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Solomon: Racism, Loneliness, and the Dartmouth Community

Loneliness.jpgAs a white male who came to Dartmouth from a sheltered suburban background, I find it inherently difficult to comment on Jennifer McGrew’s recent column in The D. I cannot pretend to know what she experienced on campus as a self-described “poor, black woman.” Her allegations are harsh: she says Dartmouth “hazed” her with “how it has shaped, molded and created people who have no regard or remorse for their actions.” McGrew says the Financial Aid Office harassed her and fellow students caused her mental abuse.

Reading those accusations, hurled within just the first few lines of McGrew’s column, I expected to be shocked by her further details, surprised by the depths to which I had unknowingly or subconsciously been party to racist behavior during my four years in Hanover. But as I reached the end, I found myself puzzled rather than outraged. McGrew’s complaints, such as they were, were not new at all. They spoke to a deeper problem — just not one that I had associated with racism.

Beside the isolated incidents of racist vandalism and the scarcity of black alumni wealthy enough to donate a building, the main chunk of McGrew’s charge against Dartmouth reads thus:

College is supposed to be a time of growth and soul-searching. The problem around here is that people do not reflect in this manner — they conform to the narrow and rigid box that dictates who they can and cannot be. I do not feel welcome within this community… I do not ponder why my peers outside of the classroom ignore me. I no longer think twice about moving aside as my white counterparts walk past me on the sidewalk, because despite the right that I have to walk there, I always end up being forced to the side or risk being hit or run over.

McGrew attributes these actions to racism. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps there are more specific incidents that she has simply chosen not to reveal. But let’s now put McGrew’s words in context with another recent column in The D, written by Alice Liou and Huan He, who definitely have a specific incident to point to: another student verbally harassed them with mock-Chinese gibberish during lunch.

If the Dartmouth community is as strong and close-knit as we often advertise, then these uncomfortable questions have no place falling on the shoulders of those who have been undeniably mistreated. The community is not united when sons and daughters of Dartmouth do not think twice about mistreating each other, verbally or otherwise, across all lines of difference. Furthermore, when we hide behind a line of questioning that is critical and dense, we convince ourselves that there is a way to close this case as an isolated incident instead of acknowledging that it is part of a larger problem that Dartmouth should own as its reality.

The idea of “the Dartmouth community” runs through both passages, and it’s where I find myself taking a step back from the racism rail to see a larger point. What community exactly are we talking about? It’s a convenient phrase and an idealistic idea. But does the College have a community that naturally brings people together? Is it “strong and close-knit”? Sometimes.

While Dartmouth can be a welcoming place at times, it can also be a divisive one. Especially on the most explosive campus issues, students are institutionally set at odds. The fraternity system separates house from house, brothers from non-brothers, women from men. Sororities provide an opposing force with similar traditional boundaries. Athletes align with other athletes. Students divide into majors and interests, rarely to re-emerge for interdisciplinary pursuits. Classroom time rarely builds camaraderie. Mostly it provides more acquaintances to nod to as you pass on the sidewalk. Both the perception and the reality of privilege and racial bias, of sexism and disrespect are naturally going to grow along those fault lines.

This is not to say you can’t build your own community within the mythical overarching one. Quite the opposite in fact. Individually, the vast majority of students are open and inclusive, and connections you make can last a lifetime. But outside of your freshman floor and a few mind-melding extracurriculars, people of different backgrounds and different ideas are rarely brought together. If you’re not with your group (or can’t find one at all), campus life can be isolating instead of inviting.

So while I cannot directly identify with McGrew’s experience of racism, I understand her alienation from the broader Dartmouth community, just as I understand Liou and He’s frustration with that community’s inability to stand as one against prejudice. It’s another reminder that the College is far from perfect.

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