Matt, a Black junior at Harvard, joined his all-male final club because of its “huge population of Black people.” He’d known many of them from the Harvard Black Students Association and the Black Men’s Forum; they were people he admired, and their presence engendered a sense of ease and belonging for him.
He recalls thinking, “Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of it?” (Matt has been granted anonymity out of a fear of being ostracized by members of his club. For that reason, unless attached to a last name, all names in this piece are pseudonyms.)
The space he refers to pushes against the popular imagination of final clubs, which are notorious for the opposite effect — for embodying the confluence of exclusion, wealth, and whiteness so precisely that any analysis of them can end there. (When I say final clubs, I mean historically all-male clubs, which command the bulk of social space and power on campus.)
The opening scenes of the “The Social Network” — the Oscar-winning biopic about Mark E. Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook — are probably the most famous depictions of Harvard final clubs in pop culture. Four tuxedo-clad white boys stand on the landing of a staircase; below them waits a crowd of women, maniacal anticipation dripping from their collective gaze. It’s the Phoenix Club’s first party of the year, and it’s like any other frat party, really — except for the tuxedos and the middle-aged bouncer and the rooms that feel disturbingly fancy for the college students dancing in them. Lamp light catches on the smoke from cigars; mahogany bookshelves line the walls; t. The vast majority of the boys are white.
In campus conversations and think pieces in national magazines alike, the image of Harvard final clubs as a sanctuary for rich white people persists without a counterargument. “Still White, Still Male,” reads a 2014 headline in The Atlantic. According to a Town & Country magazine piece written by Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz ’18, final clubs are spaces “in which to be other than a rich white man is to be lesser.”
Reading articles like that as a freshman, I didn’t blink an eye. But now, I wonder who fact-checked those statements. Do they imply a quantitative observation, or do they communicate such an obvious truth that no one would even bother investigating? While I don’t have a fact-check, either — final clubs don’t release their demographic information — the conception of their overwhelming whiteness seems poorly researched, at best.
I’m viscerally grossed out by all-white spaces; the overwhelming whiteness of an extracurricular, friend group, or social scene conveys more about its politics to me than a rejection of mainstream tastes or professions of anti-capitalism ever could. For better or worse, those particular alarm bells don’t go off when I enter final club parties. I’m almost certain that if they did, they would no longer be my primary site for good-old college fun. This is purely anecdotal, true for some historically exclusive clubs far more than others. Still, people of color — an admittedly catch-all category, but apt in its description of those whose supposed exclusion grounds so many condemnations of final clubs — are hard to miss, least of all by people of color themselves.
A recent essay by Kalos K. Chu '22-23, a Crimson editor, published in this magazine, asks “why anyone would want their worth assessed by a few dozen privileged, straight, white 19-22-year-olds.” The implicit assumption is a common one: that students of color in final clubs willingly subject themselves to white judgement, all for the sake of conditional acceptance from white structures. That to join a final club is to seek validation from white people — a manifestation of racialized self-hatred.
But Lily, a Black woman in a historically all-male but now co-ed club, offers a blunt rebuttal. “No fucking chance I joined to hang out with white lacrosse boys,” she says. “I definitely only joined for all the cool hot Black people. One thousand percent would not have joined if the Black people weren’t a part of the club, and the only appeal was like, the richest most obnoxious Europeans at Harvard.”
Nearly everyone I speak to echoes a tempered version of this sentiment. At the very least, the noticeable diversity of their respective club was a key reason why most people joined. Sam, a recent Black graduate who was in the Spee, pointed out that any desire to become “white adjacent” would have been fulfilled by pretty much every other part of Harvard. He just wanted somewhere to chill outside of “daddy Harvard’s surveillance,” and in the Spee, he was primarily friends with its Black members.
It’s true that some careers and educational paths — especially those entangled with institutions created and shaped by white people — probably do both rely on and catalyze internalized racism. And I don’t doubt that people of color in final clubs are seduced by the benefits of social capital, of occupying institutions whose allure is rooted in exclusivity and power.
Sam knew that he was “deeply embedded in the vestiges of privilege,” he says. “I gained some acceptance into the space. And my friends did too. And when we were granted the power to do certain things, you know, we were definitely very happy to do those things.” But the ‘power’ that he speaks to isn’t necessarily synonymous with whiteness. Several people, from a range of clubs, allude to how members divide into social circles along racial lines within those clubs; around campus, I’ve heard plenty of invocations of the “Black Spee” or “Black Fly.”
