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Office of the President Emeritus
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Convocation 2002 - Remarks by James Wright

September 24, 2002

Greetings! Today we gather for the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that marks the start of another academic year and that formally welcomes into this community our newest members. I am pleased to greet my colleagues in the faculty and administration, our upper-class students, new and returning graduate students, and members of the community.

It is a special pleasure to welcome the Class of 2006. We are delighted that you are at Dartmouth. Each of you is here because of who you are "” what you have accomplished, what you promise to accomplish, and the sort of person you are. We invited you as an individual, and it is as an individual that your achievements and contributions will be assessed "” here and for the rest of your life.

We treasure your unique qualities, but independence of mind, a quality that we both value and admire, can never be an excuse for selfishness of spirit. You will all recognize in time, if you do not already, that those things which will count the most in your lives will finally derive from relationships with others. Few people ever assess a life well-lived as one marked by self-absorption. Herein lies the essential tension of the Academy "” and of life: how to pursue your own personal goals and singular efforts within a value system that is fundamentally collaborative and dependent upon sharing.

This is where the role of society and of community comes in. At their best, aggregations of individuals encourage the application of personal talents and strengths within an ethos that promotes the common good. Dartmouth is an academic community "” one that thrives on individual achievement and merit. Our personal accomplishments are enabled by our shared and common values "” values that cherish discovery and learning, innovation and change, independence and distinction, and do this within an environment that is collaborative and collegial, supportive and empowering, open and tolerant.

All communities, save perhaps the smallest and most homogeneous, have intermediating groups; some that we form or join, some that we enter at birth. I would like to spend a few minutes today talking about the latter, the involuntary groups "” those to which we are assigned for categorical reasons; those that are determined by our gender, our sexual orientation, the color of our skin, or other racial or ethnic characteristics. As individuals we may willingly, even eagerly and proudly, identify with such a group. When a broader culture defines us based upon these traits, however, it is not a voluntary act. We lose part of our individuality. My focus this morning is on a topic that we need to become more comfortable about discussing: the cultural construct or conception of race. Racial identity can be a wonderfully positive and beneficial factor in a person's life, but race can also have negative consequences for an individual and society when it is considered to be "otherness" "” as stereotypical, as a confining, defining, and constraining barrier.

The diversity of American society has made us richer as a nation. We have benefited immensely from the fact that, despite the best efforts of some to make the metaphor real, the so-called "melting pot" did not, in fact, melt and blend us into a homogeneous whole. Rather, even in moments of struggle, our differences have enriched us and our shared values have strengthened us. In the United States today, about 30 percent of the population are racial or ethnic minorities; and, indeed, in some states, like California and Hawaii, those we consider minority groups make up more than half of the population. It is long past time for us to move along the unfinished work of challenging conventional demographic and racial stereotypes and assumptions.

Our growing recognition of global interdependence underlines the importance of this task. We have in the past twelve months had the lesson dramatically affirmed that we all need to put aside stereotypes in order to advance beyond hate and fear. Last year, we had some good and heated discussions on this campus about terrorism and the ways to defend against it, about civil liberties and the challenges they face in times of insecurity, and about Israel and the Palestinians. These are clear matters for debate. And we have more such debates to come. Part of the Amidah meditation includes the prayer "Help me to avoid shameful speech, As well as shameful silence." Debate means listening as well as speaking, and here it leaves no place for intimidation, for anti-Semitism, for anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attitudes, for racism, or for impugning the patriotism of those who challenge prevailing wisdom. The most enduring wisdom is that which welcomes challenge. The best debate is the one that tests ideas rather than asserts them.

Dealing with racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes may be one of the most pressing challenges of your generation, and there is no better place or time than here and now for you to begin creating the future that you would like to see. I am pleased that the Class of 2006 is the most racially diverse class in Dartmouth's history. Now you need to determine what you will do with the circumstance in which you find yourself. If you take advantage of the opportunity to advance your own education, your own understanding and learning, you will also add greatly to the strength of this community "” and, in the years ahead, to that of the many communities you will enrich for the rest of your lives.

Just as learning to learn is a lifetime goal of the liberal arts, learning how to learn with and from those who are different from you is an essential quality that will be much in demand in this century. Here at Dartmouth learning is understood, at its core, as being a habit of the heart and mind that seeks continually to understand better and to know more, one that is never quite satisfied by answers, and that is always imagining the next questions that ought to be asked. This is the sort of liberal learning that can sustain a life well-lived.

