“A reversal of the American Dream”: The impact of 9/11

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff Writer

Part 1 of 3

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, Linfield Professor of English

“I had just started teaching in a university in East Texas and was getting ready to go and teach that day.”  

On the news, there seemed to be coverage of a fire in New York, “ Lots of people gathering to see the fire in the building. The reporter was saying that there may have been an airplane that hit the Twin Towers. And then within a few minutes I saw another plane hit the Twin Towers.”

The news that this was not a simple fire had already spread by the time Dutt-Ballerstadt arrived on campus.

“Our ultra-conservative department’s secretary was telling everybody, ‘It is those Arabs. Go get’em boys. Bomb the s*** out of them!’ Since I was just about to teach my class that day (ironically enough a novel set in the Middle East) I was a bit startled hearing our department secretary’s loud declarations.”

Being of South Asian origin, she felt the acrimonious feeling in the days immediately following 9/11 toward anyone of South Asian or Arab descent, “I received a ‘hate letter’ in my mailbox asking me to leave the university and take my liberal political agenda elsewhere.”

She shared this letter with the head the department, “who was also of East Indian origin,” and she revealed that she had received such a letter as well.

“We were both quite baffled and wondered about our safety.”

She realized that this was not a unique situation, this was happening all around the country, “Common citizens were being beaten or harassed in public places. Safety became a real concern for those that identified as Arabs or South Asians.”

“I certainly did not feel safe in an East Texas town where the KKK clan lived less than 50 miles away, and there were open displays of xenophobia in [front] of the Walmart in town.”  

For Dutt-Ballerstadt, and “many of us that immigrated to this country post 1980’s, [9/11] marks a moment where hate-speech, xenophobia, Islamophobia became ‘normalized.’ . . . Suddenly the country was experiencing a reversal of the American Dream.”

The next few months after 9/11 were particularly dark, “Mass deportations, detentions of folks from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa followed. Much was being talked about and written about (in academic circles) but many of our own citizens remained unaware of the repercussions of 9/11.”

 She was already doing research for a book about post-9/11, “So I was looking for a venue to learn more about the various facets of 9/11 and bringing all the research I had already done up until then to a classroom seemed natural.”

At this time, Dutt-Ballerstadt was teaching at Linfield and wanted to create “a space for some thoughtful and meaningful dialogue . . . about a very important turning point in our contemporary history and culture in the United States that also linked us to a region . . . namely what has been referred to as the ‘Orient,’ that created a perception of fear, violence, suspicion about a group of people that we really do not know or understand.”

She crafted and offered a class called “9/11 Literatures” in the Spring of 2014.

She reflected, “[the students] are the post 9/11 generation, a product of a surveillance culture.  Many of them have already witnessed their family members, neighbors, and classmates going to the war in Iraq. So, in many ways 9/11 is not new to them at all.”

But many were unaware of the “blatant acts of dehumanization and violations of human rights” that were done to entirely innocent people after 9/11.

“The course, if anything [has] given them an understanding of the complex nature of diversity, multiculturalism and globalization and their role in these very important ideological concepts and movements.”

At first, she was unsure of how the Linfield community would react to the class, “I was both skeptical and intimidated to teach this class (given my experience in Texas), but my own home department (English) was on board.  So, when after a few weeks of class nobody dropped the course I was relieved!”

For their final, students proposed a civil engagement project, “When I asked them what did they want to do, they said, ‘build large posters (that looked like pieces of walls) all over campus to raise awareness about 9/11 and how their generation have been impacted.’”

“9/11 has left a permanent imprint in the way we see the world, how we use information, where we go and how we behave, what words we use and how we act in airports and public spaces, how we name our children and how we protect (or not protect) [citizens],” said Dutt-Ballerstadt.

Of course, these effects extend to Linfield.

“It would be dishonest to say that we are so perfect here within the walls of Linfield that racism, xenophobia, forms of microaggressions do not exist. And this election cycle we are again hearing in mass media the rise of anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric. Suddenly we have folks exercising their right to be hateful to a group of people and hate speech is becoming normalizing.”

“These are all effects of 9/11. If these anti-human speech, ideas and rhetoric were to enter Linfield, then we are obligated to have a dialogue about such forms of blatant and violent discrimination.”