This Photo Of 10 WOC Harvard Grads Has The Internet Collectively Shouting 'Yes!'

"Don't touch our crowns."

Graduation season is upon us, and students everywhere are celebrating their many accomplishments as well as closing one chapter of their life to enter the next. But there is one group of women the internet is paying special attention to this week — 10 Harvard University graduates, all women of color, wearing their caps and white gowns. (Or pants in one case.) 

The photo, appropriately captioned "Don't touch our crowns" with a Black Girl Magic hashtag, was posted to Twitter on May 22 by Harvard graduate Gabriela Thorne, and taken by photographer and Harvard College student Hakeem Angulu. The women stand proudly after having just graduated from one of the most prestigious schools in the world, and their defiant looks make viewers want to collectively shout "Yass queens!" 


Courtesy of Hakeem Angulu

The image is particularly powerful for what it represents. So often minorities must overcome a number of obstacles related to their race, gender, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation to gain access to higher education. And while some progress is certainly being made —  Black women have been reported to be the most educated group in the U.S. today, and Harvard had a majority non-White freshman student population in 2017 — these historically homogenous institutions are not necessarily equipped with the proper resources to support such a diverse group, resulting in some students of color feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, and/or isolated on campus. 

"When I first arrived at Harvard, I was ready to conquer the world. I was excited to experience freedom and independence. However, I was forced to adjust to Harvard in ways I had not expected," Thorne wrote for The Nation. "This adjustment period is not uncommon for most students. But for some students of color, adjusting is more than just learning to live away from home and shoulder a tough workload — adjusting means learning how to navigate all this while constantly being made aware of your difference." 

Harvard senior Nuha Saho told Thorne part of his adjustment involved dealing with seemingly innocuous ID checks. "There have been one too many times on this campus in which I have been asked for my Harvard ID before entering or reentering a space," said Saho. "While this may seem innocent to ask to other students, as a Black student on this campus, I am very aware of the racial undertones inherent in these questions, and I cannot read them as anything except a clear distrust that I belong here."

Such systemic issues often persist for students of color during and after school, which is reflected in graduation and employment rates. 

Thorne points to a U.S. Department of Education report showing that in 2012, "69 percent of White people between the age of 25 and 29 had bachelor's degrees, while only 9 percent of Black people did, yet 14 percent of Blacks were said to be enrolled in college in 2012. In 2015, the poverty rate for Black people was 24.1 percent and 21.4 percent for Hispanic people in comparison to 9.1 percent for White people." 

Knowing these statistics, and the adversity so many students of color face today, gives us all the more reason to celebrate the successes of the 10 powerful women pictured. Twitter followers are certainly voicing their support.  

Not only do these women in their "crowns" make a statement, but the location of the photo itself is particularly poignant. In an email, Angulu told A Plus the photo, along with many others, was taken in the Harvard Art Museums — a place he holds dear to his heart. 

"On one hand, the collection [at the Harvard Art Museums] is beautiful, and contains beautiful and diverse pieces of art," said Angulu. "I've walked through the museum many times to see exquisite pieces and stories from all sorts of people and Black artists I look up to, including Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, and Jacob Lawrence. On the other hand, many of these works are often not on display, and the museum itself is built on land formerly owned and inhabited by Louis Agassiz, an infamous racist, polygenesis, and pseudo-scientist who weaponized art, and particularly photography, to promote his twisted beliefs. 

"It was important to me, when planning these graduation shoots for these successful and inspiring Black women, that we reckoned with and challenged the wrought past (and present) of this place, and other places like it at Harvard and beyond. In the very same spot that these women are standing, Louis Agassiz worked to demean and dehumanize Black people. In this same institution, Black people have long fought for recognition and celebration. Well, this photograph represents that challenge, and provides that celebration. These women, many of whom are my friends and mentors, have successfully completed academic careers at a top-tier, predominantly White institution, and that matters. Louis Agassiz, and his many supporters, are rolling in their graves at the sight of this excellence. Hopefully, the photograph spreads the excellence and recognition, and shows other people of color, particularly Black women, that they have a place here and in this world."

While institutions such as Harvard continue making forward steps, there is still much to be done to create truly supportive spaces for a diverse student body (including employing a more diverse faculty to provide mentorship for students of color), and to close the employment and wage gap between Whites and minorities who graduate with the same degree. In the meantime, we hope to see more photos akin to Angulu's that both prompt a dialogue on these very important issues and celebration for the students of color paving the way (and widening the path) for those behind them.   

A Plus has reached out to Thorne for comment. 


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