From the Archives: Symposium unites campus and attracts national attention (2006)

Chelsea Gilbert, Staff Writer

This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2006 issue of the Whitman Pioneer.

Editor’s note: 17 years later, Power & Privilege will be celebrated on February 23, 2023 at Whitman College. As we reflect on this year’s theme “No More Allies” and on the Power & Privilege symposium as a whole, it is important to understand the symposium’s roots and purpose on our Whitman campus. 

Last Thursday, students, staff and faculty came out en masse to a sym­posium designed to address racial relations on campus. The sympo­sium was in reaction to a “black­face” incident on campus that occurred in early October.

In his opening remarks, President George Bridges told the audience, “This symposium reflects our commitment to the mission of Whitman College and our commitment to one another in advancing our under­ standing of race.”

It was a commitment that many students and faculty took quite seriously. The faculty voted to cancel classes on the day of the symposium, after stu­dents protested that doing so would increase attendance. On the day itself, over 1,000 stu­dents, staff and faculty partici­pated in the day’s events.

Whitman’s symposium even received national attention. The Associated Press wrote a short arti­cle on the symposium (“School Cancels Class for Race Panel”), which was picked up and run by newspapers across the country, including the “New York Times.”

The symposium began at 10 a.m. with a plenary session entitled “Thinking about Race and Racism.” During the session, professors from five different departments addressed a packed Cordiner Hall. Between these short lectures, six students shared their testimonials and personal experiences with race.

One of the primary aims of the symposium was to educate the Whitman community about race in scientific and historical contexts.

History professor Nina Lerman said that here at Whitman, “We have sometimes been talking past each other [when discussing issues of race]. Some people are abusing the term ‘blackface’; others have never heard of it.”

Biology professor Delbert Hutchison sought to dispel com­mon misconceptions of the biolog­ical differences between races.

“Races may be very real in many ways, but if you are looking for meaningful lines in the biological sense you’re not going to find it,” said Hutchison.

Professors Lerman and Duke Richey put the racial issues of today into historical perspective by tracing visual stereotypes in U.S. pop cul­ture from the emergence of black­face to the present day.

Richey presented several pic­tures that showed past incidents of racism and blackface at Whitman College.

In an e-mail, first-year Missy Nivro wrote, “I liked how the history of racism on the Whitman campus was pointed out, just kind of throwing out there that it’s not the perfect little school where these things don’t hap­pen.”

This was a sentiment echoed many times during the sympo­sium.

In his testimony, senior Kyle Gotchy said, “As a college community, we are no better and no worse than the rest of the population as a whole … We grapple with the same restricting, racially-inspired issues that face the larger nation.”

Both students and faculty emphasized that the ‘Whitman Bubble’ is a myth.

“Even educated and open-mind­ed communities experience racism,” said junior Nikita Parekh during her testimony.

Bryan Ponti, one of the two students involved in the recent ‘blackface’ incident, said that he hoped people could move beyond discussing the specific incident he was involved in and on to the bigger issues of racism and race relations at Whitman.

“This racial issue should, at this point, have very lit­tle to do with me,” said Ponti.

In the plenary session of the symposium the incident was, in fact, never directly referenced. In his opening remarks, Bridges instead focused on the larger “issues [of race] that our society routinely faces, but that many of us and our political leaders conveniently ignore.” He identified these issues as the huge disparities in wealth, health care and educational oppor­tunities between races.

Bridges cited the opportunity to change Whitman and some of its programs that might “heighten racial tension or aggravate racial or ethnic differences” as another of the primary motivations for the symposium.

Several of the professors who spoke urged the audience to not sweep issues of race under the rug and out of sight.

Sociology professor Helen Kim said that “ignoring the fact that we have an unequal society will not make it go away; it will only make it worse.”

In the afternoon, a selection of almost 30 small discussion-based groups were offered, each on a dif­ferent topic. These sessions were run by both students and professors. Session topics included “Alternative Voices and the Whitman Curriculum,” “Being White in the 21st Century” and “The History of Race in the Greek System,” to name only a few. Session leaders and attendees reported large turnouts at the ses­sions and lively, productive discus­sion.

On the whole, the symposium seemed to have been viewed as a success.

“I nearly didn’t attend the sym­posium. I expected it to be boring and ineffective. Instead, I found every part of it was informative and heartfelt,” said junior Paul Burdett.

Senior Bevin Hall said, “I thought that the symposium was incredibly successful — I was both relieved and impressed that so many students took the time and made the commitment to come to such an important event,”

Other students expressed hope that the symposium would become a recurring event on the Whitman campus, and that the message of the symposium would carry on throughout the year.

“I can only hope that the growth of awareness doesn’t end with the symposium,” said Ponti.