Ouellette: Intolerance at Dartmouth

by Torrese Ouellette | 1/25/12 11:00pm

One night, my girlfriend and I were taking an evening jog. When we stopped to take a break in front of the Rockefeller Center, a group of male students walked by. One looked over his shoulder at us and sneered, "niggers." One of his friends, not objecting to the insult, simply cautioned, "shh." Another night, just last term, I was walking up South Main Street when a group of students drove by in a car. Unmistakably, one male voice shouted out the window, "nigger!"

After each of these incidents, I found myself wondering if I had done anything to "provoke" these insults. Was it the clothes that I wore or the way I carried myself? Was it the company I did or did not happen to keep? Or did I simply not belong at Dartmouth? I suspect that many students have asked themselves similar questions when they sense that they are not accepted here. Yet the ability of one group to make another feel guilty simply for existing represents the ultimate triumph of bigotry. Just like women do not do anything to "invite" men to belittle, harass or assault them, minority students do not need to act in any particular way to be insulted and stereotyped. Sometimes, all it takes to be a target of intolerance is for one to "be" at all. In any community where people are made to feel unwelcome, unsafe or inferior simply because of who they are or who they appear to be, then maybe that community has some issues that need to be addressed.

What troubles me is not that such narrow-mindedness exists at Dartmouth, but how persistently Dartmouth officially and unofficially sells itself as some shining bastion of inclusivity, even when many of our personal experiences tell a very different story. What I find frustrating is not the pride and loyalty students feel toward this institution, in spite of its flaws. It is the fact that every year, when it's time to lure prospective students into the ostensibly inviting arms of Dear Old Dartmouth, many of us even those of us who have been stricken by those same arms with the pain of prejudice, exclusion and isolation plaster smiles over the bruised, embittered and disillusioned spirits that lie beneath to attract those students unprepared for a similar fate.

Although we often assemble in classrooms, common rooms and auditoriums beneath the non-committal mission statement of "promoting campus dialogue" about important issues of identity and community, we seldom seem to talk about the things that truly need to be said. We rarely talk openly about the pain of being excluded, slighted or ignored because of our sexual orientation, gender, race, class or Greek affiliation status, or of the social insecurity that can cause us to victimize others for fear of being excluded ourselves. At least we do not talk about these issues directly. We can congratulate ourselves for the presence of indistinct phenomena like "dialogue" and "diversity" supposedly demonstrated in the form of easily ignored community "talks," or in the form of days sporadically assigned to commemorate some ethnic group or social issue. These discussions always seem to be occurring somewhere, even if they do not in any way affect our own lives. Yet if each of us is not committed to filling our own lives with the type of acceptance and sensitivity toward others that we take for granted in our community, how can we be sure that it really exists at all, in the way that it needs to?

When instances of bigotry occur so blatantly or publicly that they cannot be reasonably ignored when we find homophobic slurs secretly scrawled on the windows of our residence halls, or when we hear misogynist chants in the basements of our fraternities, or when racial slurs are spewed at minority students under the cover of darkness campus leaders often issue a denunciation claiming that the act has no place within our community. This is a peculiar concept, for intolerance evidently has a place here. Otherwise, there would be little need for statements decrying it. The real question is: What are we going to do to change it? And when are we collectively going to be honest with ourselves and stop hiding the reality of intolerance at Dartmouth beneath the convenient mantle of denial?