Racism or Cultural Insensitivity?

by Rachel Casseus | 11/16/06 6:00am

As a Haitian-American woman, a four-year member of the Dartmouth women's crew team and a passionate ally of the Native and Latino communities, my commitment to all three groups compels me to be that "vox clamantis in deserto."

I am not here to absolve my teammates (men and women) of guilt for their lack of cultural sensitivity and forethought in light of the "Cowboys and Indians"-themed formal, but I do want to make one thing clear: The decision by members of the crew teams to dress up as Indians does not equate them with being racist.

The teams should be accountable for their actions and they were. I applaud Soralee Ayvar '07 and Alex Hernandez-Siegel for respectfully voicing their concerns. Kudos to Abe Clayman '07 for stepping up to accept the guilt for the teams' faux pas; however, the opinion piece written by Shaun Stewart '10 is wholly inappropriate due to the fact that it unjustly vilifies the teams without stopping to realize that not everyone is on the same level of cultural understanding ("Racism Remains at Dartmouth," Nov. 10).

I agree with Stewart that Dartmouth does and should have high expectations and standards for their students and their actions. However, every new academic year and new incoming class presents a constant uphill climb of learning and awareness. Students do not step onto campus as perfect paragons of multicultural and racial understanding -- nor does the administration expect them to be. Isn't the goal of a diverse community to create avenues where peers can learn from each other? It is not the responsibility of minority students to carry the burden of educating less-informed minds; however, when students bring these instances to the awareness of the administration, then the administration should do everything in its power to remedy the situation. Minorities come to get an education, not to give one.

According to concerned Latino and Native students, the crew formal was not the only incident that fueled both groups' valid and necessary responses. Ignorance of Native culture and its history is not isolated to the crew team, as evidenced by earlier incidents. Members of the Latino and Native communities have every right to be incensed by the events.

However, if minority groups wish to help change the attitudes of the culturally unaware, they must engage in dialogue before they condemn. It is one thing for students to apologize for their insensitivity, but what is really needed is not an apology, but true understanding of why the communities felt hurt. Once groups start labeling and calling each other "racist" or "overly sensitive," all chance of creating beneficial dialogue becomes void, and the all-too-popular "us against them" mentality flourishes.

In closing, I offer this suggestion: if Dartmouth truly values creating culturally sensitive communities, why not implement regular, mandatory awareness-building courses that teach students, faculty and administrators how to recognize the harmful effects of stereotyping and to confront instances of racial insensitivity in creative, non-confrontational ways? Dartmouth could create its own program or bring in an organization like the National Coalition Building Institute to create workshops and forums for the community.