Best of Intentions
I know everyone on campus has heard a lot about the controversy regarding the Jack-O-Lantern. I would like to put it on a personal level. My background is from a suburban area, mostly white. Unlike the stereotype, however, my group of friends was at once both very diverse and very close. This created a situation of cross-cultural comfort which resulted in an attitude towards racial issues that most Dartmouth students would find appalling if they were exposed to it.
I recall the shock of two of my friends here at Dartmouth when we went to my house for a weekend. One of my friends from home, Carlos (Hispanic), had a party at which another of my friends, Samir (Indian), was attending. I don't remember this myself, but I am told that at one point Los was running around the room with a black magic marker trying to put a bindhi on Sam's forehead. My Dartmouth friends could not believe it. Such action of open degradation of another person's culture would be crucified (is it acceptable to say that?) on this campus.
Now, despite the original surprise that my Dartmouth friends, let's call them Bob (Chinese) and Joe (African- American), exhibited, by the end of the night, they were exchanging stereotypic shots with Gregg (Jewish), Los, and Sam. It was a level of comfort and intimacy at which racial comments which can cause so much pain, became jokes with no malicious intent behind them.
I think this illustrates perfectly the problem with the Jack-O dictionary, or a controversial column, posters directed to one specific sexual orientation, idle comments, or any other of the unfortunate incidents that happen in our imperfect world. Our close friends know our intentions may be honorable, and that there was no malicious intent to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, passers-by, people reading campus publications, and everyone else who doesn't know us may not be aware of our intentions.
This is something that is easy to forget, and doing so causes a lot of pain on both sides of the incident. I have had friends from home call me an alcoholic because I'm Irish or make comments about potatoes, and I have hit right back with insults that I wouldn't dare to print here. But in both cases there was an understanding that there was no real prejudice behind it. I know that there are people who will contest that, but it's true. No assumptions were made about the other individual when we first became friends.
Our Montgomery Fellow, Reverend Coffin, made a comment at one of his talks that personal experience is the key to ending prejudice. For me, that is a two-sided coin. While my friendships and personal experiences at home were such that I came to treat racial and racist matters very lightly, personal and campus experiences here have taught me otherwise. There are unthinking comments and actions around this school every day, and I am probably more guilty than most, because of my background.
But I have to keep an eye on what I say, because few people know me, much less my background. Likewise, when the Jack-O wrote its Dartmouth Review dictionary, their intent was not adequately communicated to everyone on campus. This is how feelings get hurt, and this is what we have to avoid.
Maybe we don't have to change our thinking, but we must make sure that others know exactly what it is that is behind our thinking. In this respect, it is true that personal experience is the key to easing racial tensions, because most of these tensions arise from miscommunications of intentions, and the more personal experience we have with someone, the better we know their intentions.