TAKE A HARD LOOK AT RACISM, SEXISM AND HOMOPHOBIA ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
My recent experience at Dartmouth College has shown me that we are still not the society we want to be
Like many universities, Dartmouth College has venerated traditions. The annual Dimensions show – a festive, student-organized musical revue performed to entice admitted, but undecided, students to come to Dartmouth – is one such tradition. Many prospective students decide to attend Dartmouth because of how much they enjoy the performance.
On 19 April, a group of students calling themselves “#Realtalk” interrupted the show, protesting sexual assault, racism, and homophobia at the university. It was a real jolt for the campus community. President Carol Folt cancelled classes on 24 April for the first time since the mid-1980s due to the backlash: a barrage of rape and death threats on social media sites and internet forums. The ugliness and volume of these threats – not to mention the negative PR – convinced the administration that the school was in a state of crisis.
In place of its usual academic schedule, we had a day of reflection that entailed a rally on the college green and a series of facilitated discussions. But even that was not enough to heal us. The school faces a possible Title IX complaint by students and alums who claim that Dartmouth fosters a hostile environment to women, racial minorities, and LGBT students.
Dartmouth is not alone. Similar problems and complaints at Oberlin College, Swarthmore College, Occidental, and Amherst show that Dartmouth is not alone in believing that the campus fosters respect and care for all, when, in reality, it might not. This isn’t a Dartmouth problem. It is an American problem.
We are often too fragmented, insular, and uncaring – excluding those who don’t fit into our perception of ourselves. At a time when basic American civic responsibilities from voting to jury duty to paying taxes are perceived as burdensome, it should be no surprise that lethargy about cross community dialogue manifests itself at Dartmouth (or any other college campus).
The “#Realtalk” protestors at my school speak for a larger constituency of students who find Dartmouth’s traditions, which are both reinvented and reinforced with each incoming class, unhealthy and destructive. The protests and backlash expose our basic tensions. Can Dartmouth shed its more damaging aspects while still remaining Dartmouth? I argue that it can.
College culture introduces many opportunities for inclusivity through personal interactions. After being rejected from the Greek house (aka fraternity) to which I felt affiliated, I adopted a sorority as my house, flippantly joking that I was a “sister” and planned on attending the organization’s events uninvited. The women rejected my attempts to get involved. While it was a humorous circumstance, it reminded me that even students aware of social problems unconsciously reinforce our community’s deepest sexist assumptions.
We need to listen to each other if we truly are committed to the stakes of “real talk”. At this moment, the Dartmouth community is a series of fragmented groups, for example, athletes and members of the Greek community. There are very few shared notions of mutual care.
I am not excusing myself. I don’t have concern for community members who operate in circles I perceive as hostile to gays, minorities, and women. Should I care enough to feel a sense of accountability and engage insular communities in dialogue? I absolutely must.
Like many colleges, Dartmouth has a Principle of Community that expects students to respect one another. We passively assume that respect happens. If care were explicitly questioned on campus, then students would engage in discussing these issues consistently and with respect. We would understand criticism as an act of caring and a form of investment, rather than separation. The issues that the protestors mentioned should instigate outrage within every community member, but they haven’t.
The Dartmouth motto, vox clamantis in deserto – a voice crying out in the wilderness – is old, yet highly relevant. The protests were a cry in the wilderness, but one that many students did not want to hear. Once we as a student body admit that the presence of care has become a question, then there is an incentive to start to care. We can turn stigma into leadership by making what people recognize as problematic the basis for social transformation.
It is not that Dartmouth students don’t care about racism, rape, and homophobia, but the assumed tolerance makes change impossible. Singling out certain fraternities as racist or the protestors as anti-Dartmouth will not move us to a place of social transformation. We are all racist – or sexist, or homophobic – in ways we won’t, or can’t, acknowledge. We have begun these tough conversations, and I am optimistic that our campus and others can prove that caring is true to those “old traditions”.