Supporting Critical Engagement

Ben Shoemake, Columnist

The theme for this year’s Power and Privilege Symposium is “Speak Up, Act Out,” a notable shift from previous years’ “Why Race Matters,” “Understanding Identity,” and “Understanding Systems of Oppression and Inequality.” While previous symposiums seemed to focus on raising awareness, the emphasis this year seems to be moving beyond baseline understanding and pushing for concrete change. I appreciate this change in tone–instead of foregrounding the symposia as a learning experience, it encourages us to take what we have learned and apply it to situations in the real world.

The Power and Privilege Symposium is important because it provides us with a safe space, free of grades or judgment, to convene on issues of marginalization and identity. However, the symposium’s confinement to a single day, conflating the various systems of oppression it describes and no doubt leaving some out in the process, leaves something to be desired. Conversations on the subject of power and privilege need to happen year-round, and real action needs to follow up as a result.

Some attempt has been made to provide a space for this kind of discourse with the “Continuing the Conversation” series, sponsored by the Intercultural Center in a partnership with the Power and Privilege Symposium. Every Friday at the Glover Alston Center, presenters facilitate conversations about matters regarding diversity and inclusion at Whitman College, with free food provided. We have seen activism come from the student body in the past year as well, such as the blackout protest in solidarity with Mizzou that took place last November.

Nevertheless, outside of these specific instances, it is business-as-usual for many Whitman students. With midterms coming up, spring break, then a quick jog to finals, it is hard to rationalize spending time and mental energy on conversations that don’t directly contribute to one’s academic success. Something I have heard from my friends in the maths and sciences is that they would like to have these conversations and appreciate them when they happen, but have difficulty arranging time for them because of their constraining schedules.

In my last column, I spoke out against the pressures that high expectations for academic success create at Whitman and the ways that this can negatively impact one’s physical and emotional health. But the impact of intense academic rigor goes beyond personal well-being, serving to undervalue any form of intellectual engagement with the world taking place outside of the classroom. While it is significant that classes were cancelled for this year’s Power and Privilege Symposium, this does little to alleviate the pressures placed on the dedicated individuals who have spent the last few months organizing and preparing for the event, and it does nothing to facilitate speaking up or acting out on any other day of the year.

We can not, and should not, expect that the only students able to push for change in the world be Gender Studies or Race and Ethnic Studies majors. On the contrary, we should expect students from every department to critically engage with the world and challenge its prevailing systems of oppression. However, we must first ensure that students have the tools for critical engagement. While these do include the knowledge and understanding that the Power and Privilege Symposium provides, they also come in the form of time, energy, and institutional support.

Pushing for change is difficult. As students, we should work harder to appreciate the accomplishments of those among us who are able to make a difference despite having to negotiate obligations from school (and sometimes work). We can work to reduce our own anxieties around grades and accept sacrifices in service of issues that we care strongly about. As an institution, Whitman can and should create new and varied spaces for this kind of engagement to come about, and–perhaps more importantly–try harder to ensure that all students are able to come to the table. Otherwise, this year’s symposium’s call to “speak up, act out” may never get answered.