If you are a Whitman student, then you’ve likely seen the conversation about online racism on the student listserv. If you are not a student, then this article might be coming out of left field, but I promise you, this is important.
On Tuesday, April 7, a student sent an email to the student listserv about an anonymous confession profile on Instagram. On this account, Whitman students posted offensive and insensitive material regarding race. Several students then responded to this email, either as bystanders to the initial call-out or because they were directly implicated in the original email. Thomas Witherspoon, Whitman’s Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, responded to all this activity by declaring that, effective immediately, “all posts to our students, announcements and community email lists will be reviewed (moderated) before being posted.”
Now, my goal here is not to talk about the state of race education at Whitman or about the ethics of online confession pages, so I’ve glossed over some nuances and details. What bothers me is the administration’s response to this incident. I have not been a part of these online conversations, but like many students, I have been made to bear witness to them and asked to pass judgment on them. Regardless of how this conversation actually went down, we still need to have it. It certainly shouldn’t have ended like it did.
And that, right there, is the problem. The administration’s response to this “divisive behavior” on the student listserv is to effectively shut down the conversation. We were denied more information or further debate before we could come to an understanding or reach catharsis.
Witherspoon stated that “the decision to allow or reject a post will be based on criteria that will be shared with the whole community in a follow-up email.” Where is that follow up email? How is this policy going to be implemented equitably and fairly? How does monitoring the student listserv do anything to address the issues of anonymous insensitivities or harmful language on the listserv?
Opting to moderate the student listserv does two things: it draws attention away from the real issues at hand, and it ignores our apparent need to have these conversations as a community. Not only does this incident show us that we need real, comprehensive race education at Whitman, but that we also need to learn how to have challenging conversations around these controversial topics in a productive way.
In this time of disconnect, my email is one of the only places where I can get campus news. These conversations, no matter how frustrating, need to be held somewhere, and the student listserv is as good a place as any. Racism doesn’t stop during a global crisis, and neither should our efforts to talk about it.
With all this said, I don’t think the administration will have much to moderate. Since Witherspoon’s email, the student listserv has been used for little more than marketing by campus organizations. Up until this point, it has been ours to shape, a space for both contention and compassion.
Moderating the student listserv is not the answer. This, Whitman College, is the wrong kind of action. Students asked for action from the administration on racism in our community. You gave us censorship. That is not what we wanted.