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Rally Against Racism, Cyberbullying Draws Attention from Board of Trustees

Quin Nelson

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Protesters gathered at Memorial Hall this Thursday afternoon to take part in the Rally Against Racism and Cyberbullying put on by members of the Whitman community, many of whom were supported by the Black Student Union (BSU) and Feminists Advocating for Change and Empowerment (FACE).

After recent racial harassment involving social media and the website Whitman Encounters, concerned members of the Whitman community came together to show solidarity against racism and to convince the administration to take action and make the college safer and more inclusive.

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The specific incident that incited the rally took place during the week before Halloween. Junior Sayda Morales posted a link on her Facebook page cautioning people to refrain from cultural appropriation when dressing up for Halloween. A Whitman student then commented in disagreement with Morales. More students joined in on both sides of the argument. Morales said the discussion then took on a hostile tone.

Morales deleted the status, and the hostility then moved to Whitman Encounters. Later, Morales tweeted about her efforts to crowd-fund to pay for her flight to study abroad next semester. The same student that had begun to disagree with her comment on Facebook, along with a few other students, and then began to harass her on Twitter.

“All the backlash I got, I just found it incredibly sad,” said Morales.

Morales shared her story with other FACE members and BSU members, who in turn shared their stories of disempowerment.

“It was a very organic choice where we all decided that we needed to do something that wasn’t behind closed doors. We needed to show that there are students who aren’t afraid to attach our faces to this fight, and we wanted to pressure the administration to stand with us as strongly as possible,” said senior FACE member Kate Kight.

After hearing that the Board of Trustees’ Diversity Committee would be meeting on Thursday afternoon, the two clubs decided that this meeting would be the best time to rally and make their voices heard.

The series of events began at noon with a Panel on Dispelling Stereotypes, which was held in the Language Learning Center in Olin Hall. Those who attended the panel then marched to Memorial Hall, where more protesters, mostly students with some faculty and community members, joined them. 

“The most powerful part of the rally for me was seeing so many people coming together over this issue,” said sophomore Brennan Johnson. “I hope something comes of it.”

On the steps of Memorial Hall facing Boyer Avenue, Morales addressed the crowd, calling for solidarity among the students and administration. The crowd of about sixty protesters then began filing into the building and heading upstairs, where everyone re-convened outside the rooms in which the Diversity Committee was to meet. There, several of those gathered shared stories of racial discrimination they have seen or experienced on campus and in the community. While most of those who spoke were students, Associate Professor of Religion and Gender Studies Melissa Wilcox also spoke, voicing concern that many faculty members who share her outspoken awareness over issues such as racism have left the college.

“I think what [Wilcox] said is absolutely true,” said Kight. “Unless we start being able to attract and retain faculty and staff members that are aware of these issues and able to create safe spaces on campus, it’s going to be a lot harder to make this a better campus.”

Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland then addressed the crowd, giving his support individually as well as from the administration. Then, Cleveland headed into the Diversity Committee meeting with a group of student representatives and trustees to discuss the issue. The protest leaders had a letter that many protesters signed that they would hand to those in the meeting after it adjourned.

The letter articulates that the group would like the website Whitman Encounters to be inaccessible on Whitman computers and wireless networks, administrative condemnation of cultural appropriation and cyberbullying, mandatory workshops on race and mandatory attendance at the Power and Privilege Symposium. The letter requests that the administration make a statement against cyberbullying and cultural appropriation, and acknowledging the need for more education on discrimination, within one week.

Letter to Trustees

While a small group of FACE and BSU members waited for the Diversity Committee meeting to end, the other protesters dispersed. Keaton Kerr, a prospective student visiting Whitman, was moved by the protest.

“I was definitely impressed. It was pretty cool how much the school rallies together. I had no idea that racism was a big issue on campus, but I thought it was great how students are so active in the school community,” said Kerr.

Among FACE members, the rally produced a wary optimism.

“The protest was definitely powerful, but I’m worried that the administration will only pretend to make changes,” said first-year FACE member Ritti Singh.

Junior FACE member Kelsey Lund echoed Singh’s thoughts.

“This is not a new issue. I’ve heard similar things being said at other FACE events and not much has come out of them, so we’ll have to see if any actual change takes place,” said Lund.

After Morales experienced backlash that spurred the rally, FACE members experienced some negative feedback when they posted their letter to the administration as their Facebook statuses. The harassment was enough that these members decided to take down their statuses. Furthermore, Kight believes FACE members may experience more backlash after Thursday’s rally, specifically in regards to how the rally’s opposition of Whitman Encounters could be construed as censorship.

