Board Editorial: Whitman Must Face its History of Racism

Colleges and universities across the nation are being called to account and make amends for racist histories.

At Yale, a process is underway to rename a residence hall that honors the leader of the Confederacy. Students at Princeton have demanded that the school acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson, whose name adorns the public policy school. At Georgetown, students are calling for reparations to be made for money in the endowment made from the sale of black slaves. And at Lewis & Clark College, four hours west of Walla Walla in Portland, students are calling for the school’s name to be changed.

Administrators at many of these schools have said publicly that examining and atoning for racist histories is an absolute necessity. At Whitman, however, the Missionary mascot’s inherent bigotry has yet to be acknowledged, despite years of student efforts.

In an email to students on Monday, President Kathy Murray wrote that she is putting together a “working group of students, alums, faculty, and staff to gather input from all sectors of the Whitman community and consider the question of whether or not the Missionary is an appropriate mascot for Whitman today.” While this is exciting, important, and long-overdue, these discussions should not be lost to a slow college bureaucracy: the decision to change the mascot is one that requires immediate attention and action.

Whitman was founded on land taken through the threat of violence, amidst a series of massacres by white militias and the U.S. army. These forces of white supremacy and colonialism invaded the traditional homelands of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakima tribes to force them off the land where they had lived for thousands of years.

The adoption and continued use of the missionary mascot promotes a false version of history. For over a hundred years, its use has rendered the college complicit in excusing the genocide committed against the Tribes as a result of the deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.

Fans of the Missionary argue it should be kept as a reminder of the college’s history. It is important the college’s history is not forgotten, but not everything in its history should be celebrated. The college should honor the good parts of its past, but also acknowledge the harm it has done and take steps to make amends.

The Missionary mascot is part of the college’s institutionalization of a narrative that promotes racism and hatred against Native Americans, while glorifying the historical atrocities committed against them. A mascot is supposed to represent the college community, but the Missionary represents intolerance and division.

Whitman aims to be a diverse and tolerant community. Administrators say the college no longer promotes the racist narrative as it did in past decades–they should reflect this by changing the college’s mascot.

Changing the mascot should not be the end of the discussion of systemic racism and Whitman’s history. There are many symbols besides the mascot that the college should be removed. Whitman officials should also take steps to demonstrate Native lives matter, by honoring their history on campus and listening to the Tribes to learn how this institution can make amends for the harm that has been done.

In this current wave of nationwide student activism on campuses, Whitman’s leaders must show that they want to actively begin the long-overdue conversation to critically examine the college’s relationship to its past. President Murray’s announcement is an exciting one. Let’s hope that the mascot change is just the first step in administrators facing Whitman’s legacy of racism and making amends.