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Don’t hate on black graduation ceremony at Harvard University

Undergrads participated this year, but other schools have been doing it for years

2:04 PMA year-old article about Harvard University’s first black graduation ceremony resurfaced this week and caused a ruckus on social media.

The Ivy League university actually hosted its second black grad ceremony Tuesday at Radcliffe Yard. Similar to what took place in 2017, the event was sponsored by the Harvard Black Students Association and was designed to honor the achievements of black graduating students. No degrees were conferred during this ceremony; that practice is reserved for the school’s general commencement activities Thursday.

Jillian Simons, co-president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, helped plan the event. Last year, only grad students participated in the ceremony, but all students were allowed to attend. Simi Falako, president of the Harvard Black Students Association and a human developmental and regenerative biology major, confirmed that senior undergraduates were included this year. In an email, she also acknowledged that the planning committee used the criticism from last year’s event to improve this year’s. Some tweeted support or defended the event.

It’s hard to tell if this is just an issue of not reading beyond a year-old provocative headline like “Harvard will host first-ever black only graduation” or an issue of understanding the difference between honoring the experiences and accomplishments of a group that shares something such as race, religion or sexual orientation, and racism. The former usually takes the form of an optional, one-day event designed to uplift and unify a particular group, culture or orientation, like Greek Jewish Festivals, Pride parades or girls’ night out. The latter uses economic, social and legislative restrictions to enforce the supremacy of one group over another.

The need and desire for culture-specific graduation ceremonies are not new or even unique to Harvard University. Syracuse University hosted its first black graduation ceremony in 2004, the University of Southern California initiated its in 1999 and Stanford established its black graduation ceremony more than 40 years ago. Columbia University, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington also host ceremonies. At each university, the ceremony is designed to honor the accomplishment of black students, but any student who registers may participate.

Fanta Cherif, graduating senior and head of the 2018 Black Graduation Committee, said Syracuse’s black graduation event has not encountered the same backlash as Harvard’s. She was surprised it took so long for the prestigious Ivy League school to establish the ceremony.

“Every PWI [predominantly white institution] should have one,” she remarked. The only issues she encountered were that the school did not provide any funding for the event, nor did any high-ranking school officials attend.

So black graduations are not anti-anyone. They just celebrate black students, their accomplishments, experiences and supporters at schools where the main or department ceremony might not give them a more intimate opportunity to do so.

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2:04 PMA year-old article about Harvard University’s first black graduation ceremony resurfaced this week and caused a ruckus on social media.

The Ivy League university actually hosted its second black grad ceremony Tuesday at Radcliffe Yard. Similar to what took place in 2017, the event was sponsored by the Harvard Black Students Association and was designed to honor the achievements of black graduating students. No degrees were conferred during this ceremony; that practice is reserved for the school’s general commencement activities Thursday.

Jillian Simons, co-president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, helped plan the event. Last year, only grad students participated in the ceremony, but all students were allowed to attend. Simi Falako, president of the Harvard Black Students Association and a human developmental and regenerative biology major, confirmed that senior undergraduates were included this year. In an email, she also acknowledged that the planning committee used the criticism from last year’s event to improve this year’s. Some tweeted support or defended the event.

It’s hard to tell if this is just an issue of not reading beyond a year-old provocative headline like “Harvard will host first-ever black only graduation” or an issue of understanding the difference between honoring the experiences and accomplishments of a group that shares something such as race, religion or sexual orientation, and racism. The former usually takes the form of an optional, one-day event designed to uplift and unify a particular group, culture or orientation, like Greek Jewish Festivals, Pride parades or girls’ night out. The latter uses economic, social and legislative restrictions to enforce the supremacy of one group over another.

The need and desire for culture-specific graduation ceremonies are not new or even unique to Harvard University. Syracuse University hosted its first black graduation ceremony in 2004, the University of Southern California initiated its in 1999 and Stanford established its black graduation ceremony more than 40 years ago. Columbia University, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington also host ceremonies. At each university, the ceremony is designed to honor the accomplishment of black students, but any student who registers may participate.

Fanta Cherif, graduating senior and head of the 2018 Black Graduation Committee, said Syracuse’s black graduation event has not encountered the same backlash as Harvard’s. She was surprised it took so long for the prestigious Ivy League school to establish the ceremony.

“Every PWI [predominantly white institution] should have one,” she remarked. The only issues she encountered were that the school did not provide any funding for the event, nor did any high-ranking school officials attend.

So black graduations are not anti-anyone. They just celebrate black students, their accomplishments, experiences and supporters at schools where the main or department ceremony might not give them a more intimate opportunity to do so.