Approaching Power and Privilege with Intentionality

Dana Walden, Opinion Columnist

Congratulations! You went to Power & Privilege. You sat in the back of a crowded auditorium for an hour or two, you listened to your peer’s experiences and you made it out of the symposium early enough to get a head start on homework, hang out with friends or take a nap. You went to sessions led by your friends or that talked about something you experience. You went to sessions with intriguing titles and descriptions. You went to sessions that were interesting and well-prepared. You attended Power & Privilege… but none of the sessions challenged you.

We have an inclination to go to sessions that make us feel safe, sessions that make us feel good about our activism. None of us want to feel like we actually have power or privilege at the Power & Privilege Symposium… we don’t want to feel like part of the problem. I hate to break it to you, but if you go to Whitman, you probably are part of the problem. Power & Privilege gives a platform and a voice to marginalized students, and it is our job to listen, even if these conversations are difficult.  

Most Whitman students approach Power & Privilege with good intentions. Several of us do our best to take what we learn at Power & Privilege and find some way to apply it to our daily lives. We go to Power & Privilege to be tested, to be made uncomfortable and to confront our privilege. That’s the point.

We get a day off of classes to learn how to be better humans from the students most affected by our actions. This is not normal, and in today’s political climate, we cannot afford to take these lessons for granted.

At Whitman, and through this symposium, women of color are overwhelmingly burdened with educating others on their privilege. Power & Privilege would not have happened without the tireless work of women of color who, like you, have classes, jobs and other commitments; they give their time to this symposium because they know it is important. We owe them our gratitude, thanks and attention. We are responsible for doing what we can, as listeners, as classmates, as friends, to take some of this pressure off of women of color, and marginalized people in general.

Part of this responsibility comes down to taking agency in exposing ourselves to things we may not already be exposed to. Session leaders do not lead sessions for themselves — they lead them for you. Students lead sessions to spread information, to educate. Their goal is not to reinforce what you already know, but to teach you something new. We must take out of these sessions a will to change our own behavior, or at least be open to acknowledging that behavior in the first place.

As a session leader myself, I can speak to the time, effort and emotional labor presenting at the symposium requires. It takes a special kind of courage to talk about such personal and tricky topics in front of such a large audience, especially when that audience is made up of people who do not share your experiences, and who directly benefit from your lack of power.

These sessions are designed to question that which you already know — they are designed to question the structures and institutions that exist around us. We may want to attend sessions that make us feel supportive, that make us feel like good allies, but we get less out of the symposium if we approach it with this mindset.  

Next time, do more than show up. Go to sessions that make you shift in your seat, go to sessions that have the potential to change your worldview, go to sessions that make you angry. Go to Power & Privilege with purpose. Go to Power & Privilege with intention. All of us can and should work on the way we interact with the Power & Privilege symposium. We all have a stake in this.