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Jokes That Aren’t Funny: Racism and Harassment in Student Traditions

Courtesy of Julia Riew

Content warning: Sexual harassment, racism

To preface, I do not plan to reveal the name of the organization involved in this incident, nor will I reveal the identities of any individuals. The purpose of this piece is not to call out or cancel anyone. I think it is important for people to be able to learn from their mistakes without being defined by them. However, I also think that it is important that we, as Harvard students, become aware of certain parts of campus culture that can be very harmful. As many Harvard clubs release statements in support of #StopAsianHate and anti-racism, they must also reconsider their traditions and confront their potentially racist, sexist, or otherwise harmful histories.

On March 30, 2019, I was sitting in the Lowell House Junior Common Room. It was a late Saturday night. That spring, I was spearheading “The East Side,” an original musical that I had co-written with two friends. The show was about a Chinese restaurant and was to be the inaugural production of Harvard’s Asian Student Arts Project, a club that we had just founded. By producing the show, we hoped to celebrate Asian American identity and represent our stories on stage in a way that we had not yet seen.

At 1:01 a.m., my phone started going off. Within a minute, I had received 11 text messages from 11 different unknown numbers. Among them were:

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Two minutes later, I received the following text from a friend who was a freshman at the time —

“I’m so sorry, I’m getting … hazed rn, please don’t get freaked out! But if it’s good by you, they want to know which is the best via you responding to the best one with an eggplant emoji”

To put it lightly, I was confused. He was being hazed by an organization that I wasn’t a part of? What did that have to do with me? And why were the messages so … racial??

So what did I do? I laughed it off. And I went along with what my friend had asked.

The next day, I ran into him and asked about the previous night. Apparently, he was playing a game during initiation, and as part of an old tradition, he had to reveal one person’s phone number to whom everyone would send a sext. He chose mine.

Somehow, I think I found it funny at the time. I was flattered, even — my friend saw me as someone with a sense of humor and a close enough friend to be involved in his group’s antics. I think a lot of us are trained to just laugh things off — it’s easier than getting offended. No one wants to be that girl that can’t take a joke. After all, some people in that organization were Asian. Some were women. If they laughed at this, why couldn’t I?

I didn’t stop to consider the implications of the messages. I let it go.

Two years later, when I happened to encounter that friend again, I was reminded of the text messages. That night, sitting with a few close friends, I pulled out my phone and scrolled back to 2019. I began to read them out loud. By the time I was halfway through the messages, I was horrified. My friends were disgusted. I kept going. The final message left me with a sick feeling in my stomach.

How could this have happened? I tried to picture the night from the point of view of someone in the organization, to explain these racialized, vulgar sexual text messages, sent by a crowd of people to someone they barely knew. I told myself again that it was just a joke. A game. They were probably drunk. They probably didn’t even remember what they had sent to me.

I supposed that the only thing they knew about me was my involvement in “The East Side,” and perhaps the only thing they knew about “The East Side” was that it was about Chinese food. That had to be what inspired the content of the messages. But a grosser, scarier suspicion kept pushing into the forefront of my mind: The only thing they knew about me was that I was an Asian woman. And that was what inspired the content of the messages.

Most of all, I felt guilty and anxious. Over the next few days, questions raced through my mind: How could I have ever thought these were funny? What had I done to make others think this was okay? Should I do something about this now? Even as I write this, I’m second-guessing myself. Am I overreacting? Why dig this up after two years? It was a different time.

But it just feels impossible not to connect incidents like this with the 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents of the past year or the Atlanta spa shooting. It is often the casual, seemingly non-violent acts of racism and sexism that permit and pave the way for the worst. Racism doesn’t exist only in the extreme, violent stories we hear on the news. It doesn’t come exclusively from extreme, violent people. Sometimes, it comes from your peers. Your friends.

Last weekend, I called my friend and asked him, again, to explain the game to me. This time, he added a crucial detail — the rules of the game were to choose not only a person to send messages, but also a topic around which the sexts would center. He had chosen “The East Side.” “Thank god,” I thought, “I was right. They weren’t just trying to be blatantly racist. It was just a joke.”

But still, something didn’t sit right. I explained that, to me, with zero context, it just seemed like I had received a series of racially motivated sexual messages due to my involvement with “The East Side.” I forwarded him the screenshots. He completely understood and apologized, assuring me that he would do what he could to ensure this tradition would be terminated.

Sure, it was just a joke. But some jokes aren’t funny. Sometimes we say things, without intending to be racist, that are absolutely racist. At least 12 people were in that room. No one stopped the messages from being sent.

Prior to writing this op-ed, I spoke with the new leadership of the organization, who informed me that they do not condone or participate in hazing. We had an open, honest conversation, and they informed me that they have discontinued the tradition. They apologized and contacted the individuals involved in the incident. I was made aware that they are now holding meetings with their alumni and current students to take actionable steps to reexamine and improve the culture of their organization.

And so, for a time, I considered leaving this unpublished. After all, the organization was making changes. But this piece isn’t about me or the particular organization involved. It’s about bringing to light the institutional racism and sexism within our community that has allowed incidents like this to run unchecked. Through conversations with friends, I discovered that I’m not alone in facing this type of harassment at Harvard. So instead of pointing fingers, let’s focus our energies on rooting out the normalized conventions that perpetuate racial and sexual violence within and outside the Harvard community.

This incident challenged me to think back and critically evaluate the jokes or traditions in which I have participated, and I invite you to do the same. Seemingly harmless jokes can hurt more than you’d think. Whether within student groups or in our day-to-day interactions, let’s all be a little more careful and a little more compassionate.

Julia H. Riew ’22 is a joint concentrator in Theater, Dance, & Media and Music in Lowell House.

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