Dartmouth Talks Race
Recent Incidents Spark Dialogue
A student walks past a display of letter press posters by Amos Kennedy in Berry Library at Dartmouth College. Three recent incidents of racism were reported at the college prompting a forum yesterday where students could discuss their experiences with racism on the Hanover campus. Students interviewed yesterday described the campus as being segregated. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Top: Friends Mayowa Willoughby, of Houston, left, and Elizabeth Hoffman of Concord, Mass., right, talk in Berry Library at Dartmouth College yesterday. Willoughby, who attended a forum for students on racism later in the day, said it is good the college is responding to recent events. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth College senior Jennifer McGrew of Lubbock, Texas. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Donnie Brooks, assistant director of athletics at Dartmouth College, welcomes student to the forum. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Hannah Perry figured it was a mark of immaturity, insensitivity that faded with age. Then she found out it had happened at Dartmouth College.
On Wednesday, two Asian students reported that, while in the dining hall at the ’53 Commons student union, a white student walked past them, made eye contact and spoke in gibberish meant to mock the Chinese language.
Perry, a sophomore, had gotten that treatment too, though not since she arrived at Dartmouth. Pranam Chatterjee, a sophomore, was also familiar with it.
“That’s what I expected to get away from,” Chatterjee said, standing in the lobby of the Hopkins Center yesterday. “This is the place that I shouldn’t expect that anymore.”
“It angers you that people like that exist,” Perry responded, “but you realize they will exist wherever you go.”
In response to Wednesday’s incident and another recent incident where a racial epithet was scrawled on a white board, Dartmouth has begun to move.
At 5 p.m. yesterday, several classroom doors in the basement floor of an academic building opened and students and staff members flooded out. Inside the classroom, attendees had split into small groups for discussion, but they were coming back together to hear some final remarks, to learn what they could do to push back against a recent specter of racism.
Dean Charlotte Johnson emerged from the crowd, and looked at it from a distance. It packed the hallway. She figured there were about three times as many people last night as compared to a similar meeting on Monday that was attended by about 50 people.
“It felt very comforting,” said Grace Davis, a freshman, after the meeting. “But also, it brought an awareness that something needs to happen on Dartmouth’s campus.”
The two meetings this week came as a result of the two separate incidents. Last week, according to Johnson, someone wrote the “n word” on a whiteboard in the Choates residence hall. And then there was this week’s dining hall incident. And those weren’t the only incidents this academic year. In November, someone put up racist graffiti in a residence hall.
Some students yesterday worried that, even though having discussions about racism on campus is important, simply throwing meetings at an issue wouldn’t work.
“There is a meeting fatigue,” Chatterjee said. “Very much. I cannot overstress that.”
Chatterjee said that problems such as intolerance, which are ingrained into the campus population, can best be solved by fixing them at the root. For instance, he said, freshman dorms should be consciously set up so that students live among a diverse peer group.
Instead of one single, unified campus, he said, the community continues drawing lines between majority and minority groups.
“You’re just creating a new divide,” he said.
Still, though, the quick succession of emails following the race-related incidents has created a dialogue, according to Jennifer McGrew, a senior, who wrote a guest column that appeared in the school’s student newspaper, The Dartmouth, on Wednesday.
McGrew wrote of her personal experience as a poor black woman on a campus that exemplifies privilege.
“As soon as you step on campus, it seems like you’re placed in a box,” McGrew said yesterday, sitting on a couch at the Hopkins Center.
Those theoretical boxes, predicated on race or gender or socioeconomic class, work to segregate groups of people, Chatterjee said.
According to McGrew, it creates linearity for minority groups, and sticking to that tradition will simply keep the tradition in place.
“Things don’t change when you’re comfortable,” she said. “Things change when you’re uncomfortable.”
At last night’s meeting, attendees quickly broke up into smaller groups to share their stories of bias, according to Alysson Satterlund.
Satterlund is the director of the college’s Office of Pluralism and Leadership, the campus entity spearheading the conversations, and was one of the leaders of last night’s meeting. She said that while Monday’s meeting was meant to simply acknowledge that this sort of thing happens in the Dartmouth community, last night’s gathering was the first real step forward.
“I think what I felt is this hope that we are about to turn the corner,” she said.
Those attending seemed to share the sentiment. Afterward, senior Sandi Caalim said she thought it was a good first step to actually enacting change. Davis said she appreciated the openness of the forum.
Satterlund said she’d eventually like to see “active partnerships” with various campus groups, offices and organizations that could help better educate students on the issues behind this month’s incidents.
But, she said, it won’t happen overnight.
“This is a movement,” she said. “This is a process. Social change doesn’t happen in a moment.”
McGrew, though, worried that two reported incidents in such a short time period would naturally get the campus talking, and the quick rise could lead to a quick fall.
“The whole campus goes into a frenzy for a few days,” she said, “and then it all dies down.”
Talking is just talking either way, she said. Her column in The Dartmouth was meant to foster conversation, both positive and negative, and it has, generating nearly 60 comments, from all sorts of viewpoints, in several days.
That’s not to say the entire campus is rapt when it comes to the issue, though. Alice Hong, a freshman, said that a friend of hers had been reading about the incident online during a class early in the day yesterday. They had a short conversation, and moved on.
“Personally, I haven’t seen that kind of behavior,” Hong said. “I don’t think we should judge the entire campus” based on isolated events, she said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Chatterjee and Perry’s conversation in the Hop turned into an impromptu brainstorming session, during which they weighed what sounded like good ideas — and what didn’t.
Either way, according to many, the problem remains.
“For me, this is one of the most horrifying things on our campus,” Chatterjee said.
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.