While interviewing Thomas, a Black member of the Delphic, I mention that oftentimes, one of my white friends would bring up another white person and I’d have no idea who they were. They’d be surprised. Apparently, this person was a huge figure in the social scene.
“Oh my god, right?” he agrees, laughing, knowing immediately what I was talking about. Our social lives are heavily intertwined with the world of historically exclusive final clubs — his from the inside, mine from its semi-porous borders. But within that world, a scene that can only be described as ‘white’ exists. And we both feel completely disconnected from it.
When I went through punch during my sophomore fall, I was acutely aware of the fact that final clubs offered a different kind of currency to me than to my male peers. If I ended up joining one — with the exception of two co-ed clubs — I’d gain a new group of women, bonded by some amorphous sense of shared identity, and access to all-male clubs in the form of dinners and parties. Men, on the other hand, would get to host the dinners and control the parties; the million-dollar mansions that house them and the workers who staff them would be at their disposal. I couldn’t believe that money was being thrown at random sophomore guys to fly to Toronto, Los Angeles, and Dallas, as a test of whether other random guys wanted to be their friends. I was both very angry and very jealous.
At the same time, I started to notice the unmistakable absence of Asian people — a discomfort that grew with every subsequent punch event. As a freshman girl at final club parties, I probably registered this but thought little of it; it wasn’t as stark back then, anyway, because more Asian people attend the parties than are in the clubs. But in this environment of direct social comparison, everyone’s itching to meet a set of criteria that are superficially labeled as cool vibes — and, apparently, very few people who look like me are able to meet them.
“I think that clubs said they’ll focus on becoming more diverse over the past few years. But as an Asian person, that’s not necessarily where the focus lies, which is neither a good or bad thing,” says Raymond Hunt ’21-22, an Asian member of the Delphic. “But it's certainly something you notice, just going to the events and seeing a lack of representation of you. No other Asian people.”
For me, that experience was a rude awakening. My high school image consisted of good grades and hard work and debate; I felt limited by that reputation, and, consequently, by my Asian-ness. In my eyes, those two things were inextricable — a linkage reinforced by decades of pop culture portraying Asians as a monolith of robotic intelligence — and rendered my actual personality irrelevant to how people perceived me. The model minority myth haunted me, like a ghost.
But at Harvard, I couldn’t be the model minority because everyone else kind of was, too — the overachieving and brilliant part, not the Asian part. So freshman year, I rarely thought about my race because for the first time, I believed I wouldn’t have to. I had absolute agency to define myself. I could be a social butterfly and get with cute guys and go out all the time — all of which seemed incompatible with my high school identity but that I always secretly thought was within my power. It was only when punch came along that I was forced to consider that my Asian-ness could still hurt me. Suddenly, startlingly, my face morphed into a burden, a distorted representation of me that I had to refute at every turn.
Maybe I should’ve always expected this. Throughout college, Hunt has felt “kind of disassociated from other Asian students because the social circles I’ve ended up with don’t have that many Asian people,” he says. “I was like, I don’t know if I should feel weird about that or not. Feeling like I’m not a real Asian person, I guess, is how I’d put it.” He speculates that this feeling derives from his engagement with the final club scene in tandem with his lack of engagement with Asian affinity groups.
I doubt that the two are entirely separate — or that, say, the near-zero overlap between final clubs and the Asian American Womxn’s Association, which I never joined either, is purely coincidental. Almost like strongly identifying with Asian womanhood is mutually exclusive with being the type of person who would join a final club. As if making an impression in this social scene requires performing some departure from Asian-ness — finding a way to distinguish yourself as edgy or artsy or any other persona that says you’re different from most Asians. If you’re an Asian woman, the world expects you to be quiet, cutesy, submissive. But no, not you — you’re cooler, you’re more irreverent. As Hunt articulates, you’re not a “real” Asian person.
The bleak picture of Asian representation in final clubs becomes even worse when you focus on South Asian representation, and worse still when you look for Latinx members. But beyond the obstacle course of actually joining final clubs — and the limited numbers of people who look like them once they arrive — the four Asian men I speak to have few red flags to report from their time in the clubs thus far. They feel wholeheartedly welcomed and supported, cherished for who they are, and what they care about. One, who is South Asian, says that while he approached punch with concern about clubs’ “relationship to minorities,” it’s turned out to be “really positive … Most of the other people in the club might not have had interactions with other South Asian people before, so you know, they’re constantly very genuinely curious about my heritage, what kind of foods I eat.”
