Sheikh-Hassan: Dangerous Myths of Exceptionalism

by Sadia Sheikh-Hassan | 11/12/12 11:00pm

This column is meant to address the concerns of "IndependentVoice" an anonymous commenter on The Dartmouth's article covering the bias incident last week who requested that someone discuss why this election has caused the phrase "f-ck white people" to trend on Twitter ("Incident Team reacts to bigoted vandalism," Nov. 9). I wanted to inform this commenter that "f-ck," "stupid," "socialist," "n-gger" and "RIP America" were also recently trending during this election cycle. In fact, these phrases were so popular that many different sites have compiled them and have even geo-mapped their distribution across the country. Unsurprisingly, the greatest concentration of racist tweets were from the South and Midwest. But also unsurprisingly, a large number also came from places smattered across the Northeast and California. What does this prove beyond the fact that there are racists everywhere? Only that contrary to popular belief, there are racists here, too.

I'll let you catch your breath. As students of this prestigious institution and as citizens of this great nation, we like to believe that we are exceptional. And while now would be as good a time as any to flesh out the pitfalls of "American exceptionalism," I want to focus my energy instead on the horrors of "Ivy League exceptionalism," which stems from the flawed belief that a college degree of the highest order inoculates one against prejudice. When we address an incident involving a Dartmouth student committing an act of racial bigotry with indifference at a time when a slew of other racially motivated acts of aggression are being committed across the nation, we are doing our community a disservice. We are attempting to sever that very hateful act from the national narrative of how race functions in the United States that lends this singular act a dimension of social and historical relevance. These aggressions are as much about the loss of privilege as they are about fear of the other. Now is not a time to feign amnesia. We cannot afford to forget that this nation is a nation built off of the exploitation and further marginalization of the black community. We cannot afford to ignore that the institutional foundations of the College lie in "civilizing" the Native American population. If we are not willing to have these conversations at a time when even our president is willing to discuss his struggles with race with the entire nation, then we will fall quickly behind the times.

Just because one goes to an Ivy League school does not make one incapable of being racist, homophobic, bigoted, sexist or insensitive. It does not make this institution and the administration that governs it incapable of accommodating a very real and silencing culture of apathy. My political beliefs align with Desmond Tutu: If you do not stand (and actively so) on the side of the oppressed, then you are by default on the side of the oppressor. Silence is no equalizer. Silence does not quicken revolution, nor does it stamp out injustice. Silence, at best, impedes social change, and at worst reinforces systems of oppression.

I arrived on this campus four years ago, and I will probably be leaving it much as I found it. In that time, there has been a huge turnover of students and administrators, and students have attempted to have difficult conversations about sexual assault and the importance of cross-community dialogue. With all that change, what remains is a concept of community that we refer to in times of convenience but have never been challenged ourselves to live up to.

Today, I challenge you to live up to a concept of community that humanizes everyone. I implore you to speak up and ally with friends to change the climate of this campus. If we speak together, the voices will be loud and angry and difficult to ignore. Every time you hear someone refer to something as an incident while failing to address the culture of hatred and insensitivity that it encapsulates, every time someone writes an article that fails to grasp the scope of an issue of immense importance to a community speak up. The goal of my entire existence, from here on out, will be to make you uncomfortable. Join me.