Reflecting on Race


Photo by Henry Honzel

Christy Carley, News Editor

On Thursday evening the words of “We Shall Overcome” echoed across the steps of Penrose Library, while candles flickered in the dark. Members of the Whitman community gathered together to mourn the black lives lost to police brutality. The vigil, sponsored by Whitman’s Black Student Union (BSU) included speakers, a performance from a local gospel choir and a silent march.

Cathartic and a Statement

President of BSU, senior Sean Hannah said that it’s important for events like the vigil to be proactive, rather than reactive.

“I think it would be cool if instead of having so many protests that are reactive to big shootings, if we just had more protests that were active and not just a result of something that we hear on the news, but having it be more spontaneous,” Hannah said. “If we just depend on the news then that will cause us to stop protesting if the news stops having these events as their focus.”

Wednesday’s vigil came in the wake of the shootings of Keith Lamont Scott in Tulsa, OK and Terrence Crutcher in Charlotte, NC, but the idea for the event was born in early September, prior to when the shootings took place. While specific names of victims were mentioned, the vigil was meant as a way to honor all black victims of police brutality, addressing the issue in a general sense.

BSU decided early on that the vigil would take on the essence of a memorial. It was intended to help community members form a closer emotional connection with the events that have been taking place across the nation.

Photo by Henry Honzel.
Photo by Henry Honzel.

“I hope that [students] can find more of an emotional connection to what’s happening. Not just an intellectual connection,” Hannah said. “This thing is actually affecting real people, and it’s hard to really fully see that if you’re just looking at Facebook articles.”

Opening marks at the vigil were given by Hannah and Professor of Psychology Brooke Vick. After songs led by the choir, the names of recent victims of police brutality were announced and community members marched around around Ankeny Field in silence. BSU member Junior Christopher Cox provided closing remarks. To call attention to the vigil, members of BSU drew chalk outlines of bodies around campus, imitating the chalk lines drawn around bodies at a crime scene.

“It’s both cathartic and a statement,” Cox said.

Cox believes that while many members of the Whitman community may care about issues of racial justice, the proximity of such issues doesn’t always hit home.

“There’s a certain … disconnect in the way that some people might think ‘yes, black people are more likely to be imprisoned or killed or whatever, but that happens in the South or that happens over there, not here. But if people who are black here are able to bring things that do happen here to a larger audience, maybe that will make some sort of breakthrough.”

Cox also hopes that the vigil will serve as a space for grieving and connection.

“If someone needs to be helped in any kind of way, having dealt with the shootings, maybe just the simple fact that we’re doing something about it and that we think it’s important enough to do something about it, is helpful to somebody…I hope if it can, that it does help people,” he said. 

Vigil held in front of Penrose Library. Photo by Henry Honzel.
The vigil is held in front of Penrose Library. Photo by Henry Honzel.

Civil Rights Today

Discussions of racial justice on campus will continue Thursday night with a lecture presented by prominent Black Lives Matter activist and senior justice writer for the New York Daily News, Shaun King. The event, sponsored by Whitman Events Board (WEB), will take place at 7:00 p.m. in Cordiner.

King’s lecture, entitled “Civil Rights Today,” will focus on the Black Lives Matter Movement and issues of police brutality.

According to WEB Lectures Director Hannah Poukish, who brought King to campus, the lecture will also mention “ways that the average person can help [with issues of racial justice].”

King’s current endeavours include planning an “Injustice Boycott”  which will begin December 5, the anniversary of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. According to an article by Shaun King, participants in the boycott will be “making a pledge that you will boycott cities, states, businesses and institutions which are either willfully indifferent to police brutality and racial injustice or are deliberately destructive partners with it.”

Photo by Henry Honzel
Photo by Henry Honzel

Specific targets of the boycott will be kept secret until December 5. King plans to provide justifications for each target, as well as describing alternatives to the boycotted entities for those who choose to participate.

King is known for his strong social media presence, and it was on Facebook where Poukish first encountered his activism. She had been following him for about six months, and noticed several other Whitman students followed him as well.

“I was kind of just looking for people who I thought would be a good fit for Whitman, and he was someone who came up a lot on my Facebook page and other social media” Poukish said.

Poukish worked with Assistant Director of Student Activities Katharine Curles to book a time for King to come to campus. As this is Poukish’s first event as Lectures Director, she’s excited about the impact of having someone like King come to campus.

“[King] seems very excited to come and meet students, she said. “I think to actually hear from someone who is actually doing social justice as his career and has a big impact is really important for students to see.”

Where do we go from here?

Both Cox and Budget Manager for BSU junior Alondra Contreras-Cervantes mentioned difficulties they face with racial justice activism while being a student.

“The number one challenge for racial justice activism–I think this can go with any kind of activism though–[is] just trying to balance school with ongoing issues. Because the world doesn’t stop just because you have a chem exam,” Contreras-Cervantes said.

She said she often has to suppress feelings of frustration or sadness when instances of racial injustice happen, at least until school gets a little less busy, but that talking with friends often helps.

Clubs like For Us By Us (FUBU), a club specifically for community members of color, and BSU can provide a valuable space for students and community members to come together and discuss issue of race.

Cox said his reason for joining BSU during his first year at Whitman was, “a feeling of isolation… [from] being a black kid at Whitman, but then also having the news affect you in a certain way–news about shootings and police brutality and all that stuff.”

Unlike FUBU, BSU is open to any community member who wants to join, whether or not they are a person of color. 

Cox described the purpose of BSU as “two pronged.”

The club has both an “inward” and “outward” purpose, meaning it is a place for members of the community to gain support by talking about race related issues they’ve experienced at Whitman, but also has the goal of reaching out to the larger campus community to raise awareness about race issues both at Whitman and more generally.

But reaching out to a majority white audience about issues of race can be difficult.

Photo by Henry Honzel
Photo by Henry Honzel

“I feel like a lot of white people feel scared sometimes, to help or to go to BSU meetings. But I feel like it’s very important for white people to use their privilege,” said Contreras-Cervantes. “They can help out so the whole workload isn’t put on the people of color who face these issues.”

Contreras-Cervantes will serve as Co-Programming Director for the 2017 Power and Privilege Symposium along with Jess Faunt who will serve as this year’s Executive Director. This year’s symposium theme is “Empower.”

“That theme was inspired by a recognition that the symposium in the past has placed the burden of ‘teaching’ our campus about social justice issues on students, staff and faculty who most strongly feel the effects of oppression in their lives,” said Faunt in an email to The Whitman Wire.

Both Contreras and Faunt will be attending a national conference this November entitled “Facing Race” put on by Race Forward, an organization founded in 1981 that conducts research on issues of racial justice and serves as a media outlet. The opening plenary of the conference is titled “Multiracial Movement for Black Lives.”

“I am personally hoping to attend the ‘Showing Up For Racial Justice’ workshop, which is explicitly for white people to learn and discuss how to be better allies in racial justice activism,” Faunt said. “As a white person at a majority white school, I see that most of the white student body is still very uncomfortable talking about race and uncertain of how to be an ally.”

Contreras-Cervantes thinks that while many people would like to help with issues of racial justice, they might feel concerned about, “stepping on toes or taking up too much space.” While she does believe that this can be an issue, she hopes that this concern won’t override people’s desire to make change.

“I’d rather have that than people being passive, because that doesn’t help,” she said.