Race Relations Should Not Be an Issue

by Etoile Pinder | 11/19/98 6:00am

There's a photo from my fourth birthday party taped to my bedroom wall here at Dartmouth. In it are 14 little black children and one little blond girl, all giggling and wearing party hats, one older white woman and a number of older black women.

I'm the little blond girl.

The photo is a symbol of the perspective I hold towards the issue of inter-racial interactions. The perspective that it should not be an issue.

When I arrived at Dartmouth, I walked into Food Court and had my first experience with a community divided on the basis of race. People have "explained" that to me by saying that humans are drawn to what they can relate to and what they feel comfortable around. But try to explain to me then why FC's not broken up into "small-mid-western-town" tables and "I-grew-up-on-a-farm" tables. And if it is true, who am I supposed to sit with? I'm the first and only person from my country to attend Dartmouth. I was born on an island without electricity and am here on scholarship. I'm part black, but look so white you wouldn't bat an eyelash if I told you I was from West Lebanon. Should I sit by myself because there's no one here for me to easily relate to?

I can't possibly explain the isolation I felt Freshman Fall due to a lack of understanding of my background and of why I acted and said things the way I did. I would have given anything to spend time with a group of people in whose company I could find a familiar presence. But now, looking back, I rejoice in the fact that I wasn't surrounded by people like me, in whose presence I felt comfortable. If there had been, I wouldn't have been forced to interact with the groups I did and form friendships that have added new dimensions and more depth to my life. My best friend definitely wouldn't have been a white girl raised in an affluent area of Massachusetts with no clue who Beenie Man or Buju Banton are. (She now owns 'til Shiloh and I own Pearl Jam's Ten.)

I remember the first time I tried to gain access to a fraternity. It was a Wednesday night and, well, I was intimidated. The thought of entering a male-dominated stronghold was daunting, especially for a 16-year old girl. How on earth would I feel comfortable in there? Yet I thought about what I would gain by going inside (new friends, free beer, etc.), sucked it up and pretended to be a '95. The first time I went to Shabazz I was also intimidated and, again, I thought about what I would gain by going inside (new friends, good music, etc.). The reasons for that intimidation, however, are more difficult for me to come to terms with. Before Dartmouth, my friends were mainly black, my boyfriends were black, my boss was black, and my Prime Minister was black. I had spent 16 years walking into rooms as the only person with white skin and had never once felt intimidated, never once felt out of place. Yet my first impression of the Dartmouth environment had been so intense it left me with the notion that Shabazz would feel more unwelcoming to me because I have white skin.

Maybe I'm alone in those feelings, and nobody else feels that discomfort the first time they walk into a space on campus dominated by members of another sex, culture or race. But, as far as I can tell, I'm not. So how do the majority of the African-American, Latino, international, homosexual, Asian-American, Native American and every other group of "minority" students feel the first time they walk into, um, pretty much anywhere on campus -- into class, into a predominantly white fraternity house, into Food Court. There's a difference between choosing to sit with certain people because you feel comfortable with them and sitting with certain people because you feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed by the others.

I wish I understood the reasons that eliminated that discomfort from my life as a minority at home. I'm sure it has much to do with the fact that since white people were not oppressed for the last 400 years, but instead were the oppressors, we don't suffer the same negative stereotypes that many minorities in the U.S. do. I think there are other reasons for it too, though, including the simple fact that we don't talk about each other in terms of "us" vs. "them." The lines are too blurred and the people have been swirled together for too long for any boundaries to still remain. The words first spoken by H.I.M. Haile Selassie and later sung by Bob Marley, "the colour of a man skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes" are too firmly embedded in our minds to escape their truth.

That, however, is not the situation at Dartmouth, and I don't know for sure what will change it. I do think that we should start off by embracing a little social discomfort in our lives. If you're a woman or a minority, you've dealt with it before and probably still deal with it. If you've never had to face it, though, I highly recommend it. It can be amazing what happens when you push yourself out of the safe little social bubble you've never had the guts, necessity or motivation to look outside of. Every single person on this campus has pushed themselves academically. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't. Every athlete has paid a price, physically and in terms of time, through dedication to team and sport. Yet so many of us don't invest any real energy into developing our social lives. Think of where you'd be if you'd never pulled an all-nighter, never closed yourself off from sunlight that beautiful Saturday the day before your orgo final. Think of where you'd be if you'd never gone to 6 a.m. practice, never really seen how far you could go. Think of where you'd be if you'd never become real friends with someone with brown eyes or green eyes, simply because your eyes are blue.

I'm graduating in 21 days and am never going to walk into Food Court again. Chances are, though, you will. If you like it just the way it is then, hey, keep your life the same. But if you think there's something wrong with a society that divides itself on the basis of facial bone structure and melanin concentration, don't just sit back passively and allow it to continue. Change something in your own life; don't wait for someone else to change theirs.