Meanwhile, several people mentioned the “pipeline” that’s been built from Black affinity groups — like the Association of Black Harvard Women and the Black Men’s Forum — to final clubs. Without a doubt, Black people have the largest presence in final clubs of any marginalized racial group. I’ve heard whispers of a sinister half-joke floating around from white people: “I honestly wish I was Black during punch.”
But only the most uncritical analysis would conclude that the existence of a Black final club scene is wholly indicative of social progress. Sam wagers that fetishization, not simply tokenization, plays a role in Black men’s clout on campus. “They look at us and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a Black man who goes to Harvard. I love that. Let’s get them into the space,’” he says. “It really was people loving me for basically no reason. Like, sometimes we give them very little reason to like us. And because they wanted either to seem cool or progressive or hip, they would include us in these things.” In fewer words, Thomas agreed — in his experience, there was an expectation that Black punches would “be cool.”
Internal conversations about punch frequently revolved around white people’s desire to “get more straight Black men in the club,” Lily reveals. ‘Straight’ is an operative adjective here — it alludes to how straight Black men are often valued for their supposed hypermasculinity. The cults of personality that form around them for seemingly no reason, she says, illuminate the “obsession that final club culture has with them.” She wonders why the focus isn’t ever on getting more interesting white people. “Like, why are all the white men in this club fucking boring?”
This phenomenon, then, suggests how broader stereotypes operate in the microcosm of Harvard social life. Asian people are excluded from the culture, so much so that they’re antithetical to it; Black people are exploited by the culture, so much so that they’re often thought to dominate it. None of this is falsifiable, but I’ll go ahead and theorize: Asian students aren’t final club material, in large part because they’re Asian. Black students are by the fact of their Blackness alone.
Sometimes, the uncomfortable racial dynamics within final clubs easily crossover into the realm of explicit racism. During his first punch event, Sam remembers a white member coming up behind him and touching his hair, before asking if another Black member was his brother. He told the Black member, who sat the offender down and explained why what she did was wrong. A few years later, when he was on the other side of punch, the son of a rich Spee donor made it to the final round despite being a frequent user of the n-word. Only after several Black people stormed out of deliberations did members agree to cut him from the club.
“In this social space where we’re supposed to be feeling free and happy and having fun … something that we’re doing constantly — the Black people in these clubs and the people of color in general — is banding together to teach our white friends about certain things, or to respond to certain incidents,” Sam says.
The Spee Club did not respond to a request for comment.
At parties, Michael, a Black alum of the Phoenix, would hear offhand comments like, “Oh, a lot of hip hop’s playing” at final club parties across campus. Thomas can’t be certain whether all of his fellow club members would easily say the words ‘Black lives matter.’
Still, some say, the racial — or racist — elements of final clubs are hardly unique. “You have to accept that it wasn’t built for you, and, like in most parts of its history, hasn’t accepted people that look like you. But the same goes for Harvard, and for a lot of these institutions that we have and will go on to occupy in our lifetimes,” says Thomas. And if that’s true, then the historical whiteness of something doesn’t mean that people of color should abstain from it entirely. Refusing to sanitize a white space with band-aid diversity also risks leaving whiteness to persist unchallenged.
For many, the presence of people of color in final clubs — however they came to be there, however they may be treated — is a reason for optimism; choosing to be in one is even a powerful political statement. “I think all the time about what it’s like inheriting spaces that profited on the backs of my people. I’m a descendant of African slaves. But, you know, times are different,” Matt says. “Who am I to, like, deny myself access to all of Harvard because of my race?”
Next semester, Thomas will be punchmaster of his club, overseeing the multi-month process of admitting new members. He says he pursued the role because he wants to actively contribute to making final clubs more inclusive.
Others, though, hold a more cynical view, almost laughing at the idea that their decision to join a final club could be mined for a deeper meaning beyond alcohol, parties, and money.
“Why do I want to be a part of it? Because there’s a ton of rich people who will pay for shit for me,” Lily says. “I liked the house, and I liked the things that the house came with. And I liked enjoying those things. And I wish that I had a better reason.”
Sam, too, wishes that his rationale were “more profound” than what it was — knowing a lot of people of color in the Spee and wanting to hang out with them. Come senior spring, he began to regret joining at all. As fun as the luxurious social space was, as meaningful as his friendships became — six or seven members of his linking group ended up in his punch class — he couldn’t totally dismiss the instances “when our disempowerment was just made obvious,” he says. “Sometimes I wish that I had really thought harder about what I wanted my social structures to look like during college, and I wish that I had acted on those things a bit more aggressively.”
