'Ghetto' discussion fills Collis

by Jacob T. Elberg | 11/13/98 6:00am

Most of last night's audience praised the panelists, but some members of the Greek organizations responsible for a controversial theme party left feeling attacked when a crowd of about 400 people gathered in Collis Common Ground for "What is Ghetto?" -- the week's third public event in response to recent race-related incidents including last month's "ghetto" party.

After a six-person panel spoke for 90 minutes, about 200 people stayed to break into discussion groups. Members of the Greek organizations who stayed for the discussion groups said they were pleased with the level of dialogue which took place in the groups.

The panelists included Kesner Bienvenu '99, Reginald Belhomme '00, English Professor Bill Cook, Jessica Marshall '01, Leah Threatt '01 and Geography Professor Richard Wright.

Members of the College's Board of Trustees who showed up later, including College President James Wright, complimented the event as an important step towards dealing with problems of racism within the College community. Many students echoed those sentiments.

But many members of the groups responsible for the "ghetto" party -- Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Xi Delta sorority -- said they felt the panel was "one-sided" and did not represent an appropriately wide range of viewpoints.

Cook told the audience unlimited free speech is a myth, and called the apologies of people responsible for insensitive actions "childish."

"Unlimited free speech is nonsense. It is antisocial. It is anti-democratic. It is the last refuge of scoundrels," Cook said. "That which we consider political correctness, I would regard as more correctly called good manners."

"The spoiled brat in some of us claims that sacred right to be rude, dismissive, cruel even to all those others who are excluded from the dominant discourse," Cook said.

Cook went on to discuss the apologies made for such behavior.

"Even when caught playing in the shitpile of their corruption, resort to what I call childish explanation," Cook said. "'Oh, we made a mistake.' 'We're sorry.' 'We committed a slip of the tongue.' 'We were ignorant of the effects of our actions.' 'They are much too sensitive.' 'They lack a sense of humor as sophisticated as our own.'"

Cook said he is amazed students at Dartmouth could show so little sensitivity.

"I find it impossible to imagine that men and women supposedly so mature and intellectual can show themselves so immature and ignorant in elementary rules of decorum," he said.

Chi Gam President Andrew Cohen '99 said many brothers left feeling the panel was "somewhat of a personal attack on our house."

"We had thought it would be more on the general issues that had occurred and not really focused on our house in particular, or Alpha Xi," Cohen said. "I think the panel in general was pretty one-sided. Some members were a little more belligerent or one-sided than others."

Some members of Alpha Xi felt "the panel was kind of difficult, and a lot of sisters left feeling upset and attacked," according to Alpha Xi Vice President of Public Relations Emily Bahl '99.

"It wasn't until the discussion that we felt it started to take a positive turn," Bahl said.

Alpha Xi President Jil Carey '99 said she had hoped the discussion would focus more on "larger issues of racism," and less on specific events.

"We were told it would not be an evening of finger pointing focusing on the particular events," Carey said. "We don't feel that was quite the case."

Shauna Brown '99, one of the organizers of the event, said she thought the panelists were "absolutely incredible" and did not feel that they placed blame on the members of the Greek organizations responsible for the "ghetto" party.

"I think they focused on behaviors rather than people," Brown said. "And I think that's important."

Carey said she fears discussion of the greater issues of racism might be lost if too much focus is placed on the "ghetto" party itself.

However, both Carey and Cohen said members of their houses categorized the discussion groups as positive and said they addressed issues which are problems within the College community.

"It hurt for us to hear some of the things," Carey said. "But we needed to hear them."

Cohen said the brothers of Chi Gam felt the discussion groups were "really an opportunity to voice their opinions and hear some feedback on a one to one level. A lot of brother felt they really learned something from the discussions."

Personal stories

Belhomme, who told the audience he grew up in "the hood," said he draws a distinction between "ghetto" as a noun and as an adjective.

"I grew up being 'ghetto,'" Belhomme said. "Yes, I grew up in the ghetto. The only thing we had in the house was generic cereal and no milk. I ate my cereal with water ... That's me. That's my reality."

