate, first I’m just asking you to listen. I want you to understand my set of experiences, not in hopes of disproving or discrediting them, but to become more proximate to my reality. Then, I am asking you to do better! Until you realize that racial inequity is all of our problem, progress will be stagnant.  

But first, this is my black experience: 

My Black experience is making my non-Black peers feel more comfortable. 

As you utter in class a comment that discredits the Black experience, I patiently wait until my heart rate slows down and I regain my composure before raising my hand. Unlike you, my comment in an emotional state will cause me to come off as an “angry black woman” and make everyone, including you, less comfortable. I make you more comfortable because regardless of my confidence in myself, I still feel like a visitor in your world - where my membership and access to these privileged spaces may be voided at any point. 

My Black experience is acknowledging how you care more about going out than the struggles of my people. 

Many of you allocate an ample amount of time and money on a night you may not remember the next day. However, you are less willing to attend a conversation on race, donate to racial inequity, or ACTUALLY spend your MBA experience learning about someone different from you. How many non-Black alumni have entered the world post-HBS, understanding a perspective vastly different than their own? Or did the qualities of your new friends closely mirror that of your old?  

My Black experience is realizing that you view me as “one of the good ones”. 

I saw the look on your face as you walked past a Black man on the street as fear instantly consumed your eyes. I saw as you tried to distance yourself from him because of the color of his skin and condition of his clothing. The fact that you consider someone dangerous purely based on the way they look is problematic. The fact that you believe I am less threatening because of my “accolades” is not a compliment. I am not “brave” for talking to the Black man on the street – I am considerate for treating him like the human he is.

My Black experience is numbing trauma and grief at rapid speed. 

I recall after the passing of my brother in April how many classmates messaged me words of encouragement and mentioned “my strength and fortitude.” See what you define as strength, is what I define as imminent numbness. My Black experience means that at an early age, I witnessed repeatedly how this country minimizes the lives of Black people, especially based on their socioeconomic background. I have seen communities plagued with poor education systems and I have seen, how mental health-induced drug abuse is treated as a crime. I have witnessed Black adults frantically afraid when pulled over by the police and Black children viewed as threats to society. These encounters are attempts to mask racism in more covert forms.  

After the killing of George Floyd, I refused to watch the video and avoided the pictures depicting him pinned on the ground before his death. I couldn’t watch because I am actively combatting the emergence of constant rage. I am numb, not because I am strong, but because I am trying to survive in a world not catered to me. 

My Black experience is learning to raise my expectations. It is demanding for improvements instead of hoping for eventual progress. It is realizing that I must stop becoming numb to the country’s injustices and start fighting back. The anger and frustration you are witnessing from the Black community isn’t unwarranted – it is the consequences of centuries of oppression.  

Now that I have given you glimpse of my Black experience; I am asking you to do better. 

For many of you, this has been a time to consider educating yourself. It has been a time where racism has been so blatantly obvious that you may have felt the desire to read a couple of articles and post a black box on Instagram on a random Tuesday. As next week approaches, you may be tempted to disconnect from this reality because it’s no longer the trending topic on Twitter or the top news article on WSJ. The fact that you have that luxury and privilege is the very reason why my hope and excitement about current progress is swiftly met with skepticism.  

What do I want from you? I want you to share a sliver of the anger I feel every day about how unjust this world is for me, my family and my future children. I want you to avoid turning a blind eye from my reality because it’s convenient for you. I want you to constantly think about ways to make Black people who “consume” your spaces more comfortable for a change.