Jeon: Overhandled with Care

by Min Kyung Jeon | 9/22/15 6:35pm

The impetus for my penning this column originates in The Atlantic’s Sept. 2015 article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The piece analyzes what the authors perceive as an unspoken movement spreading across the nation’s college campuses to efface any words and actions that might offend even a minuscule portion of students. The piece highlights microaggressions and trigger warnings as manifestations of the movement, instances where exposure to speech or content might offend or upset a student. The author attributes these buzzwords to a culture of “vindictive protectiveness” that shields undergraduates from potential psychological distress.

Many of us can attest to having heard the aforementioned expressions at some point during our time on campus, but the portion of the article that strikes me as the most reminiscent of Dartmouth’s atmosphere is the reported cancellation of an event titled “Hump Day” at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. The event, which invited people to pet a camel in celebration of Wednesday, was protested by a group of students as “insensitive to people from the Middle East,” even though it did not contain any explicit reference to them.

The incident bears a startling resemblance to the April 2014 cancellation of “Phiesta,” an annual philanthropic event that was co-hosted by Alpha Phi sorority and Phi Delta Alpha fraternity. The decision followed an email that Daniela Hernández ’15 had sent to several administrators raising concerns about the party’s appropriation of Mexican culture.

Certainly, the College has an extremely troubling history of abhorrent appropriation — in 2013, Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority co-hosted a “Bloods and Crips” party that reportedly mocked gang violence with racialized speech and costumes.

Judging by the responses that exploded on- and offline after Phiesta’s cancellation, however, it doesn’t seem that the previous year’s Phiesta had featured any garments or props that could be construed as derogatory toward Mexican culture, but rather consisted of attendees enjoying chips and salsa, guacamole and other Mexican dishes for the cause of cardiac care. Although I cannot independently verify this account, if it is correct, I could not help but feel that Hernández, albeit correct about the continuing “exploitation of groups of people and cultures for the sake of business opportunities,” was gravely misguided to brand Phiesta as an example of marginalization.

To be sure, other aspects of the party could have affronted students of Mexican and Latino/a descent — I do not dispute that Mexicans and Latinos should be the authoritative voice on their cultures. Nonetheless, I, a Korean international student on financial aid and self-identified liberal, believe that the sort of reflexive, hyperbolic sense of aggrievement described in The Atlantic article does exist among a sizable segment of my fellow minority students at Dartmouth. Too often, we — I have been guilty of this behavior as well — immediately discount and take offense at faintly conservative views on race relations or other hot-button topics, especially if they come from students with privileged backgrounds.

I write the above from a place of deep sympathy, respect and love. I do not mean to trivialize the centuries of state-sanctioned violence against black and indigenous peoples, the effects of which are still felt today, or the numerous tragedies and tribulations inflicted on other minorities in the United States historically and currently. Nor do I discount the unseen privileges of whiteness, which scholar Peggy McIntosh once characterized as an “invisible knapsack.”

Nevertheless, the cries that I frequently hear from my fellow minority students and activists — that someone “just doesn’t get it” because said individual is white, male, upper-middle class, cisgender and/or heterosexual — constitute an ultimately inane and counterproductive method of advancing the goals of racial, gender, sexual and socioeconomic equality. Being a member of privileged groups does not preclude one from comprehending and engaging with issues that disproportionately affect minorities. Conversely, being a minority does not automatically legitimize one’s claim of offense. It goes without saying that being a minority does not signify one’s inability to understand or engage with issues of most concern to the U.S.’s white mainstream society, and that being in the dominant white culture does not grant one a rhetorical trump card in any matters, either.

I do not intend to censor or police any honest discussions on race, gender and all other social constructs of significance to students — if anything, I welcome and encourage these discussions. Instead, I advocate for greater intellectual maturity from both sides — a capacity to recognize the inevitable and desirable nuance in others’ diverse perspectives, to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of others’ opinions without blindly attributing ill intent or moral deficiencies to those who disagree with us and to be passionate about our beliefs without imposing them wholesale on others. After all, as much as it is offensive to make fun of Asian eyes or traditional Muslim headscarves, it is equally offensive to suggest that minority students like me are so infantile as to need constant protection from even the most innocuous of comments.