Still, when it mattered, he chose the Spee and chose to stay in it, over and over again. His sense of disempowerment didn’t overcome the value he derived from the club — however frivolous he acknowledges it to be. He could deal with the cognitive dissonance of enjoying a space that is, more than likely, inherently antagonistic to Black people. And so could Lily, her cognitive dissonance operating along the axes of gender as well as race.
By the time punch season ended, I’d joined a girls’ club and felt a subdued excitement about it. Everyone was lovely; I could see myself becoming genuinely good friends with many of them. But frustratingly, any social power accrued by a girls’ club seemed dependent on whether the boys with actual social power deemed it worthy of a few crumbs. Before dinner with a guys’ clubs, we were often told how much that club loved us, how cool they thought we were. An initiation task was to lick the floor of an all-male club. I’d bet a billion dollars that no one in that club has ever licked ours.
But then again, didn’t I want to join a club in part because of these very dynamics? I wanted to be able to hand my ID to a ridiculously professional bouncer and glide through the doors of a final club, safe in the knowledge that I’d be on every list; I wanted to dress up for steak and champagne dinners. And as much as I’ve intellectualized the hell out of all of it by now, identifying exactly where my gripes with myself lie, I’ll probably keep wanting those things when I return to campus. I’ll continue to partake in the mindless debauchery that the final club scene facilitates.
Thinking about how she might retrospectively describe being in her club, Lily says, “I was in college. So I did the thing that was fun … It wasn’t important enough to me to not do it. Because not doing it wouldn’t have done anything for anyone except maybe make me have less fun.”
Some people of color who don’t engage with final clubs view other people of color’s membership as a mind-boggling betrayal. Some white people dole out leftist judgement indiscriminately, ignoring nuances that, because of their whiteness, they’ve likely never had to consider. I’ve heard both. But Lily’s articulation is the verbal equivalent of a shrug — almost a defiant one. It indicates, ‘I don’t care that deeply about this,’ and also, ‘Why should I have to?’
Throughout the interviews, I continue to pick up on traces of this sentiment, even if it’s buried a little deeper. Both Ryan K. Hong ’22-23 (who is Chinese and Native Hawaiian) and Michael say that while they’re always conscious of their race, it didn’t really affect the way they engaged with punch. They acknowledge the possibility that race might’ve entered the calculus of those evaluating them, before quickly emphasizing the earnest hope that the final club scene values their holistic selves, beyond whatever racial checkbox they fill. In all honesty, they say, race wasn’t something they thought about too much. They just wanted to be seen as a potential friend, as someone that others could have good conversations with. “People of color are forced to contend with their identity all the time,” Thomas says. “Maybe we’re college students and we should just be staying in, but people of color need to have fun.”
Maybe, then, engaging with historically exclusive final clubs does not align with the moral compass that would dictate every action of their ideal selves. But there’s a decent chance that, through going to Harvard, they aren’t that person anyway. All I write about in this magazine is performing traditional ideals of femininity or submitting to traditional ideals of heterosexual sex is probably not empowering, even though they can so viscerally feel like they are. The fact that I’m an Asian woman makes it even more likely that doing one or both will land me squarely in a trope. And yet, I still sketch my little eyeliner wings and wear my little crop tops and send my absurd little texts.
It could be a cop out, but this is what I’ve come to believe: Existing as a person of color — especially as a woman of color — means experiencing some form of cognitive dissonance wherever you go, whatever you do. It’s nearly impossible to find a corner of this world that hasn’t been tainted by white supremacy and patriarchy; pure choices are few and far between. I’ve given up on trying to craft the minutia of my life into a perfectly coherent political narrative, and I’ve stopped perceiving what I do as a referendum on the integrity of my gendered and racialized identity. (It could be a referendum on my self-control, but that’s neither here nor there). I understand the impulse to, sometimes, just let cognitive dissonance be.
Throughout all of Thomas’s musings on changing clubs from the inside, on how “being Black in the club is a beautiful thing” and the good times he’s had with his fellow Black members, a shadow of doubt lingers — one that undermines the very premise of it all. He repeatedly comes back to one question: Should final clubs even exist?
“Over time, we become more inclusive, along racial lines, along gender lines, along sexuality lines […] It begs the question of whether these institutions that were necessarily exclusive — like their nature was to uphold white supremacy — it kind of begs the question of, do we need that?” Thomas asks. “What does Harvard look like where you don’t have to know three people on the list to get into a party where your friends are hanging out?”
