At the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) Senate meeting held this past Sunday, Sept. 30, senators engaged in inappropriate questioning of a funding request for the 2018 PNW (Pacific Northwest) Students of Color Conference, prompting a schoolwide email describing the Sept. 30 discussion that was sent out Oct. 2.
Six women of color, standing in for a larger group of 30 students, stood in front of members of student government and presented their request for $3,105 to attend the Students of Color Conference at Gonzaga University, a conference that Whitman helped found and hosted last year.
As part of normal ASWC procedure when a club or group requests funding, senators may opt for a period of questioning intended recipients. The overarching goal of these questions is to figure out how the funded activity would benefit the larger student population. Senators asked the six women present at the meeting how they were going to bring what they learned at this conference back to Whitman, but verged into intense questioning about personal experiences with race and identity at Whitman. Questioning of this nature was present at a preliminary finance meeting and later at the larger Senate meeting.
Senior Ye Rim Cho, one of the students representing the group seeking funding, expressed her frustration towards the repetitive nature of the questioning as she and others tried to explain the impact the conference would have on the attendees and students of color at Whitman.
“The questions that were being asked, they didn’t feel like genuine questions that they really wanted to hear from us; it literally just felt like they had an agenda to badger us and pressure us about going to this conference,” said Cho. “It felt very personal; it shouldn’t be personal at all. This is something that was held at Whitman last year, it’s just going to be a continuing thing and it felt very personal to the six women of color who were in that room, and also to three of us who were at the finance meeting.”
Similarly, sophomore Indira Dahlstrom, who was also present during the meeting, found that the questioning was harmful and unnecessary, and cultivated a tense environment. Few members of ASWC attempted to intervene or slow the interrogation.
“What stands out to me is hearing and seeing my friends crying and shaking. That is just not okay,” Dahlstrom said over email correspondence. “In the moment I was extremely upset about people not listening to our answers and continuing to ask the same problematic questions.”
Leann Adams, Director of Student Activities and advisor to ASWC, was present at the meeting and spoke about her personal concerns with the method of questioning.
“My personal perspective is that there were specific, problematic questions and statements made; a lack of allyship demonstrated by other folks in the room with the power to intervene; and the manifestation of several, specific systemic issues within ASWC,” Adams said in an email to the Wire. “So there were problems on a number of levels. My view is that there was a lack of awareness of the inherent power dynamics built into ASWC (and all government structures) and how that differently and disproportionately negatively affects students from marginalized identities.”
Maamoon Saleh, a sophomore senator on the ASWC Senate Finance Committee, realized the problematic nature of the situation after taking time to register his thoughts.
“I shamefully take partial [responsibility] in the inappropriate questioning that occurred,” said Saleh over email correspondence. “After having reflected on the discussion, I realize that this was an unhealthy discussion which had created a toxic environment that traumatized these womxn of color who came in asking for a very reasonable request.”
Junior Miyona Katayama was present for part of the Senate discussion on Sept. 30. She spoke about how this incident reflects on Whitman as a larger institution.
“I think the main thing that has been reinforced for me is that Whitman is a place that does not know how to talk about race,” said Katayama. “We want to say we’re diverse, equitable and inclusive when we’re clearly not there yet.”
In the wake of the Sept. 30 Senate, the ASWC Executive Council, on behalf of ASWC as a whole, sent an email to the entire student body on Oct. 2.
The email starts, “This past Sunday night, the ASWC Senate caused trauma to a group of womxn of color … We did not uphold the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion and failed these students and their communities in their attempts to flourish at an institution like ours.”
“Nothing will change the fact that ASWC caused trauma that was outright racist and dangerous to the wellbeing of students of color,” the email continued. “We keep this in mind as we confront and reconstruct our personal and institutional norms, values, and practices.”
The email communicated a somewhat confusing message to an uninformed student body.
Ye Rim Cho spoke about her disappointment regarding the email from ASWC.
“Personally, I was very taken aback by the email. I thought at first that it was just sent to the women of color who were there; I didn’t realize it was sent to the entire school,” said Cho. “They didn’t really talk to any of us before sending this email, they kind of just sent it to try and de-escalate the situation. It felt more real to me after seeing that email, the fact that it was exposed to everyone in the school, it felt like more eyes were on me and the other people who were in that room.”
Beyond communicating a message of organizational regret, the email from ASWC carried a call to action to change long-held procedures.
“We recognize that ASWC has been perpetuating said trauma in various ways as long as we have existed and seek to not only acknowledge this, but be proactive in changing who we are and how we engage with our student body,” the Oct. 2 email stated.
Adams reflected on the traditional procedures of ASWC and how they impact students of different backgrounds differently and unfairly.
“It seemed to me that both the format used for interacting with the requesting parties and the numerous questions asked were viewed as just the ‘typical’ ASWC way of doing things. These questions and processes don’t typically harm white students, and therefore have not been interrogated deeply in the past,” Adams said in an email to the Wire. “But these questions are most definitely unreasonable, damaging and unacceptable when posed to students of color and others from marginalized identities.”
Saleh hopes that ASWC can make institutional changes to account for its mistakes.
“I know firsthand that the individuals of ASWC are taking this issue very seriously and will make sure to address certain procedural steps that prevent ASWC from being as [unapproachable] as they are right now,” said Saleh over email correspondence. “Like any other organization, ASWC is not perfect, but we will make sure to uphold the ideals of diversity and equity for all the students of Whitman College as we look to the future, and make sure that this mistake is acknowledged so that we can start the work to address this problem.”
Looking forward, Cho hopes other students of color will be able to avoid fielding similar experiences in their interactions with ASWC. She spoke about the increased conversations surrounding the events on Nov. 30 as one positive outcome from an otherwise negative experience.
“Even though this really shitty thing happened, I think it also opened people’s eyes a lot, and a lot of conversations have been happening, and maybe some of them aren’t as productive as others, but I think we need to continue to remember what happened two weeks ago… we need to make sure we progress and continue to make these changes,” said Cho. “We can’t go backwards.”