What is your purpose for being here at Whitman? I ask because I am starting to question my reason for being here and I need some people to talk to. Like many privileged students here, I come from a wealthy family that encouraged me to go to college, or assumed that I would go to college, and I did so. I chose Whitman on somewhat of an impulse while trying to maintain a mindset that all institutions of higher education are fairly similar, so it wouldn’t matter too much if I went to one school or another. Also at that time, I kind of hated everyone I was around because all they would talk about was colleges, and it was probably because of my internalized feeling of inferiority that these discussions brought up that I mostly wouldn’t talk to any of my friends about the application process.
Anyway, so now I have been here for a bit over a year and a half. Honestly, the first year was mostly me trying to complete all my classwork, be a part of as many outside class lectures and discussions as I could, and trying to be as supportive as possible to my good friend and roommate who has struggled mightily in finding a sense of purpose here. This school year has been interesting for me: first semester I think I was depressed but really couldn’t explain it and this semester I have received a lot more support but am again finding myself at a place of discomfort and unease as I think about continuing my education here. I’ve really started to reflect on my purpose here and I think I have none.
And here’s why: first, as I said earlier, I am a very privileged person and while that gives me access to a lot of opportunities and allows me to focus on my education and learning outside of class rather than having to work to support myself (not to mention never being threatened and demoralized by all the microaggressions flying around), I also know it has shielded and blurred my vision from seeing the worst injustices in the world. Because of my position, I have to work harder to see the sins of my country and the inequities in my school because I am not a person that is discriminated against and could, if I chose to, remain ignorant to all of this. But isn’t that the entire problem? I like to think of my purpose in life as being to try, in whatever way I can, to make the world a better place, but how can I do that? Well, I have started seeing, through my observations and interactions with others, I don’t think I can do that if I complete my education here – it will only further elevate my privilege and further distance myself from the real struggles in the world.
Maybe you believe that through your education you can begin to see those big issues, but for me that is not how it works. For me, I see education here at Whitman as obscuring the problems of the world by, first and foremost, dividing the school into majors and departments that, put all together, have absolutely no ability to collectively envision a better world. For me, the biggest injustices in the world derive from instances when hierarchies reign and people in authority tell others what is right and, again, I see Whitman playing right into that system. We have an administration that works in hierarchy who cannot see the struggles of their most ill-paid workers and fails to acknowledge that they are colonizers actively occupying and gentrifying this land. Further, we have a classroom space with professors that hold the “knowledge” and force students to perform and fight to prove their value. In the confines of the classroom, no matter how much we focus, those that are on the margins will always be the objects of study and never subjects, fully allowed to speak for themselves. Does education, in its current structure, not have eerie parallels with the colonialist mission of trying to save the unenlightened from themselves, as if we couldn’t possibly learn about the world and find a sense of purpose on our own?
Maybe you are a person with a marginalized identity and see your education as a way to leverage the system so that you are able to support yourself, your family, and your community in a society that actively works against the security of all those things. And truly, I like to believe that I understand you and the fears you have, but isn’t that belief also, unfortunately, wrapped up in the problem? Again, though you may endure further isolation and marginalization throughout your education here, by receiving a degree you automatically elevate your privilege in some level. By completing this education you will ultimately be distancing yourself from the on-the-ground struggles and seeing the possibilities for solutions in different, I believe less productive, ways. Do you think there can be another way? I like to think so, but I don’t think the answers can be found while working within the system which promoted the belief of “rising up in the world” that created the problems in the first place. So, I really believe, first and foremost, that it is the imperative of those in privileged positions not to actively work to elevate their status. Instead, we should all be committed to listening to those that have been most marginalized by this society and work alongside them in an effort to ensure that we can all look out for the safety and well-being of everyone.
So to be clear, I believe if we want to have any hope for collective liberation it cannot happen here, not while simply consuming what this institution has to offer, and not while believing ourselves to be autonomous individuals. Not while the privileged majority continues to focus on their narrow self-interests and frivolous games. Not while students on the margins continue to be segregated as they seek community to enact change and have their work constantly institutionalized. Not while the administration dictates what this education should look like. Not while the curriculum continues to privilege intellectual elites and “empirical” data. Not while our academic focus keeps us isolated and disengaged from the surrounding community and not while any engagement we do have with our neighbors continues to be commodified. Not while professors, for the most part, fit right in and not while workers continue to be exploited. Not while folks in our community continue to ignore the basic principle of consent. Not while we sit around and allow this country to commit unforgivable evils. And lastly, not while we continue to occupy and claim ownership over land that is not ours.
So I will ask again: what is your purpose at Whitman? What is your purpose in life? Can we not imagine something better together that does not privilege hierarchy and suppression? Am I too hopeful? Have we been broken already?
“The undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges … but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.” -Andrea Smith “The Problem with ‘Privilege.’”
“If we are to effect real change in our society, we will do better to deal with everything openly, however clumsily, than to keep silent in fear of ourselves and each other.” -crimethInc. “Undermining Oppression.”
(Thanks Erina and Isolda for working through ideas with me and helping me put this together!)