Ross Hickman ’22 (They/Them), Perspectives Editor
“Homophobia doesn’t exist at Davidson—being gay is normal now.”
“We can’t do anything about the fact that more Black people don’t want to come here and don’t want to join the fraternities and eating houses.”
“I’ve never thought about what it’s like to be trans at Davidson. Wow.”
“Even if we did get rid of fraternities and eating houses, the problems of racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia would still be there. So I don’t think we should get rid of the institutions.”
All of the above are paraphrased quotations from Davidson students I know and have, at various points, trusted. Each, in my mind, is the product of a dangerously mistaken approach to identity politics within our vaguely liberal cultural atmosphere. A truly liberal atmosphere would support openness—not only to people with different stories and viewpoints, but also to the prospect of changing one’s opinions, one’s involvements, and ultimately oneself. At present, Davidson is and does none of these things collectively.
In this editorial, I do not pretend to speak for everyone on this campus. Mostly, I speak for myself. Take my personal narrative for what you will. Neither do I pretend that I am in any way a neutral observer of the various phenomena of the politics of identity and inclusion on campus. I am a white person who is deeply familiar with how white people from many different backgrounds speak about gender, race, and sexuality on this campus specifically and in the world more broadly. We must elevate other standpoints—especially from Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC)—on the failures of our social systems at Davidson. I can attest that many of the BIPOC members of our campus are exhausted and do not have the emotional or intellectual energy to write about this issue in this paper. So, for now, I am speaking from and to the white people at Davidson for how we have utterly failed to make this campus a safe and fun place for queer people, trans people, women, and others who do not fit our campus’s distinct ideals of gender and sexual expression.
Let us return to the early part of the spring semester in 2019. This moment was another in a long set of perennial confirmations that I do not belong in the system of social organizations in their current iterations on campus. Identifying at the time as a queer cisgender man, there was no possibility of my joining Turner House along with every last member of my group of friends. In the words of a prominent Turner member, “No man will ever join Turner.” Their loss.
Come fall of 2019, after I had come out as a non-binary trans person, members of Turner practically flocked to invite me to join the house. To say the least, I was confused. In the spring, I had been an unwelcome threat to the culture of the institution. In the fall, I was to be a cherished initiate in the rites of this newly open and accepting queer community. I felt then, as now, the gnawing, agonizing, dulling realization that our social world at Davidson is predicated on ways of cisgender and heterosexual living to which I will never have experiential or relational connection.
Now, as then, I know so many people—of all different gender and sexual identities and expressions—who fall, hard and fast, through the gaping cracks of our social institutions at Davidson. When people experience sexual assault, homophobic situations, and transphobic pressures, students and administrators look on with pity, disbelief, and embarrassment. But, given the laissez-faire approach to safety on campus, Davidson is merely embarrassed that we get caught, not that we are active participants in the harm being inflicted on queer, trans, and female students. Underneath this reaction of embarrassment, the confidence with which many ‘liberal’ white people reject the possibility of Davidson having cultures of harm is astounding. Their vague liberalness is based not on their own experiences, many of which are traumatic as well; but rather on the promise, the bright and beckoning and false sheen of optimism, that Davidson offers people to somehow, someday, make it back into the fold.
At Davidson, this cruel optimism—theorist Lauren Berlant’s notion that American society is built on the illusory and unfulfilled expectations of happiness derived from social and institutional arrangements like marriage, property ownership, etc.—will, I think, eventually catch up with everyone invested in such illusions. White people at Davidson have an extreme sense of entitlement—to space, to happiness, to connection, to success. And when some of us realize that we will not be getting all of what we feel entitled to, we taste the sourness of jealousy, anger, and resentment of the better-off. None of us is entitled to perfection, but I believe all of us are entitled to a realistic and measurable degree of access to grounding and satisfying relationships, institutions, and other social commitments. Rather than imagining what this looks like in the abstract, we must acknowledge that the cruelty of Davidson’s particular liberal optimism is playing out right now, for so many.
The experience of disillusionment is excruciating. How can a student who feels utterly unfulfilled and unmoored at Davidson go through the motions of smiling and laughing with their apparently more stable friends? I’ve had a lot of conversations at Davidson. Few have been productive, much less imaginative. When excluded people express their dissatisfaction, the more included are often so nonplussed with how to react to an unflinching account of life at Davidson that they shut all the way down, recommend going to the health center for counseling, or deny and gaslight these exclusive realities. All the therapeutic re-narrativization in the world won’t change the structural reasons for the social and relational failures that play a part in the devastating mental health crises on our campus. Becoming more resilient people is important for any life situation, but we must stop prioritizing and valorizing resilience instead of changing the structures that make resilience necessary for surviving this school.
All of this is to say that people at Davidson College have, indeed, failed so many of their supposed community members over the course of our history. Those who have kept up with student projects like Burn Down the Frats, Stories (Yet) to Be Told, and the Monuments Initiative know this well. For people like me who feel a strong sense of regret and pain with regard to our social and emotional lives at Davidson, we are beyond our wit’s end. If we are to live up to our liberal ideals of diversity and inclusion in any significant way, we must disestablish the fraternities and eating houses at the college. These institutions are not only harmful and exclusive; they are also mediocre and unsatisfying for many of their current members. From sexual assault to racial inequities to homophobic and transphobic cultures, the complacency and complicity of these current institutions is profound.
Why on earth can we not imagine better alternatives? In addition to providing space for existing social organizations and affinity groups who need physical places to be in community, we must imagine and implement new spaces that allow people to find themselves and each other lovingly and anew. If we cannot commit ourselves to change, I find it hard to hold onto hope, much less any kind of optimism, for this college. Regardless, we have, of course, to try to keep hoping. We muster so much patience and capaciousness for the promises of the future, but from my point of view, many of our engines are running on fumes.
Ross Hickman ‘22 (they/them) is a history and gender & sexuality studies double major from Winston-Salem, NC. Ross can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.