Thesis raises troubling questions about race at College

by Kathleen McDermott | 5/29/02 5:00am

If the research presented in one senior's sociology thesis is any indication, a good portion of white students at Dartmouth may hold largely uninformed and perhaps problematic views on race.

Over the past year, David Trouille '02 surveyed and interviewed a broad cross-section of white males at Dartmouth, asking questions aimed to address how these students viewed racial identity and race relations on campus and beyond.

Last Thursday afternoon he presented the results of his thesis -- entitled "The White Faces of Dartmouth College: A Study of Racial Identity among White Males" and advised by sociology professor Christina Gomez -- to a packed audience of students and faculty.

His research found that, by and large, white students did not see themselves as having any role in constructing racial identities and affecting race relations.

They did acknowledge the reality of racial self-segregation on campus. Their own friends, they admitted, were largely white. Few had dated interracially.

Yet in explaining these facts, white students pointed away from questions of race and pointed blame away from themselves.

Racial minorities, white students told Trouille, were the ones guilty of self-segregation on campus. Their own friendships were based not on race, but on common interests and coincidence. Explaining the lack of interracial dating, they responded that they simply were not attracted to those of other races -- with the exception, in several cases, of Asian-Americans.

Even while acknowledging racial self-segregation on campus and the lack of interracial dating, these students painted campus race relations as "fine," adding that "everyone's just too nice" for racism to be an issue, Trouille said.

Trouille found that these students furthermore did not see their "whiteness" as having an impact on other aspects of their lives or place in society.

Their achievements, for example, were due not to racial privilege, but to their own individual efforts and hard work, they told Trouille.

Apart from their own experiences, however, white students did see racism as an issue on the national scene. When pressed to explain racism in contemporary America, they painted it as a rather one-dimensional phenomenon, involving "rather minor, insignificant" incidents carried out by "extremist" figures. These acts were furthermore isolated to particular regions of the country, such as urban areas and the South, Trouille said.

Students interviewed did not significantly acknowledge systemic, cultural, environmental or institutional racism, according to Trouille.

Trouille said that social inequalities along the lines of race, according to several students interviewed, were due not to racism, but a lack of effort on the part of African-Americans. These students suggested that some African-Americans simply don't hold the right values or that it is simply "part of their culture" that explains, for example, disproportionate number of African-Americans who do not complete high school.

Trouille conducted his research by surveying 50 white males on campus. He randomly approached individuals -- all unknown to him -- who were seen sitting alone in one of Dartmouth's main social eating areas.

Among the students surveyed, 96 percent came from communities they identified as all or primarily white. Eighty-eight percent had parents who held a bachelor's degree. Approximately 40 percent came from families with annual incomes of $120,000 or more.

Trouille then conducted in-depth interviews with 15 of the students he surveyed, chosen through a process of random selection.

Trouille said that in the interviews he attempted to build a rapport with the students, using his white maleness to get at their unguarded views on racial issues. "In a lot of ways, I felt I was acting as a spy," he said.

Although admitting that his research might not be a "perfect sample of the Dartmouth community," he argued that "the fact that there were so many similarities in what they had to say made me think it was a little more representative."

Not all students interviewed, however, articulated identical views on racial issues. A few students interviewed "recognized that race relations aren't as good," Trouille said.

One student, he added, noted that "his perception of things were impacted by his place in society as a white male" and said that his own viewpoint might be skewed.

Many of the others, however, "felt they could speak for all people" on issues of race relations, according to Trouille.

Trouille chose to study racial identity among whites because, he explained, there is very little research in the field.

In the past, he said, questions of racial identity have largely addressed how those of color and minority groups perceive racial issues and identity.

Yet according to Trouille, "in a society where race means so much, race needs to be studied for white people."

History Professor Bruce Nelson -- who has made the study of race relations in America a major focus of his research -- noted that, "If you are going to understand race in the United States, you definitely need to understand the meaning of whiteness" and the dimensions of white privilege.

Geography Professor Richard Wright -- who studies racial issues and currently serves as associate dean of the faculty for the social sciences -- explained that whiteness studies are motivated by the idea that "no person is unraced."

Although in the past there has been a tendency to view whites as "unraced," current research on racial issues now also analyzes how race is socially constructed for all, not merely particular racial minorities.

The results of his thesis, according to Trouille, demonstrate that among white males at Dartmouth, "everything around them has normalized" their racial identity.

Such findings came as no surprise to Jeff Garrett '02, a student at Trouille's thesis presentation who has involved himself in various multicultural activities at Dartmouth.

"I don't think it's big news that a lot of white students don't think about their race as having any meaning, as being anything other than the default setting," Garrett said. "I'm not glad that my suspicions are correct, but I think it's good to have it honestly on paper," he explained.

Sharon Davies '02, another student in attendance at the thesis presentation, added that Trouille's thesis similarly confirmed her own perceptions of how many white Dartmouth students view racial issues.

The majority of students at Dartmouth have little concept of being racialized and little understanding of the experiences of people of color, she explained.

Her freshman fall, Davies explained, two Greek houses co-sponsored a "ghetto party," with little understanding of why such a theme might be offensive to minority students. Davies, an African-American student from Chicago, called the incident her "real matriculation into what Dartmouth was all about."

Since then, she added, there have been numerous other incidents on campus that have demonstrated a lack of understanding of racial issues among Dartmouth students.

To Victoria Lee '05, however, many of the comments articulated during Trouille's research interviews came as somewhat of a shock. "Within an Ivy League institution you'd think prejudice or skewed racial perceptions wouldn't be as prevalent," Lee said.

Although students generally agreed that Trouille's results reflect a society-wide problem and not one specific to Dartmouth, they differed in their assessment of how the institution of Dartmouth itself might serve to perpetuate this racial divide.

The role of the Greek system and fraternities came up time and time again, yet students seemed hesitant to pinpoint any exact blame.

Trouille said that although fraternities "definitely emerged as a significant topic" in his interviews, "it goes beyond fraternities" and fraternities too often take the blame.

Lee noted that "Yhe frats tend to be dominated by white males," and that "maybe other groups don't feel quite as comfortable."

Garrett pointed to what he described as a Eurocentric curriculum at Dartmouth that he said "definitely serves to back up the idea that white and male is the norm" as a factor in explaining why white males at Dartmouth have not critically analyzed issues of race.

Examining the results that Trouille thesis produced, students seemed to all be somewhat stumped on how issues of racial identity could be better addressed at Dartmouth.

Trouille said that although his thesis did not address this particular question, he thinks discussion and dialogue are key. Such discussions need to shift their focus from people of color to how whiteness matters, he said.