In addition to the rewarding academic life that you now commence, today you also enter a classroom without boundaries, a course of study not circumscribed by time limits, a learning environment that is as much about people as about place. With few exceptions, never before and likely never again will you live and work in such a small, intimate twenty-four-hour-a-day community, with so many people so different from you. If you seek out only the obviously like and like-minded, your comfort might initially seem somewhat greater, but your challenges, I can assure you, will be smaller and your learning will be the less. Johnetta Cole wrote "Leadership comes not only from growing up in a place called home, but from growing out into unfamiliar places."

Survey data from previous Dartmouth classes suggest that students come here wanting to transcend boundaries and to make new and different friends. The data also indicate that upon graduation many wish that they had been more successful in this task. I urge you to determine now not to share in that regret. Your four years will pass all too quickly. The faculty and administration are eager to help you in this challenge, but ultimately it will be up to each of you, as individuals and as members of the Dartmouth community, to approach one another in the spirit of openness that will make new relationships possible.

In order for you to do this, let us confront an obstacle that must be overcome "” one that we shall work on together during your time here. We need to consider the way that the concept of race is used in our society and the assumptions that we attach to the very idea of race. Those in the racial majority must scrutinize and then set aside one especially deleterious assumption: the notion that students of color are the "other." Any who make such an assumption impose a normative system, a value judgment, upon difference, transforming an enriching quality into a divisive and hierarchical category. Many of you have moved well beyond this concept. We all need to do so.

Here we have an opportunity to come together as a community and to begin to engage in a critical, respectful examination of our assumptions about race. The manifestation of one assumption is all too familiar "” the inquiry on the part of some whites of why black students or Asian students or Latino students or Native students "” students whose identity is racialized "” hang out together. We rarely ask why less superficially identifiable groups "” Catholic students, Jewish students, lacrosse teammates, a group of women or men, white students "” hang out together.

I was disappointed last year to learn the results of a study, conducted here as a senior thesis that revealed that most white students surveyed did not acknowledge that they belonged to a race. They did not recognize whiteness as culturally meaningful. These students seemed to have little understanding of the privilege that they enjoyed, as whites, in a racialized, hierarchical environment, one in which they implicitly assumed their own conduct and experience was normative.

Potentially, the most destructive consequence of this attitude in our society, largely as part of the debate over affirmative action, is the belief held in recent years by some whites that their accomplishments and recognition have been due solely to merit, while the accomplishments of students of color reflect an advantage conferred by race. Some of these same individuals further see whites as now comprising a disadvantaged group. We need to confront this view directly and consistently: Students of color cannot be asked to bear the dual burden of presumed "otherness" on the one hand (implicitly the inferiority of difference), and at the same time an assumed advantage deriving from this. It is worse than illogical; it is worse than untrue. It is corrosive of our best impulses, and it impedes our highest aspirations. We cannot put disadvantage behind us until we fully understand and confront advantage.

I can pretty confidently say that each of you is proud of who you are. You surely should be. I am proud of you, too. Goodness, you have worked hard to be in this assembly today. As I noted at the outset, each of you is here as an individual, because of what you have accomplished and for what you promise. Recognizing advantage is not to ignore personal accomplishment. One of my grandfathers was a miner. The other was a farm worker. Neither they nor my grandmothers completed high school. I am the first member of my family to receive a college degree. I know full well how hard I worked to move from where I was to this microphone. I also know how lucky I have been. I know I enjoyed an advantage. Others were surely more able, but not so lucky. And for my generation if they were people of color or women, their accomplishments were constrained by category. Let us work together to confront and move beyond the vestiges of this circumstance, and surely substantial vestiges remain.

I wish I could say that addressing these matters will be easy things for you. They will not be, and few societies or times have showed them to be so. But I have confidence in you as individuals and I have great hopes for what you can contribute to this community. Dartmouth historically has sought to move beyond category to recognize the worth and dignity of each person. Your accomplishments to date and your admission here confirm my view that you will assist in this good work. Barbara Jordan once said "I have faith in young people because I know the strongest emotions which prevail are those of love and caring and belief and tolerance." I agree with her. We have made some progress.

The senior society Palaeopitus organized a panel discussion last year on race and white privilege, and it served as a catalyst for good conversations. We must build upon this work "” surely Dartmouth would be the richer as a result. And so will your experiences here be "”and your lives.

Members of the Class of 2006, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning. We have work to do, you and I"”and it is time to begin! Welcome to Dartmouth.

Last Updated: 8/21/08