Untold stories of Power and Privilege

Tasha Hall, Campus Life Reporter

Every year, students get the opportunity to be educators at the Power & Privilege Symposium (P&P). They get to tell their stories: what they’ve learned, what they’ve experienced and what these experiences mean to them.

The P&P programming doesn’t include all applications. Instead, it’s a sifting process; first establishing the theme of P&P, and then choosing what presentations to include. 

Director of the Intercultural Center Tebraie Banda-Johns was part of the organizational process for the symposium. He explained the theme selection and the application process. 

“We did a campus-wide survey of students and folks to submit their ideas for the theme for this year. One of them was ‘No More Allies,’ and that resonated with what we were feeling: that we want people to move beyond allyship,” Banda-Johns said. “It’s up to the leadership team to figure out which [presentations] they want, [and] which ones they feel fit the most with that particular theme.” 

In establishing a theme and working around it, the symposium may leave out stories that students feel can benefit the Whitman community. 

Senior Iris Cano planned to present a session with sophomore Fabian Gabriel. Both are international students from Central and Eastern Europe, so they carry stories about traversing across cultural and ideological lines. 

“Our initial idea to contribute to this year’s program was to create a session that would focus on the post-communist countries nowadays and what this regime cost in the past, the present and what it’s also going to cost in the future,” Cano said. “The title would be ‘The Scars of Communism.’”

Their application was rejected; the explanation they received was that too many people had submitted applications. Banda-Johns stressed that while many people applied to present, they are only able to select a few spots and rejected applicants are able to reach out to receive feedback from the team.

In fitting with the overall chosen theme of P&P, the symposium can leave out topics that international students wish to address and problems that they have experienced in their time at Whitman. Cano recounted how her historical background had been ignored and devalued in her Encounters class when they read Marx. 

“Most people in that class would defend communism and ignore the consequences of communism or how it was applied in different countries,” Cano said. “[Students in the class would say] it’s not relevant to think about what happened in said countries because the ideas were ‘not applied properly.’”

Senior Cormac Uriah Li had wanted to present at the P&P Symposium during his first year at Whitman and this year about antisemitism. He felt discouraged before he could submit his proposal. Like Cano, he has experienced similar sentiments from his classmates about historical events that his family has been involved in, both regarding antisemitism and communism. 

“I had conversations in [classes that discussed communism about] certain tragedies in my country that my family endured — for example, the cultural revolution that was being praised by faculty or the students. When we protest and say this is a tremendous loss to human lives and suffrage, I have heard comments from students directly to me saying that ‘it is a necessary sacrifice to make for your country’s development,’” Li said. He stressed that these cases were the extreme. “This type of hierarchy in the sense of social rhetoric is becoming another type of censorship towards students that have different experiences.” 

These comments are not limited to the classroom. 

“I know students here who cite Stalin and Lenin on their Instagram,” Cano said. “They do it with admiration.”

These students want to express how politics affect their communities, their lives and their families’ lives and how this effect matters. 

“We do have the right and the voice to chip in saying how it is affecting our lives, whether it is communism or antisemitism,” Li said. “Often we feel like we’re being rejected from these voices because they do not fit the general narratives [of] the Whitman students who are comfortable here.”

Missing their chance to raise their voice at P&P can feel like another blow to their experience. 

“All of these stories are not heard by other students every time we talk about communism,” Gabriel said. “Every time we talk about our perspective, we are shut down. None of those stories are acknowledged.” 

That is not to say the symposium is without a point. 

“Its concept is to break from the education American students predominantly receive, to break away from the textbooks that we are embedded with and try to think of things critically,” Li said. “However, thinking critically in the American concept these days feels like they want to be critical towards the government or the one-jury society narrative.”

Symposium sessions emphasize using critical thinking; to think beyond the events in America, and to think to what’s affecting our world. 

While an important pedestal to spotlighting issues, P&P only occurs once a year. 

“[I] would encourage folks to also partner with the [Intercultural Center], with the Division of Diversity and Inclusion and with the International Student Scholar Services. Just because you weren’t selected for P&P doesn’t mean that your idea isn’t good or that your topic isn’t good enough,” Banda-Johns said. 

The 2023 theme of Power & Privilege, “No More Allies,” means that, as accomplices, Whitman students should reach out in conversation to explore new mindsets, cultures and historical understandings. Establishing oneself as an accomplice does not mean to just put aside one’s privilege to stand with others. One must listen to those othered and give them the platform to speak.