Khan: The Violence of Silence

It is time for Dartmouth to reckon with race.

by Attiya Khan | 7/3/20 2:30am

On July 1, the Board of Trustees, College President Phil Hanlon and his senior leadership group sent an email to campus that emphasized the administration’s commitment toward racial justice. 

This half-hearted response neglected to acknowledge the administrative failures at Dartmouth which have maintained a long-standing hostile environment for Black students, as well as other minority students. There was also no mention of the racially-charged incidents that have taken place at Dartmouth with alarming consistency over the past few decades. This silence is typical of the College, which usually relies on an ambiguous, politically-neutral statement to deal with such issues. The problem with these statements is that the College creates an illusion of activism, while those who are affected by discrimination are further alienated by the College’s apathy. It is not enough for the College to address racism as though it occurs in a vacuum, and not on the steps of our very own campus. 

In 1982, the conservative newspaper The Dartmouth Review published an article written in an attempt at African American English, expressing distaste for affirmative action policies. Written by white student Keeney Jones through the perspective of a Black student, the piece, entitled “Dis Sho’ Ain’t No Jive, Bro,” included the line, "Dey be spoutin' 'bout how 'firmative action be no hep to black folk cross da nation, on account we be not doing' too well wit da GPAs and sheet." During the same quarter,  The Dartmouth Review also published the article “Black is Boring” by Dartmouth english professor Jeffrey Hart and an interview with a local Ku Klux Klan leader. After a lackluster response from the College, several students and faculty members engaged in a number of protests over the next few years, culminating in the 1986 attack on a display built by Black students. While twelve white men were suspended for the destruction, which occurred while activists were sleeping inside the structure, eighteen students were arrested for protesting.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw their fair share of protests by Black students and faculty as a result of racial tension on campus. Indeed, the Dartmouth community experienced a slew of racist incidents during this time, including racist graffiti on posters that endorsed former President Barack Obama, the writing of the n-word on a student’s door, and the verbal mocking of students perceived to be Chinese. After a statement was released promising that an investigation into the latter incident was underway, not much action other than a few forums on Black experiences were offered by the administration in response.  

In 2019, Dartmouth experienced another torrent of racism, this time in the form of emails sent to a variety of minority students and faculty. Some of the emails included messages such as “Back to work, slave,” and “Please stop slacking and get back to work, n—.” Slurs against Jewish, Asian, Latinx and Hispanic students were also included. Three months after the first incident, the College released a response through chief information security officer Steve Nyman stating that the emails did not originate from Dartmouth’s email system. Moreover, the culprits were not found even though it was the second such cyber-attack that had occurred within the previous few months. Once again, the College provided empty words, and even less action.

These incidents are the more obvious and documented shows of racial tension at Dartmouth, but there are far more subtle historical ties to racial oppression that the College has been hesitant to cut. For instance, students continue to drink coffee in  One Wheelock and live in East Wheelock– a lounge area and residential housing cluster, respectively, that retain their titles despite being named after Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock, a slaveholder. For all its promises of solidarity, the College has yet to follow in the footsteps of other peer institutions which have created commissions designed to document and acknowledge their connections to slavery, such as Brown, Harvard and Columbia. 

The College may argue that conversations about race and Dartmouth’s reckoning with it are justly limited to staff meetings to encourage racial sensitivity and other closed quarters. Action is happening, they might say, just not in plain sight. My critique of the College’s inaction may seem unfair if such measures appear sufficient. I implore you to remember, however, that the College’s embrace of racism and slavery in the very early days of its conception was not quiet, and it did not happen behind closed doors. Rather, it happened in the sunlight on the Green, and is immortalized in the bricks of Dartmouth’s very first buildings laid by the hands of the enslaved. In order to begin the work of taking responsibility, Dartmouth must first be willing to acknowledge its own shortcomings and address the skeletons in its closet. Any attempt to address racism without such accountability is performative at best, and futile at worst. 

Khan is a member of the Class of 2022. 

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