OP-ED: Whitman’s Investment in Whiteness

Chris Cahoon, Whitman Senior

We are lying to ourselves. When it comes to our lack of diversity, Whitman isn’t failing. We are doing exactly what we intend to do.

Diversity at Whitman is for white people. It is not about helping others, but about helping ourselves. And when I talk about diversity, I am not talking about socioeconomic status. The form of diversity Whitman cares most about is race. Racial diversity at Whitman is intended to benefit white students.

How many of us have asked ourselves, what does “diversity” do? Whom does diversity benefit at Whitman? Let us for a moment take a self-reflexive look at our commitment to equity and inclusion.

The headline of Whitman College’s official diversity statement reads: “Differences that Enrich Personal Growth.” Whitman values diversity for its enrichment of individuals in our community. Implied here is that the differences brought by diverse students benefit those who are not “different.” At Whitman, white students are the vast majority. Students of color are the “differences” that enrich our growth.

Let’s look at another commitment to equity. The trustees’ official statement on diversity says:

“Diversity enriches our community and enhances intellectual and personal growth. We seek to provide a challenging liberal arts experience for our students that prepares them for citizenship in the global community.”

Like the statement of the college, the trustees’ statement presents diverse bodies as commodities to be consumed by those in the dominant group. The cultures and experiences of students of color offer white students new and different viewpoints. These different perspectives enhance the growth of white students. They provide interactions in a diverse environment, so that white students gain multicultural skills which they can market in the globalized economy.

Whitman does not express a commitment to equity. Nowhere in the college’s statements on diversity do we find the words “access” or “opportunity.” The college avoids any political referent in which diversity would be explicitly for underrepresented students. Do students of color feel “enriched” by being around white people? Probably not. They probably feel isolated and unsafe.

Whitman’s admissions policies reflect its investment in whiteness. The Whitman College Factbook states that last year, 55% of student applicants were Caucasian, while the college admitted 67% Caucasian students. In contrast, 9.6% of student applicants were Hispanic, and the college admitted 6.5%.  Black participants made up 2.3% of the applicant pool, while the college accepted 1.9%. Whitman chooses to accept a greater proportion of whites than students of color.

Earlier in this piece, I claimed that Whitman does not care about socioeconomic diversity.  The college cares most about racial diversity, and here’s why: diversity is a brand. White students seek to gain multicultural competence from being in diverse communities. In order to compete for applicants, the college must present itself as diverse. Consequently, it focuses on the most visible form of difference—race. From campus tours to admissions brochures, Whitman uses racial diversity to attract applicants, lowering its admissions rate and solidifying its status as an elite institution. Drained of any resistive political power, diversity has become a simple marketing ploy.

We white students at Whitman fuel the commodification of diversity. As the college’s official statements imply, we want to be “enriched” by differences and gain multicultural competence which will “prepare [us] for citizenship in the global community.” To assess this claim, I asked white Whitman students why diversity is important. One student replied:

“It expands your worldview and gives you new things to consider.”

Like the college’s statements, we value diversity for our own benefit rather than for equity. This student described diversity in terms of its benefits for himself. White students value the presence of students of color only to the extent that we can consume their differences to improve our education.

So let’s stop lying to ourselves. Diversity at Whitman is for white students. Whitman was founded for, and continues to serve, white people. And we help others only when it helps ourselves.

“Diversity” serves our collective self-interest in perpetuating a racial hierarchy. To achieve equity and access, we must necessarily act against our own interest. Why should we act against our self-interest?