Belhomme said "ghetto" is a synonym some people use to avoid using the word "black."

"People internalize stereotypes to cover up what they feel is the true meaning of black people," Belhomme said. "Be a man about it and say 'that's black.'"

Bienvenu shared personal stories of ignorance in the mostly-white neighborhood he moved to as a child, and referred to Karl Marx in calling for a minority revolution.

Bienvenu told the audience although blacks are the "perceived minority" in the United States, they "globally outnumber the perceived majority 11 to 1."

"In order for there to be change there had to be revolution, there had to be progress, there had to be people shaken up. People had to listen, people had to hear, because the majority never wants to listen to the minority," Bienvenu said. "For once, the minority will be heard."

Threatt told the audience that people have assumed she is from the ghetto and asked to borrow clothes from her for the party because she is black. Threatt said she is from an "upper-middle class town."

"I am black. I am not from the ghetto. I've never been to the ghetto. I will never live in the ghetto," Threatt said. "To assume that is hurtful, and I think it hurts a lot of your own development."

Marshall told the audience she does not consider herself a victim, although she said she was hurt by recent events. The real victims, she said, are the people who have been "perpetrating this ignorance."

Marshall said she is not sure the recent events can be considered just a careless mistake.

"After things keep happening over and over again you have to start questioning if it's malicious," Marshall said.

Geography Professor Richard Wright, the first of the panel's speakers, discussed the origins of the word "ghetto" and the meaning behind the term, calling the ghetto "a geography of exclusion."

Wright said the majority members of the community should recognize that they lose nothing by being sensitive to issues which may be hurtful to members of the minority group.

"There's no cost to anyone for not having a 'ghetto' party," Wright said. "There's no cost to anyone for not laughing at a racist remark."

The walkout

More than 400 students participated in a walkout and gathered on the Green Wednesday in protest of the recent incidents. Students stood silently, holding hands in a circle for more than 15 minutes starting at 12:15 p.m. The protesters slowly moved towards the edge of the Green as more people showed up. They clapped and disbanded afterward.

"I think it was an incredible success," Brown said following the walkout. "We all came out to show that we care about this community and the individuals that make it up."

Vanessa Ferro '00 said she had been looking forward to the walkout all week. "As a member of the community, I needed to be a part of it."

Christian Felix '99 called the walkout a statement to the College and administration. "We need to challenge ourselves," he said. "People are indifferent to those different from them."

The week's events will conclude today with a "speak out" on the porch of Collis at 1 p.m. Brown said the event will begin with invited speakers and then move to an open-microphone format.

A group of 80 students gathered at Cutter-Shabazz Hall Saturday night in response to incidents including the "ghetto party," sales of a "Yale Sucks" Homecoming t-shirt, which depicted a bulldog performing oral sex on a Native American and an incident involving Native Americans at Dartmouth members marching to protest Columbus Day.

The students discussed the incidents and planned a number of events with the theme "silence gets in the way and oppresses us all," including last night's discussion and Wednesday's gathering on the Green.

A group will meet Saturday night to discuss ways to continue discussion of race-related issues.

Following the discussion groups last night, James Wright arrived at Collis Common Ground and addressed the remaining members of the audience. Wright said he decided to come to the event "as soon as he heard about it" and was pleased he was able to learn from statements made by many of the participants.

"I was very disappointed when I heard" about the recent race-related incidents, Wright said. "Someday maybe it can be said that some good came from it."

Some members of the Board of Trustees -- in town for its Fall term meeting this weekend -- accompanied Wright to the discussion, at his suggestion.

Trustee Peter Fahey '68 said he was interested in going to the event because he is interested in the state of student life at the College.

"I think it's good that when unfortunate incidents occur, people discuss them," Fahey said. "It's a very positive thing."

The panel of speakers was proceeded by the presentation of four film clips.

The four film clips, which came from the movies "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood," Spike Lee's "Crooklyn," John Singleton's "Boyz 'N the Hood" and a documentary about the Henry Horner housing project in Chicago, were intended to show "different representations of the ghetto," Nancy Bloomfield '99 told the audience.