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Find Your Killjoy Instinct

Surviving Dartmouth and Beyond

Sept 5, 2021

By Sirajum Sandhi

 

The purpose of this text is to share a story in the hopes that you never see yours reflected in it. However, if you do, you have the language needed to affirm your experiences, and you know that you are part of a larger discourse, a legacy of Dartmouth killjoys.

 

At Dartmouth, belonging looks like looking away from the problems your body will let you know exists. Belonging at this PWI comes at a heavy price; it robs you of your mental, physical, and spiritual health. I realized that I could not afford to belong; my body was already marked as a disruption, as a “space invader” (Puwar, 2004). Over the four years, I committed myself to unlearn the urge to belong and embrace sticking out. I learned, and am still learning, to fully commit to disrupting, complaining, caring, and radical truth-telling. Here is my story.

 

I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 as a political asylee from Bangladesh, and ever since, gratitude to the savior state has been shoved down my throat. It was the teenage black, brown, and blue eyes glaring down at the piece of cloth on my head when I hesitated to stand for the pledge of allegiance to the settler-colonial flag during a random Thursday morning in high school. It was the series of supposedly standard questions I had to answer during my asylum interview to prove that I will be subservient to the United States and its democratically elected president and denounce terrorist groups that threatened the American people. The pictures of Trump and Pence that hung in the lobby of the immigration office and the interviewer’s diligent note-taking assured that I could not afford to pause and come up with a witty but accurate response about the U.S.’s role in creating and funding the said terrorist groups. I suppressed my urge to determine what the interviewer really thought about the electoral college system being deemed a democratic process. My family and I had waited four long, uncertain years to get the interview, and I couldn’t give it all up.

 

When I moved to Hanover for college, I received an even heavier dose of forced gratitude. Not only was I ‘safer’ in the U.S., but I was also studying at ‘one of the best schools with a full scholarship. I began policing my thoughts, feelings, and words carefully not to upset the institution. What if it deemed me unworthy of an education? When I realized that my professor preferred calling on Toms and Julies rather than making an effort to pronounce my name, I wondered if I should shorten my name to something more palatable for the white tongue. And then I felt it- a growing discomfort in my stomach, heart-pounding and jaw tightening at the thought of erasing parts of myself to conform. I held on to this feeling and allowed it to guide me whenever it reappeared (and it did so often). I call it the killjoy instinct. 

 

I first learned about ‘feminist killjoy’ in Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life.” Ahmed acutely recognizes the making of a killjoy: when you identify a problem, you become the problem. If you had not perceived the event, the person, the policy, the tradition to be problematic, it would have remained unproblematic. Therefore, it is you and your perception that becomes the problem. 

 

When I had started a conversation in the Dartmouth Muslim community about creating space in the ritual prayers for gender diverse people, sharing how I, as a non-binary individual, did not feel comfortable sitting with the men or the women, my body became the site of the problem. Instead of facilitating community conversations about creating queer affirming prayer rooms, a community leader presented me with an illusion of choice and agency. They suggested that I sit by myself in the ‘middle row’. Not only were there no middle rows, but the women in the room barely had enough space to fit in the designated ‘women’s section’ i.e., back of the room. Moreover, by sitting alone, which misses the purpose of congressional prayers, and taking up space that does not exist, I would be subjected to questioning and would essentially have to come out to a potentially hostile audience. Because I perceived the problem, I became the problem; it became my problem to solve. 

 

Institutions like Dartmouth love assigning marginalized people care labor in lieu of unpaid leadership opportunities in diversity and inclusion work. I don’t even recall how the task of advocating for a larger prayer room to accommodate people of all genders secured its place in my never-ending to-do list. Either I spent hours writing emails, meeting with leadership, or I stopped participating in the prayers altogether. The response I received from leadership about expanding the prayer room was this: shut up and be grateful for what you have. They explained how the Hindu worship room was much smaller than the Muslim prayer room; so, we should be grateful. A classic PWI move- pitting minority groups against one another. How many students share your feelings that the space is inadequate? they inquired. Do many women use the prayer room? There is no problem. You are making it up. It’s your perception, devoid of reality. Dartmouth did not have an empty room lying around to be remodeled as a prayer room, they said. You are causing us inconvenience; your issue isn’t a priority. They didn’t have enough money to commit to building a new space—the infamous capitalist myth of scarcity. And before you know it, the recycling resumes- new term, new leadership, new students, same problems. 

 

Along the way, they praise you for your impeccable leadership initiatives, as if sacrificing your time, labor, and sanity to no avail was a choice you made to decorate your resume. These are the traps of being gaslit by an institution like Dartmouth. They tell you they want you, love you, care for you, are rooting for you, but they never listen to you. Listening requires action, and Dartmouth has repeatedly failed to take actions beyond tokenizing individuals and organizations as they see fit to further their diversity and inclusivity rhetoric. 

 

Although the advocacy for gender-inclusive prayer room at Al-Nur came to a stop when the space closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to continue the conversation and hold Dartmouth leadership, staff, and community accountable through other organizing projects such as the Halal Taskforce. I found community in professors and peers who are passionate about bringing change to Dartmouth while recognizing that we need to abolish elite academic institutions altogether. 

 

Your Dartmouth journey will be uniquely yours, but if you embody anything that threatens the institution’s hegemony, chances are you will be made to feel like a space invader. You will be asked to be grateful for an opportunity at excellent education. You will be reminded that you do not have the time or emotional capacity to engage in care work that requires you to actively dismantle systems of harm perpetuated by the very institution that houses you. However, if you tap on your killjoy instinct, do not let go. Fight. You will find your comrades- your people who will nourish you, hold you, learn and unlearn with you, listen to you, conspire and organize with you. The past four years were immensely challenging, and I have built loving relationships, mentors, and co-conspirators, without whom my story would be incomplete.  

 

The Dartmouth Radical