Verbalizing his thoughts on the gendered aspect of final clubs seems particularly difficult. A motivating force behind his decision to join the Delphic was that it shared its space with the Bee — a girls’ club — at the time. Their union, which began after the 2017 sanctions on single-gender organizations, dissolved last fall after the sanctions were lifted, returning sole ownership of the 9 Linden St. clubhouse to the Delphic. Even before, Thomas says that there was “still some cognitive dissonance because […] we didn’t have the same name and we weren’t the same.” He pauses, sighing. “So, ah. It’s hard.”
I believe him, but I’m hesitant to attribute the whole of his discomfort to a difference in names alone. I wonder if the unease emerges from the fact that their temporary marriage never gave the Bee equal access to the Delphic’s wealth, accumulated over the course of its 90-year head start.
Most of the men that I interview are in clubs that have never been co-ed, and that probably won’t be anytime soon. A few express a desire for clubs to move in that direction, but are sure to reiterate that they totally understand the very fair reasons why guys might want clubs to stay all-male. Others, still, say that they were careful to choose a club that fosters a safe and welcoming environment for women (obviously!) while skirting the question of the clubs’ inherent sexism altogether.
Therein lies the question that I’ve purposely neglected thus far: How does my empathy toward cognitive dissonance, the grace I’ve tried to extend toward the men of color in these clubs, hold up in the face of the clubs’ glaring gender inequities? It’s one thing to reconcile your racialized identity with your presence in a racist space; it’s another thing when that space is both racist and sexist — and when you benefit explicitly from the latter, in spite of the former. How does marginalization along one axis of identity justify marginalizing others along another?
Of course, it doesn’t. I believe that all-male spaces are harmful and likely conducive to an echo chamber of toxic masculinity. Beyond discussing whether all-male spaces can yield social value — a discussion that, even with endless data on the prevalence of sexual assault, often ends as an irreconcilable difference of opinion — the material disparities between guys’ and girls’ clubs are proof enough of their fundamental problems. It’s outrageous that non-men are simply barred from tapping into an expansive pool of resources, networks, and hearty non-dining hall meals served in mansions between classes.
Every straight man in every all-male final club should be uncomfortable about this. Exploring how that discomfort manifests in men of color particularly — who are likely familiar with inequality in other forms — was intellectually appealing but grew increasingly silly to me. I didn’t know why their racialization should render them uniquely responsible for feeling bad about sexism or classism or general social exclusion. I didn’t know why it should be a focus of the only piece ever written about the experiences of people of color in final clubs. They should feel bad about it, as should anyone — and, I’d venture, white men most of all.
“You’re going to put people from marginalized backgrounds into Harvard, and then tell them that they shouldn’t also have access to these spaces that make rich white people’s lives more enjoyable and easier?” says Lily. “Like yeah, it sucks that we’re consolidating wealth amongst a small group of people. But to tell Black people that they shouldn’t be a part of it isn’t really what the issue is. Like, maybe abolish final clubs. But final clubs are going to exist, and as a Black person you’re morally bankrupt for being in one? That feels like an unfair indictment of the people whose fault it is not.”
Lily, Thomas, and Sam are the only ones who invoke the potential merits of abolishing final clubs. At the end of the day, final clubs are racist, sexist, and classist, and perhaps irredeemably so. Something has to give. But Sam cautions against scapegoating the “easiest targets” in lieu of analyzing the whole “ecosystem” of Harvard social life, in which so many problems attributed to final clubs can also be identified elsewhere. Comps exist; so do social organizations masquerading as legitimate extracurriculars but premised on exclusivity as much as final clubs. If criticisms don’t extend beyond this single target, he says, “final clubs version two are going to rise up and probably be even worse.”
It’s easier to call for abolishing final clubs than to offer a vision of a genuinely, sustainably inclusive social scene — and one that can be actualized at a school that holds elitism on a pedestal. We should think about what that could look like, whether it demands that we dismantle current structures or work with the ones that we have. If institutions like final clubs can never truly be good, is making them less bad a worthwhile pursuit?
In the Fox’s 2022 punch class of 20-ish guys, only five or six are white; men of color constitute a majority in the Fly. Evidenced by the old photos dotting their hallways, none of this could’ve been true of final clubs a few decades ago — Michael, who graduated only seven years prior, was surprised but heartened to hear the news. This emerging reality is hardly cause for absolution, let alone celebration. But I’m not sure it’s cause for condemnation either — it’s not another instance of people of color tricked, yet again, by the glittering goblet of whiteness.
Final clubs were made for white men. Now, people of color — who were never supposed to step through their gates at all — are carving out communities inside them. They’re drinking their alcohol and smoking their cigars. They’re reveling in these spaces, instrumentalizing the white men’s mansions for pure fun.
— Staff writer Elyse D. Pham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.