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Tangled Roots: RAT, Racism, and Moving Beyond the Past

By Dana Amihere
Editor-in-Chief

“We should be proud of Wesleyan’s history. To me that pride is about being the world’s oldest women’s college, and just as much about our movement from an institution founded in a slave-owning society to one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country. Of course racism is a part of Wesleyan’s past, as it is America’s. I think we should openly explore our past not to condemn it, but to arm ourselves with knowledge that will help us dedicate ourselves to taking advantage of the diversity we’re blessed with now.”

–Dr. Matt Martin, English professor

    “Each Rat tried to tell herself that surely it must be a nightmare; this just couldn’t be happening at Wesleyan, the center of charm and culture! Bu it did happen, and right here at Wesleyan. Once a year, there must be a Rat Day, and all the charm and culture is put in the closet with the skeletons.”
    -28 Sept 1945

Any Wesleyanne today has surely heard the term “Wesleyan bubble”. Physically and figuratively distanced from Macon as a whole, we tend to think that nothing bad could happen to us here. It’s true that we are a relatively safe campus. But perhaps what threatens our college community the most is our unwillingness to see Wesleyan as anything but the “center of charm and culture”.

RAT, the precursor of the LINKS tradition we know toady, has a little known, or at least not widely acknowledged, history. During the 1950s especially, RAT traditions involved overt signs and symbols of the racism perpetrated against blacks following World War II. To understand exactly how and why this is so, we have to look further back in time.

So where exactly did RAT come from in the first place? Its specific origins at Wesleyan are clear. The first issue of The Watchtower notes that Sophomore Week was actually introduced by a girl from another state (whether she attended another college or was a Wesleyan student from out-of-state is not specified). However, where does the idea of “ratting” even come from?

By all accounts, the “rat” system originated in the military. The Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the nation’s oldest state military college and whose founding predates Wesleyan by three years in 1839, recognize the rat experience as one of its most time honored traditions. The purpose of ratting, which is carried out by older cadets on incoming cadets (just as sophomores ratted first year students) is aimed at removing any distinction of wealth or class in order to put everyone on an even keel.

According to VMI guidelines: “Throughout most of the first year, the new cadet walks at rigid attention a prescribed route inside the barracks known as the “rat line,” and double-times up and down barracks stairs. The cadet must be meticulous in keeping shoes shined, uniform spotless, hair cut, and in daily personal grooming. Additionally, the new cadet must memorize school songs, yells, and other information.”

Sound familiar? Dressing a certain way, learning school cheers? The point of this shared experience is to unify the new class and foster respect for their superiors (in our case the upperclassmen). It seems to me that that respect slowly devolved into a superiority complex, that the group in charge was better than those who beneath them. It is easy to see how this system could easily be corrupted as racial turmoil and hatred which permeated the South.

Nooses, torches, robes with hoods, and dummies hanged and mutilated in effigy were slowly integrated into RAT. Respect for one’s sister was achieved through scare tactics and meanness.

    “Rat Day was only a memory today to freshmen at Rivoli [Wesleyan’s campus], who still shudder at the recollection of the traditional hazing ceremonies which came yesterday after weeks of nervous anticipation and dread.” –8 Oct 1948
    “The freshmen learned how to react. ‘This girl who is telling me to get down on my knees—is she the same one I double-dated with last night? She’s no longer just a sophomore; she’s a Most Magnanimous and Exalted Sophomore…’” –24 Oct 1957

“The freshmen draw together. Unconsciously, they realize that in their unity lies their protection. Pep rallies are more frequent. A spirit stirs in the frosh that they have never felt before. We’ll show ‘em. They can’t do this to US. They get to know each other…it’s not hard to find something to talk about now. If nothing else, they can always talk about how they hate the sophomores.” –Oct 24 1957

Although the rationale of making first years come together against the sophomores has proven effective in the past, this bonding is rooted in dislike for another group. This is similar to another group who also made use of nooses, hoods, and scare tactics: the Ku Klux Klan. Although we have gotten rid of the nooses and physical manifestations of racism, this thread of hatred still runs deep within our LINKS traditions today. If sisterhood is supposed to unite us, to bond us together for a lifetime, then why would you ever want to look back on a time when you despised your sisters?

    “But the sophomores learned too. ‘How do we act? We really like these girls. We want them to like us, too. We know there is a purpose behind it, but…it seems awfully strange to be obnoxious.’” –Oct 24 1957

So where do we go from here? Acknowledging our school’s sinister past does not mean that we are calling ourselves racists. Racism is the result of ignorance perpetuated over a period of time. On the contrary, in recognizing that not everything in Wesleyan’s history is admirable, even a beloved tradition, we combat ignorance and narrow-mindedness. In facing the racist overtones of the past, we as classes today can once and for all eradicate those themes in this (or any other) tradition we have and move past what happened so long ago. It seems that by not admitting that this happened or talking about in hushed whispers only stands to perpetuate ignorance.

That is not to say that we should abolish LINKS. Having participated in some of the weekend’s events my first year, I believe that there are some very positive aspects of this tradition. Razing our traditions to the ground is certainly not the answer. Dr. Matt Martin, English professor whose focus includes Southern literature, says it best, “If we tried to get rid of everything connected to racism in the South, we wouldn’t have much left.”

Instead, I believe that the answer is change. Many students on campus are resistant to any changes made to LINKS. Their attitude assumes that tradition is stagnant and unmoving. Quite the opposite is true. This tradition has evolved numerous times through the years (see LINKS through the Years for a chronology). So why is it so controversial now that this tradition may change and evolve, as it has many times in the past?

Progress is only possible with change and learning from the mistakes of the past. It is my sincere hope that in opening a free and open dialogue about what has transpired in Wesleyan’s history, we can not only move beyond the scars of the past and make the best decisions possible for the future.

. . .
Disclaimer: Although part of a serial news feature, Tangled Roots: RAT, Racism, and Moving Beyond the Past is an editorial and not to be considered fact.
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About wesleyanword

The Wesleyan Word is the official student newspaper of Wesleyan College. Operated and produced by students, The Word is printed twice per month during the fall and spring semesters. Online editions are released every Wednesday throughout the school year. Wesleyan College is a 4-year private residential college for women in Macon, Georgia. Established in 1836, Wesleyan College is the first college in the world to charter degrees to women.

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