“Speaking on an anonymous website with a moderator who can delete comments is not free speech, and it’s not a constructive way to get your voice heard, and if you have something that’s important to say, you have the right to say that in person to anyone. I would ask that you would come forward and have an actual discussion with us and not continue to perpetuate hate speech, which does not fall under the protection of free speech,” said Kight.

While the rally’s main message may come under criticism and it remains to be seen how the administration will respond to the requests of the letter, the central protesters intend to continue to fight for change.

“We need to keep putting pressure on the administration to act,” said Singh. “This is just a start.”

Morales, who in many ways inspired this rally, feels the same way.

“This is only the beginning,” she said. “We have to keep working, or else these instances of racism will just keep happening.”

Editors’s note, Nov. 8, 2013, 8:40 p.m..: A previous version asserted the rally was organized by FACE and BSU. The article was clarified to state that the event was arranged by individuals of the Whitman community, of whom some are members of these organizations. Additionally, a pervious version of attributed Morales as a FACE member. However, she does not primarily attribute herself with the club.

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8 Comments

8 Responses to “Rally Against Racism, Cyberbullying Draws Attention from Board of Trustees”

  1. Geni Venable '12 on November 7th, 2013 11:43 pm

    I agree with Professor Cox. I immediately think of Alberto Galindo, who was an incredible voice for issues of race and sexual orientation at Whitman, but the administration denied his tenure application and appeal and now he’s gone. Whitman needs to deal with race openly–now.

    I am so impressed with Sayda’s courage and grace. Way to go and keep up your incredible advocacy work, Sayda.

  2. Gabrielle Westcott '12 on November 8th, 2013 4:17 am

    I am excited and proud to see Whitman students mobilizing on such an important issue. I sincerely hope that this prompts the administration to make real changes.

    Keep it up, and let the alumni know if there is any way we can help!

  3. Aaròn Aguilar on November 8th, 2013 3:03 pm

    I am with Geni and Professor Cox here. The Spanish Department alone has lost tenured or tenure-track faculty of color like Andrea Valenzuela, Alberto Galindo, and Nohemy Solorzano-Thompson in a space of two years, faculty members who dealt with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. We need faculty like them to come to Whitman and to STAY at Whitman!

  4. Diana Madriz on November 10th, 2013 1:44 pm

    I agree with Gabrielle about how exciting it is to see Whitman students voicing their concerns and mobilizing. It does make me proud as a Whitman alumna. However, I also feel like there is a disconnect between what the university voices as its mission in terms of social justice and advocacy and what it’s actually doing when students bring up these issues. Like Geni and Aarón mentioned, this is another instance where students take charge and expect positive results. In the last instance, their voices were not heard and a professor was not given tenure. If Whitman expects students to believe in their mission and goals, they need to give results.

    I’m also awaiting on what will come of this.

  5. Cassandra Baker on November 12th, 2013 9:52 pm

    This brings up so many issues surrounding the varied forms of racism in the 21st century and the many uses of social media. I hope the administration takes the opportunity to seriously evaluate what the Whitman mission is and to have the difficult but necessary conversation with students. Diana brings up a good point about the apparent disconnect between the message the administration is presenting and the actions taken. As an alumna, I really feel that Whitman is at a critical moment in terms of deciding what kind of institution it wants to be, and I hope the college reaffirms its focus on teaching, discussion and exploration, especially of difficult and sometimes uncomfortable issues. Best wishes to the students trying to start the conversation.

  6. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Students Press for Action Against Racism on November 21st, 2013 7:50 am

    […] on campus, putting pressure on Whitman’s administration to instigate change. Since students rallied at Memorial Hall to present a letter to the Board of Trustees’ Diversity Committee on Nov. 7, two separate […]

  7. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Challenging Power on Campus: A Pioneer Staff Member’s Thoughts on Divestment and the Anti-Racism Movement on April 1st, 2014 8:04 am

    […] activists had a strong sense of what they wanted the narrative of their movement to be. Though the rally that kicked off the movement was strongly associated with a conflict generated by an argument […]

  8. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Student protests require more action, less drama on April 9th, 2015 8:04 am

    […] not be doing. There has only been one notable example in four years — the racism rallies in the fall 2013 semester — that instead asked the student body to reflect on their own assumptions and […]

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