Power and Privilege Symposium Step in Right Direction

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This guest column was contributed by Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Kim

In mid-December, I, along with over 100 faculty members, attended a special faculty meeting to vote on a motion to cancel classes on Thursday, Feb. 20 in order to convene the Power and Privilege Symposium. Pen to paper, the faculty in attendance voted, and the motion passed by an overwhelming majority. The text of the motion upheld reads as follows:

“We as a faculty strongly condemn racism, both structural and interpersonal, on the Whitman College campus. We strongly affirm the right of all students, faculty and staff to live, work and learn in an environment free from discrimination.

In support of ASWC resolution SRF13.4, we move to cancel classes for one day next spring (Spring 2014) for the ASWC-supported, student-driven Power and Privilege Symposium.

Additionally we move to work, either within the Power and Privilege Symposium or outside it, to consider the best ways to address issues of race, racism and privilege on campus in an ongoing manner. This may or may not include institutionalizing the Power and Privilege Symposium as an annual event, pending resolution of substantive issues regarding scheduling, funding and staffing.”

For me, this vote signified many things that bring the past, present and future together. Many of you may have read or know about the “blackface incident” that occurred during Fall 2006, an incident that also resulted in a cancellation of classes for an all-day symposium where faculty, staff and students came together for self-reflection, listening and discussion of steps to take toward improving and healing our campus. As an attendee and participant in this symposium during my second year at Whitman, this event seemed to mark a very critical moment––one that made clear our participation in a system of inequality, but one that also pointed to the possibilities for meaningful change.

In many ways, the power of that moment has been with us until today. Some may believe that it faded. I don’t think that it ever did, especially as I think about the many ways that this campus has changed in terms of the kinds of courses that are offered, the curricular and co-curricular initiatives that have been developed across campus, and the composition of the faculty, staff and students. Most importantly, the power of that moment has always been with us, since we coexist in a place that is a mere reflection of a larger society that has been and continues to be unequal.

Why should we do anything, let alone cancel classes for the sake of a one-time event that may result in nothing with direct and immediate changes, if Whitman and our larger world will continue to be unequal?

As a faculty member who voted for the aforementioned motion, I don’t see the Power and Privilege Symposium solving our problems. No event is capable of doing that. Yet, already, the discussions leading up to and after the faculty vote have sparked shifts in thinking among the faculty and administration, heartfelt and honest discussions and movement toward possible curricular and co-curricular changes. All of this has taken place up until now––what opportunities lie ahead with the Symposium next week?

Most importantly, I believe my vote and my participation in this year’s symposium to be my responsibility, our responsibility.  It is our responsibility to ourselves, it is our responsibility to those who came before us and it is our responsibility to a future community of individuals whom we may never meet.