The Whitest African: Students must better engage with diversity speakers

Joey Gottlieb

We are fortunate at Whitman to have a fantastic array of esteemed lecturers and speakers come to our remote campus to share their insights. Many students leave lectures feeling inspired to spread the ideas they have just witnessed but oftentimes are stymied by Whitman’s isolation or apathy. “We’re too far away from anything.” “Whitties just don’t care.”

Faced with these obstacles, students often abandon the ideals and calls to action heard in these lectures, and the inspiring talks and thousands of dollars spent to bring the speakers here become worthless. In order to make these extraordinary opportunities for learning meaningful, students need to make attending lectures a priority in their schedules, refocus on their responsibilities as students, and recognize that carrying out meaningful, idealistic work is not limited to traditional activism.

Many of these talks offer cutting-edge research and academic thinking. They often provide analysis and examples that are relevant to coursework and extracurricular activities. Last semester, Dr. Mark Mathabane gave the most inspiring talk of my Whitman career in which he made an impassioned defense of the enriching and transformative power of diversity.

Now here I am, less than a year later, writing a column about diversity and student identity, trying to share some of Mathabane’s ideas as well as my own with my peers, hoping to generate some sort of discussion.

First, you don’t need to focus on what is outside Whitman as much as you think you do. Many students are often concerned that, outside of reading a newspaper, they are inadequately active in the world of social justice and positive change.

To those who do struggle with this, remember that you are students. You are granted the privilege of a safe space in which to discuss potent and controversial ideas and to be able to work together to synthesize new ideas for action out of the insights these speakers share with you. As students, you are responsible for bringing well-formed and positive ideas out into the world, but your primary responsibility during your tenure as a student is to grow those ideas and grow them well.

Second, activism isn’t for everybody. Enter lectures recalling that you have your own “method,” the way in which you can further the cause and communicate ideas most effectively and meaningfully. I have struggled for a long time with my inadequacy as an activist. I have never felt motivated to attend rallies or vigils or eliminate the phrase “Joe Walmart” from my vocabulary. I have, however, come to realize that writing and speaking one-on-one with others are my most effective media to articulate my beliefs and persuade others of their importance. Find your own method and take it from there. For those concerned that they need to be more engaged, more of an activist, activism isn’t always the best fit. Adopting a cause simply for the sake of pursuing classic activism is worthless.

Two speakers came to Whitman this week. Jody Herman came on Sept. 18 to speak about transgender discrimination, and tonight Rob Smith will talk about his experiences as a gay man of color during his time in the military and now as a civilian. These will be two of many lectures that relate to social justice and positive change, and I hope that some of you will heed my suggestions. We need to reexamine the importance of lectures and their value to this campus and better understand our responsibilities as learners, becoming more creative in our expressions of activism to further the idealistic causes that are so crucial to our generation.