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President Kim and Identity Politics

CAD.pngShortly after I arrived at the College in the fall of 1975, I found a card in my Hinman Box inviting me to a meeting of Canadians at Dartmouth. I recall my reaction: a mixture of surprise and wonder. Why the heck would I possibly want to join such a group? After all, I had just travelled from a place filled to the gills with Canadians. It was called Canada! I hadn’t come to Dartmouth to explore my national identity, or learn more about my traditions and history, or be known as a Canuck; I was here to be a Dartmouth student and get as much as possible out of that singular experience. Keeping myself at one step removed from the College’s and my non-Canadian classmates’ varied charms by spending time with my co-nationals seemed the antithesis of that goal.

This herding pattern calls to mind the behavior of too many ex-pats in London and Paris. They live in great cities and yet they congregate almost exclusively with their compatriots. Why? In doing so, they seem to be saying that even though they are abroad, they find the cultural divide too wide to cross. Too bad for them, for they are missing out on the essential lesson of travel: the things that link us as human beings are far more significant than our individual national/racial/gender/class identities.

All this leads me to reflect on the evolution of President Kim’s attitude towards identity politics, as described on pages 167-9 of Mountains Upon Mountains:

He [Kim] transferred to Brown where he discovered an organization called the Third World Center. He became its director. He broke up with his Irish Catholic girlfriend because he suddenly believed that he shouldn’t date white women. He made his friends among black, Hispanic, and Asian students. He learned “the pimp walk.” On parents’ weekend he and his friends would dress up in black and stride around the campus, a phalanx of about thirty African American and Hispanic students, and one Korean, sometimes chanting, sometimes maintaining a threatening silence, and noting with pleasure the double takes and frightened looks on the faces of some of the parents…
He had left Iowa prepared, naturally enough, to think that ethnicity was the central problem of his life. By the time that he had come back to Harvard from Korea, to continue medical school and write his thesis, he had grown bored and a little disgusted with what was known in academic circles as the politics of racial identity. It seemed like an exercise in selfishness…. When he met Farmer, he was ready to change directions. At one point in their talks in the old, one-room PIH office, Farmer told him, “If you come to Haiti, I’ll show you you’re blan, as white as any white man.” Jim thought of his black, Hispanic, and Asian friends at Brown, and how angry that remark would have made them.
He told Farmer that he felt liberated from “the self-hatred and evasion of ethnicity” that he had felt in Muscadine.

President Kim also commented critically on this subject in an interview in the Alumni Magazine, but let’s think a little more about what Tracy Kidder’s account might tell us about our new President.

In general, I see a man evolving in his understanding of a situation: as Kim gains knowledge and experience, his views change — even if his new conclusions might be unpopular in some quarters. How utterly refreshing for a local college President!

More specifically, perhaps like Nixon going to China, President Kim’s personal experience with identity politics and his Korean-American background could give him the necessary cover to dismantle the expensive, institutionally-supported barriers that separate too many Dartmouth students from each other? There is lots of money to be saved here. And we can happily dispense with much of the bureaucratic nonsense that gums up other processes at the College, too. Fingers crossed.

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