TTLG: An Anchor of Conscience

by Torrese Ouellette | 10/8/15 9:05pm

Dartmouth and I had a toxic relationship. From matriculation in 2008 to academic separation in 2015, it lasted for more than six years. I now realize that if I had drowned myself in the fall of 2014 as I had attempted, I would have been ultimately responsible for the decision — but Dartmouth, nonetheless, would have been the catalyst. The College works for some students. I was not one of them, and I know I am not alone. So let me state this plainly: the College is not a community, but a business originally designed for a particular clientele — and if you are a woman, person of color or a person (of any color) from a low-income family, Dartmouth may be structurally incapable of treating you the way you ought to be treated.

They won’t tell you at Dimensions of Dartmouth that the College demands you make it your entire world, or that existence here can be an everyday struggle just to keep your head above water. As a scholar from an impoverished family, I could not put this institution first. Sometimes, I prioritized family and relationships, spending just as much effort working to send money home as buying books and studying. Furthermore, as many students can attest, schoolwork might be the last thing on your mind when swimming against a tide of sexual, racist or homophobic harassment in a toxic campus climate. I have written a column for this paper before — Jan. 26, 2012, “Intolerance at Dartmouth” — about the racial slurs that students of color like me have been subjected to by white, male students. Brazenly in daylight, carefully under the cover of darkness, I’ve been labeled “n----r” on multiple occasions, as well as numerous other sexist and homophobic slurs, by different groups on the way to and from classes and residence halls. Regardless, I will say that Dartmouth provided numerous opportunities to prove I could honor it exclusively, that I could put it before everything else. But I now understand that toxic partners can easily possess winning smiles, high-minded inclinations and confer “opportunities” for you to remake yourself in their image even as they leave you isolated, scarred and fundamentally doubting your human worth.

For evidence of the College’s elitist modus operandi, look no further than the ubiquitous insignia we wear emblazoned on our sweatshirts, engraved in class rings, inscribed on piece after piece of Dartmouth merchandise. Look closely — notice two Native figures wandering from the wilderness into the civilizing glow of white Eurocentric “knowledge.” Elite schooling enterprises continue to be tools of social caste, economic stratification and cultural genocide to a much greater extent than our sanguine myths about higher education suggest.

Fraternity hazing, for instance, is neither new nor innocuous, but a simulation of age-old class domination.

Remember the working-class residents of the Upper Valley whose labor enables the College to operate. Having spent my middle and high school years in the shadow of Yale University, this was not my first glimpse of how bastions of elitism loom over and exploit working-class communities. I was reminded how the Ivy League is a fixture of socioeconomic inequality when I witnessed the administration’s resistance and the community’s general shrug when Dartmouth Students Stand with Staff protested that staff members shouldn’t lose their livelihoods during the 2010 budget cuts without having a voice in the discussion.

Consider Dartmouth’s oft-propagated advocacy of Native scholars alongside the endurance of the “Indian mascot” or how the Ivy League shares its elitist pedagogical lineage with Native “re-education” programs, which were designed to transform and, ultimately, “kill the Indian” in Native youths.

What of international students, far away from home, who find no place in the narrow, Eurocentric corridors of the academy for their voices — their cultures’ intellectual, linguistic and epistemic inheritance?

Think of the harassment Dartmouth’s first women faced when it was an unapologetically masculinist domain and the sexual violence women experience in its male-dominated social spaces today.

Remember that the recent report from the Association of American Universities revealed that 28 percent of Dartmouth undergraduate women are survivors of non-consensual sexual contact — among the highest percentages of the survey.

Recall the violent backlash against student activists associated with Real Talk Dartmouth who dared to hold a mirror to the College’s problems with racism, heterosexism, classism and sexual assault.

Consider the Ivy League’s ties to the transatlantic slave industry and its role in inventing slavery’s philosophical justifications alongside incidents like the “Bloods and Crips” party hosted by then-Delta Delta Delta sorority and Alpha Delta fraternity in 2013 and how many students of color today are recruited to polish Dartmouth’s “diverse” veneer before being left largely to fend for ourselves in its harmful environment.

