Name Change Underestimates Ability to Grapple with Complex History

Olivia Gilbert

word, at its most basic, is a symbol that carries meaning. Within this simple definition, however, worlds of complexities unfold: historical, cultural and political baggage, as well as context, color and complicate the use of a word. Words have the power to shape thoughts, enrich or detract from discussion and codify or dismantle stereotypes. Essentially, words do not exist in a vacuum but rather are living, breathing units of language that carry practical and symbolic weight, and how we treat them matters.

The Pioneer’s decision to change its name is based on the idea that words have the power to reinforce, however subtly, hierarchies of power. The intention is that by removing the name “Pioneer,” a small step will be taken toward making campus a more tolerant, inclusive space. However, what the supporters of the name change forget is that words also have the power to change and evolve, and rather than dismissing words as inappropriate or demeaning to certain groups, we can instead work to promote and embody those meanings of a word that reflects our progressive values. Just as Whitman College itself no longer promotes the colonialist values of the pioneers in whose memory our school was founded, the word “pioneer” has come to refer not only to people who settle a “new” (to them) area, but also describes intellectual innovators and those brave enough to traverse unknown intellectual territory—exactly the kinds of critically thinking, intellectually rigorous people Whitman strives to attract.

The decision to change the name, however, must be examined in the context of broader political movements happening on college campuses across the nation. For, just as words themselves do not exist in a vacuum but rather are connected to complex pasts, so do the actions we take surrounding words and other such symbols have significance beyond their individual scope. The change reflects a wider trend that takes a dangerous and corrosive attitude toward words—an attitude that discards words deemed out of line with an atmosphere of inclusivity to replace them with something new.

This throw-away attitude is intricately related to the rise of leftist language policing across college campuses (think trigger warnings, safe spaces and micro-aggressions), a movement which has been characterized by critics as the reaction of hyper-sensitized, coddled students who can’t handle viewpoints that don’t align with their ideology or words that make them feel anything less than wholly accepted. While this unfairly skews the image of the oftentimes thoughtful students who identify with these views and the sometimes meaningful changes they have implemented, the movement as a whole is misguided in its approach to language. By banishing certain words and phrases from the lexicon, they not only degrade openness and quality of debate by narrowing acceptable language, but they also obscure the systemic problems and inequalities that cannot be addressed with symbolic gestures.

There are other, more effective ways to respond to uncomfortable subjects of the past. Yes, sometimes renaming and removing are necessary, such as changing Whitman’s mascot, The Missionary—an overtly religious icon whose meaning has not transformed like the word “pioneer” has—and the removal of the Confederate flag, a symbol actively used by hate groups to promote racism and by conservatives throughout the country to support racial hierarchies, from state buildings and campus spaces.

But to say the word “pioneer” is governed mainly by its association with a very real and difficult part of Whitman’s history is to lay aside all of the positive, empowering and inspiring definitions it also contains. It is a word with the potential to be reclaimed to promote a more complex understanding of Whitman College and Walla Walla. Actively working to embody these positive aspects, however, is not to ignore the bad parts of Whitman’s past (something that seems more likely to happen by removing the name altogether).

Rather, we can embrace its many definitions with the knowledge that we are not endorsing colonialist values, but rather evoking a nuanced understanding of history. The word can be a gateway for sustained discussion about Whitman’s colonialist roots in a way that simply relegating the word to a dusty corner and forgetting about it will not do. To claim that keeping the name The Pioneer works to oppress groups is to underestimate the ability of the Whitman community to hold a nuanced view of words and the history behind them.

Whatever we end up calling our newspaper, we should bear in mind that solutions must confront not just the inclusiveness of words, but also how those values are reflected in actual behavior and power structures. To end, some words to remember from the February 1897 edition of The Pioneer:

“May the education of the students of Whitman College ever be broad and liberal, rather than narrow and pedantic.”