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Kathleen Mayer: On Playing Dress-Up as Bloods and Crips

Blame is a funny thing. When an act is blameworthy, the community response to the act should be focused on who did it, why, and how can we do away with its cause? Instead, in the case of AD’s Bloods and Crips party, only the first question — who did it? — seems to be the important one, and there follows an exhausting, enormous game of hot potato before we can even get to the meat of the conversation. We live in a society where what we do does not matter nearly so much as what we appear to do. How we are perceived defines who we are, even how we see ourselves. Our image begins to matter to us more than our substance, especially at a school like Dartmouth, populated by people who have spent their entire lives acutely aware of how powerful strangers perceive them, who have mastered the art of the application, who know how to put together a resume and what to say in an interview.

In my discussions with students on my recent visit to campus, in addition to the commentary I’ve seen on social media, the overwhelming reaction to this summer’s party was teeth-gritting discomfort that there had to be a conversation about it at all. Mostly people just wanted it to go away, wished the party had never happened so that they didn’t have to talk about what it might mean. Let’s just grin and bear another unpleasant series of op-eds and Gawker articles until we can get back to pretending that everything on campus is fine and politically correct again. We prefer to deal on the surface where everything is polished and polite than to make ourselves vulnerable, make a mistake, or, God forbid, have to talk at length about that mistake.

Making the conversation even more difficult, there are a lot of artfully crafted excuses about why every potential answer to the “Who did it?” question is wrong in the first place, thus staving off the solution-oriented questions that follow. First, we say it’s unfair to hold every individual member of an organization accountable for a decision made by only a few of them, or we point out that it’s quite possible many people didn’t even know about it despite being on the Blitzlist. Or maybe they just overlooked it, but how is that the same thing as explicitly condoning it? And aren’t you just looking for something to be angry about, when you start throwing around phrases like “implicit racism”?

Okay, so let’s just blame the people that we know for sure explicitly condoned the party by conceiving of it, planning it, and advertising it. But no, the answer comes back: we can’t just single out the social chairs because the problem is systematic, institutional. It’s bigger than just a few people, and it’s unfair for them to have to bear the brunt of the blame, as well as inappropriate to turn a broad social criticism into a personal attack. How are we any better than those people who threw the party when we deal in the public shaming of (certainly well-intentioned) individuals? Are we not just perpetuating the divisiveness?

Listen, shut up for a second and think about how maybe this isn’t all about you. Maybe the people that this actually affects at the level of substance rather than image would appreciate it if you cared about their feelings before doing damage control on your reputation in the media. Maybe before groaning about how this is just gonna make you look bad like that Rolling Stone piece, you should groan about how maybe that girl from your freshman floor will feel alienated for weeks, months, even the rest of her Dartmouth career, having seen her peers trivialize and turn into costume fodder a relentless war that took the life of her peers, friends, or family members. Instead of asking, “How could we have made ourselves look so insensitive?”, why not ask, “How could we have been so insensitive?” Instead of asking, “How could we have made ourselves into such laughingstocks?”, why not ask, “How could we have made other people into such caricatures?”

The truth that most people are afraid to say is that many people at Dartmouth have no clue, really, about why this party was so offensive in the first place. They know they’re supposed to think it’s offensive, they know that it makes them look bad, and they certainly have at least a sense of why, but they aren’t totally sure and are afraid to ask. They wonder to themselves if the problem is that they were seemingly reducing all black people to gang members, or if the problem was they were making light of something serious, or is it that such a party had a potential to turn into a general minstrel show of white kids imitating all kinds of black stereotypes?

It’s all of those things — but more than that, too. You have to understand the nature of the constructed persona. As white kids at an elite institution, we’ve learned to trade on these personae our whole lives. We know how to navigate the different incarnations of ourselves we must present in order to be successful in an interview, or at rush, or at meetings, or in a party blitz, or while making small talk with a professor. But we don’t have to worry about being reduced to any single one of these presentations. Most of our peers see us as three-dimensional people, with the capacity to exist in complicated, nuanced, and even contradictory ways. That’s called empathy, and it’s often only afforded to people whose experiences you recognize and understand. There are all kinds of stories and images that exist in the media we consume that allow white people to be understood as full humans by everyone in society, which allows us the freedom to pick and choose a persona to dress up in for a night and abandon the next day without any consequences to our perceived personhood.

But other people do not have the freedom to pick and choose. Other people must constantly police their self-presentations, from the words they choose to the dress they wear, in order to continue to be seen as people. One misstep and they’ll be reduced to a caricature. They can’t dress up in the costume of a gang member “for fun” or even because they earnestly just want to wear a bandana one day without immediately and permanently being reduced to and pigeonholed into these caricatures. Hell, they don’t even have to dress up to be seen as a caricature. Having dark skin is enough. Enough to mark one as potentially criminal in any public space, no matter how well they have learned to drain their language of color or accent, no matter how much care they take to dress “respectably.” Even having natural hair is seen as uncivilized.

The point is that you’re slapping these people in the face when you show such a lack of empathy for their experiences that you delight in voluntarily donning a persona you would never in your life be assumed to embody, when people of color have to fight to escape that assumed persona every day — that of a criminal. If you are a white person like I am, you have nearly limitless choices about how you are seen. Maybe you should start by trying to be seen as someone with an iota of self-awareness.


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