Since beginning to work for a local company in Walla Walla this past May, I have been surprised and dismayed to discover that Whitman students are not always well-liked by Walla Walla natives. I have met and talked with people who have felt outright mistreated by Whitman students and their families, and sadly, continue to have similar encounters.
Improving our relationship with Walla Walla, which I believe is something we as Whitman students must endeavor to do, would provide us with an excellent opportunity for meaningful connections and the sort of self-awareness that arises from engaging with a population that is different in many ways (diversity in action, people).
As one friend of mine described it, “Whitman people used to bother me a lot because they treated me like I wasn’t good enough, like I’m not similar to them. They think I don’t share their background, so I’m not their equal.” This sentiment encapsulates a great many of the comments I’ve heard my friends make when I ask them about their perceptions of Whitman students. Often times, Walla Wallans feel degraded or looked down on by Whitties, judged as inferior because of the assumptions Whitman students make about them.
As a Whitman student turned Walla Walla resident, I am becoming more aware of what some of these assumptions are. We assume Walla Wallans are politically conservative, which implies a whole other host of assumptions like not being committed to the green movement, certain forms of social intolerance, etc. I think Whitman students also assume that Walla Walla residents are not as well-educated, which represents a significant difference, particularly when Whitties’ lives are greatly defined by their identity as students.
This is not to say that Whitman students are necessarily wrong in these assumptions. However, even if all these assumptions did turn out to be accurate, does it matter? It seems to me that there is a mistaken belief amongst the Whitman community that differences in ideological opinion eliminate the possibility for creating relationships, and possibly, viewing someone as an equal.
I think the question that arises here, the question that Whitties must consider when they think about how they present themselves to the community, is, “Can we, in spite of differences that may or may not exist between us, connect with the residents of Walla Walla?”
This is a topic about which I am hopeful. I have met both Walla Wallans and Whitties who have expanded their social networks to include people from both circles. I have seen people’s minds change, and assumptions shatter, and personally felt my own thoughts and ideas about social issues, friendship, politics and a whole host of other things develop.
I do not want to live in a place where I feel like wearing my Whitman paraphernalia to work results in my being treated better. Contrary to what we believe, Whitties do not live in a bubble. We are a part of this town, and our actions and conduct are seen and judged by Walla Walla’s inhabitants just as any other resident’s would be. Our first mistake may be in thinking that we are somehow separate from Walla Walla, and that our assumptions and lack of socialization with the town may go unnoticed. There are over 30,000 people in this town, and they can teach us a great deal.