Students Want More Open Conversations on Race

Anna Zheng

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Last semester, two Whitman students’ Facebook conservation about cultural appropriation spiraled into a debate about race on Whitman Encounters, an anonymous forum, which eventually prompted rallies and discussions across campus. Despite the fact that most of the student body was aware of these incidents, some students felt it difficult to be involved at the time. This semester, many are reflecting on the implications of these debates and their effects on the future of the community and its goals.

When she heard about the online debates last semester, first-year Emily Long was in shock. She had expected more from a community that appears to take pride in accepting differences and in being politically correct.

“We are supposed to be all enlightened and aware of all this stuff, and these people [came] out with this ridiculous amount of racism and hatred,” said Long. “As a freshman here, it was an unpleasant introduction because I thought we were better.”

While they were in the midst of adjusting to a new environment, joining activities and maintaining a healthy balance of schoolwork and social life, many first-years felt overwhelmed by the events.

First-year Jack Lassiter said he was detached from the events as they were happening, but he also feels they were necessary to help catalyze the discussion about race on campus.

“It was an event that led us to reflect on ourselves and opened up space on campus for us to deal with a lot of issues that were very apparent but aren’t addressed by anyone,” said Lassiter.

Junior Stephen Moerane felt it was unfortunate that the community could not openly discuss issues of race without bringing malice into the discussion. As an international student from Lesotho, a predominantly black country in Africa, Moerane said he never experienced racism until he came to the United States. He found it hard to understand why students could not be more sympathetic about what is offensive and what isn’t.

“We only see the world in our own lenses, and it’s difficult to actually understand what someone might be thinking, especially if you bring in animosity to the conversation,” said Moerane. “I really don’t want to live every waking moment explaining what is offensive and what is not.”

Past controversies on campus made it difficult for senior Blythe Monoian to be surprised when faced with more recent ones. Having grown up in the Native American culture, Monoian was taken aback when a Whitman student wore a Native American costume during last year’s Halloween festivities. She recalled how some Whitman students took to Whitman Encounters to comment negatively on the student’s actions.

“I’m supposed to be the one most offended since I’m the only Native American here,” said Monoian. “For the situation, I’m glad [she] apologized. I feel like [these events] get carried too far, and sometimes you’ve just got to chill out a little bit.”

Students, especially first-years, had the opportunity last semester to attend race panels offered all over campus. This semester, events like the second annual Power and Privilege Symposium are meant to offer students an open space to listen to and understand their peers. They will also let students share personal experiences that have happened to them on and off campus.

Senior Joel Senecal advocates a continuation of the symposium as a way to promote diversity of cultures.

“[It] would be a fantastic addition to Whitman’s push to be more diverse [and] more culturally accepting, especially in a place that lacks in diversity [like] Walla Walla,” said Senecal.

Despite the good intentions of the Power and Privilege Symposium, sophomore Brian Acosta believes it will not be the cure-all solution, but rather one step in a long process.

Acosta, who participated in a discussion about race at North Hall last fall, views open discussion about race as the most effective way to bring awareness to problems on campus, but he also believes discussion is not the ultimate solution.

“[The symposium is] like a stepping-stone in the right direction,” he said. “[But] what we really need is a continuation. Whitman should incorporate [monthly talks] into their studies and bring that into the classrooms more where most people are.”

First-year Katalina Gomez values the input of professors on controversies among the student body.

“I feel like it’s good that [some professors] think it’s important because they are a part of our community as well,” said Gomez. “They help instill ideas and conceptions on campus, even as professors.”

While the Whitman administration is attempting to become involved in the discussion, many students note they can only do so much. According to Monoian, professors play a larger role in the student community, since they are the ones who interact, connect with and involve students on a daily basis. But some professors declined to discuss issues of race on campus, worrying some of their students.

“Some of my professors said specifically, ‘This is an important issue, but we’re not going to talk about it in class [and that] this isn’t the place.’ Well, what is the place? Where are we going to talk about it? If you’re not going to talk about it, who is?” said Long.

According to sophomore Logan Davis, it is easy to ostracize people who do not know enough about certain issues, but being receptive and realizing that race is a realistic problem will be one of the first steps in progress.

“I hope it goes in a direction where people strive to learn more about the various issues that our campus is facing,” said Davis. “The acknowledgement could perhaps lead to change in the future.”

Recognizing that race is and always will be an issue on and off campus may not be a permanent solution, but it could facilitate awareness and help students understand the effect that racism has on society.

“Race has always been here and isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” said Lassiter. “It’s pretty relevant for the future of our country and the future of all of us in college having to deal with similar things.”