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Unwelcome in the wonderland?

I remember when I first heard the term “Gothic Wonderland.” Duke seemed like your standard Ivy League-ish looking school, so it didn’t resonate deeply. As time passed, I heard this term more and realized that it was not only referring to the architecture but the blissful life and welcoming atmosphere people enjoy here at this paradise island we call Duke.

Not all students share this outlook. To some, the “Gothic Wonderland” isn’t so welcoming. In fact they sometimes feel they are seen as intruders upon it. Take, for example, my friend who walked into Lilly Library freshman year and was welcomed with the words “Sorry, you have to be a student to take out books.” As she pulled out her DukeCard, she racked her brain and could think of nothing distinguishing her from the average Duke student besides her race. Or take the time a friend and I tried to momentarily leave a party at the Devil’s Den but were informed, “If you leave, you can’t come back.” When asked why, the policeman, visibly annoyed, said “We don’t know why you’re leaving; you could be going to get alcohol.” I pointed out that 1) though that wasn’t the case, the rigorous search and metal detector screening at the door could easily find and confiscate it and 2) we’d just come from West, where I saw multiple under-aged students drinking on the quad while none of his colleagues objected. He responded, “Those are Duke students, these aren’t Duke students over here.”

I’ve thought about the implications of the officer’s response many times. Many of the students at that party were, in fact, Duke students, and I wondered what made us different from all the other students going out to enjoy their weekends. If anything, we were made to feel like we weren’t Duke students and more like criminals, as police often don ready and aggressive stances, as if eager to deal with conflicts they have already anticipated occurring. I’ve thought about the fact that some of them weren’t Duke students, which stemmed even more questions. Is the thought of students from North Carolina Central University and other schools or even non-students penetrating the walls of the “Wonderland” from the outer depths of Durham seen as an intolerable threat? What about students from The University of North Carolina or North Carolina State University coming to hang out with friends on West?

We cooperate as our bags and bodies are searched before entering familiar buildings at our school. On top of this, is it necessary for police officers to treat students in the manner that they sometimes do? I am not accusing every police officer, and I understand that police officers risk their lives everyday for us and many are doing stellar jobs. However, when a female is upset about being kicked out of a club for a technicality on her ID by a Duke student bouncer who is probably younger than her, I don’t think it’s called for to wrestle her to the ground as if she were a 6 ft. 300 lb. pound male, exposing her breast to the crowd and treating her as if she threatened someone’s life with a weapon. When another Duke student is filming the incident and refuses to give up his camera, I don’t think it’s justified to throw him against a car. Walking home in the dark from the cluster on Central Campus, where there have been assaults and robberies, I rarely spot one officer, yet police officers can be found directing excessive aggression toward these students. While this causes considerable frustration, and I’ll admit to blasting the second track on N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” occasionally, I think police conduct is merely one problem. There’s a deeper issue at hand, one that we often avoid.

What causes Cafe Parizade, a club hordes of Duke students frequent in numbers well exceeding those of the Omega Psi Phi party when they stopped letting people in due to fire codes, to request extra backup when NCCU students throw a party? Why couldn’t I locate a single officer in the massive crowd at a party a couple nights later? Is it just chance that more police officers are around whenever there’s an event attended heavily by black students? We brush it off as coincidental and ignore that voice in the back of our minds telling us, no matter what race we are, that this is not the case. Avoiding these questions merely allows us to mask deeper issues that need to be discussed.

I’ll admit, there have been incidents of fights at Duke parties, but these types of incidents have not been limited to parties attended mostly by black students. Yet my first fraternity party in West Campus sections freshman year was a shocking experience: lots of people, alcohol being served (never the case at the Great Hall or Devil’s Den) and not one officer present. Some even dared to carry their drinks into the middle of the quad carelessly, fearing no reprimand from an authority figure. I understood part of the Gothic Wonderland for the first time. Everyone felt this was their place, where they belonged and could enjoy leisure with friends in big groups. They didn’t feel like unwelcome guests at their own universities or in their own town, like people who posed a threat.

Although my view on the racial implications of these incidents is clear, I won’t be the one to pull the “race card.” That would be far too easy. It’s up to you to answer these questions and interpret situations as you like. I will say this, however: There are people in this country who believe that racism is dead—I wish I had the privilege of living in the same “Wonderland” that they do.


Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior.


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