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Power and Privilege Symposium Encourages Difficult Discussions

Helen Angell

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The second annual Power and Privilege Symposium is today, Thursday, Feb. 20. The theme of this year’s symposium is “Understanding Identity.” Classes are canceled, and a variety of panels and workshops have been scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

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Photo by Marra Clay

While the symposium is part of the ongoing effort to address issues of race and racism on campus, the panels and workshops offered on Thursday seek to open up discussion about a wide range of intersecting issues. The 51 workshops and panels will cover topics as varied as body image, religion and sexuality, environmental justice, socioeconomic inequality and rape culture.

“It isn’t just about race. It was a very purposeful decision,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Kim, in talking about the focus and name of the symposium. Kim helped organize the event. 

“Why Race Matters” was the theme of last year’s symposium, but this year an effort has been made to expand the discussion. The wide range of issues in this year’s symposium reflects and honors the myriad identities and experiences found on campus.

“There’s something for everyone in the workshops,” said sophomore Shireen Nori, ASWC special initiatives director and one of the symposium organizers. “We wanted to make [the symposium] as accessible as possible to everybody on this campus.”

Junior Tim Reed, ASWC president and a symposium organizer, said that attendance is expected to be much higher this year, especially since classes have been canceled for the day in order to encourage student and faculty attendance.

“We wanted to makes sure there was plenty of content for anyone who would be interested,” said Reed.

While the symposium is student run, Reed said the event was made possible by faculty engagement, staff engagement and the support of the administration.

“People from all over campus want to be involved with this,” Reed said.

Kim stressed the duty everyone on campus has to engage with these issues.

“I think it’s important to go and listen and also participate,” said Kim. “We have a responsibility to listen to one another and really to try to understand one another.”

Kim emphasized that the symposium’s goal is to foster broader understanding about identity in the Whitman community. The panels and workshops provide a unique space for frank discussion outside of the academic context. While Whitman prides itself on its open-minded and respectful culture, Kim notes it is still hard to have candid discussions about the difficult issues presented in the symposium.

“I think there’s a lot of fear and a lot of hurt that is often difficult to voice,” said Kim.

The symposium gives students, staff and faculty the ability to engage with a wide range of serious issues that aren’t easy to talk about.

“A lot of the conversations are going to be really hard,” Kim said. “But they should be hard.”

Organizers emphasized this is a unique opportunity, one that students, staff and faculty should take advantage of.

“It’s rare that we see such a widespread willingness and desire to talk about these issues,” said Reed. “We live in a society where we don’t always have that luxury.”

Photo by Marra Clay

The symposium opened Wednesday, Feb. 19 with a keynote address by Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and the director for the Center of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. Rose’s talk focused on the “paradoxical moment” of contemporary society––although everyone in America values the ideal of equality, few are willing to acknowledge the deeply rooted inequalities in our country, and even fewer are willing to take concrete action to address these inequalities.

Rose, whose academic focus is hip-hop and the media, challenged the audience to critically examine the way in which mass media renders structural inequality invisible. Rose spoke to The Pioneer after her talk and made it clear how important the Power and Privilege Symposium is to addressing these larger systems of oppression.

“The more we address these invisible structures and ways of understanding each other that shape our interactions, the better off we are,” said Rose.

Rose also stressed how important it is for a majority-white community like Walla Walla or the Whitman campus not simply to discuss racial others. Rose made it clear that when discussing racism, understanding whiteness is key in our efforts to make change.

“It’s as much a construction as every other racial identity,” she said. “But it’s totally invisible. Too much time talking about difference from an invisible core without turning the gaze on the majority is a mistake.”

Rose acknowledges how difficult and uncomfortable these topics can be.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Rose, urging students to attend the symposium.

Organizers hope that the symposium will become an annual event with formalized funding and support. Reed hopes ASWC will set aside $2,000 each year for the symposium.

“I hope eventually it’s something that will get written into the syllabus every year,” said Nori. “The goal is to have it be a stable part of the Whitman experience.”

The symposium is an important step in creating a more inclusive discussion about identity and inequality on campus, especially regarding race and racism, but organizers highlighted its limitations. While the symposium only lasts one day, these discussions need to be ongoing.

“We know that these are issues that don’t go away,” said Kim. “The symposium is one part of a much larger effort on campus to address the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and other issues facing our community and society at large.”

Reed highlighted the symposium’s ability to shift focus to any problem of power and privilege that our community may want to discuss in the future.

“Power and Privilege allows that flexibility,” said Reed.

Organizers have been hard at work for the last month, and they are looking forward to seeing the culmination of their efforts in the 51 panels and workshops across campus.

“It’s going to be hard to pick which ones to go to,” said Reed.

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One Response to “Power and Privilege Symposium Encourages Difficult Discussions”

  1. The Pioneer | Whitman news since 1896. » Senate Round Up April 6 on April 14th, 2014 9:23 am

    […] Act SAS 14.3 for a later senate meeting.  Act SAS 14.3 must be re-approved annually for the Power and Privilege Symposium to occur.  The act calls for the Nominations Committee to select the Power and Privilege Symposium […]

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Power and Privilege Symposium Encourages Difficult Discussions