History is embedded, like asbestos, deep in the academy’s foundations. History lives, resurrected in its consequences, reproduced by institutional choices, social traditions and the intransigence of powerful interests to protect their interests.

At-risk students gratefully acknowledge the positive opportunities and supportive connections we manage to build here even as we protest the poisonous institutional character that diminishes them. Many proud scholars from challenged but resilient families manage to persevere despite overwhelming obstacles. And let me be clear: College-employed individuals are not personally responsible for vulnerable students’ adversities. Hard work, personal responsibility and toil are nothing new to struggling scholars — we are life-versed in the mantras of “work twice as hard” and “make no-excuses.” Given this nation’s history, how else could we have made it to college at all?

Nevertheless, community leaders are responsible for denial, delay, obfuscation and neglect when old scars are ripped open again and again by continued violence and structural isolation within community purview. Alumni are responsible when they lobby with overwhelming financial power to prevent old traditions from failing. These problems go beyond biased, intolerant or high-risk behaviors and beyond the influence of mental health support.

Many students know that “medical leave,” for instance, is bureaucratic code for “Your problems are not Dartmouth’s problems.” This reality does not detract from the genuine efforts of school deans and counselors on students’ behalf. Instead it reveals this truth — the purpose of mental health counseling is to aid the well-being of individuals, not remedy the toxicity of broader social conditions. The College as it exists is a social health problem, one rooted in an ongoing legacy of exclusivity and inequity that is absolutely foundational to the design of an elite education. It will require more than counselors, more than one initiative, more than figurehead leadership, more than a few years and a sustained groundswell of voices to dismantle this deeply-embedded framework.

For years I asked myself if I was the problem. I did well academically in the fall of 2014 — thanks to the combined support of my two younger sisters and a few steadfast friends. Between my suicide attempt that term and my separation the following spring, though, I realized what was holding me back was far more than pain, personal failings or spiritual fatigue. I found that I also bore something else — an anchor of conscience, a weight that moored me to a state of unavoidable reflection about the role elite institutions like Dartmouth play in constructing the injustices of our world. I apprehended how much of this process I endorsed by giving into the institution’s insidious pressure on my life and values. Despite everything, why did I stay? Was it a mere piece of paper and its empty promises of opportunity? Was it an urgency not to shame my people and ancestors beneath the ancient, withering glower of low expectations that women, low-income and students of color know all too well? I looked deeper, through my acquired shame and self-doubt, all the way back to matriculation. I recognized that I had already proven myself by surviving this long, that I could win the game if I were willing to pay the price. I grasped what the price was. It was my conscience. I could not betray it.

In the wake of this realization, a great heaviness was lifted from me. In the weeks before Dartmouth and I formally separated, I spent time tending in earnest to what truly mattered — my closest friendships and dearest loves. I participated in the Black Lives Matter march, remembering that the struggle for our lives is not merely being waged in the busy city streets of New York City, Ferguson and Baltimore, but also on the muted rural roads and within the curated academy grounds of Hanover. It is being waged in our minds as we rediscover our human worth beneath the shadow of structure and history. Wherever we live, breathe and learn our lives should matter.

For my part, I can absolutely concede that I was a flawed student — but never to the idea that individual failings somehow disprove Dartmouth’s need to decisively correct its own. Therefore, when an environment or relationship is killing you — raise your voice. Do not be persuaded by insidious language of individual pathology and survivor-blame to bear the burden of responsibility for structural violence. Refuse to be gas-lighted. Read between the lines of history and into the lines of social narratives being written today. Refuse to accept abuse stoically. Refuse to march across the Commencement stage hiding wounds with forced smiles, leaving the next generation of students to be lured into the same cycle. Speak out for yourself, for others. And even after speaking out, we sometimes have to face this fact — our voices are not enough. Then, like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Yasiin Bey who left the country in existential frustration, or like Stokely Carmichael, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis, who were forced beyond its boundaries, we may have to accept that a social order simply cannot or will not change in our lifetime. Sometimes, we must realize that, yes, our lives do matter but no, they do not matter here.

Sometimes, like I did, you just have to leave.