Op-Ed: Social justice or social capital: Venmo payments and land acknowledgements

Walker Orr, Senior

If you follow social justice education efforts at Whitman, on Instagram or Twitter, or Podcasts, you’re probably familiar with the request to support content creators via Venmo. Venmo payment requests featured in presentations at the 2019 Power and Privilege Symposium, and were discontinued in 2020 because they were seen as threatening to a predominantly white audience at Whitman (For The Record, E.I.D.I.A.B press, 2020: Pages 30-31 and 48-49).

Venmo payments can serve as a mechanism of wealth redistribution — though I suspect the typical amounts of a Venmo payment render this redistribution largely symbolic. Nonetheless, symbolic acts can still be powerful political instruments. I see requests for Venmo payments for cultural products as serving distinct political functions at the sites of both their production and consumption. On the production side, Venmo payments seek to compensate unpaid labor, often performed by marginalized and financially precarious nonmale people of color. On the consumption side, Venmo payments constitute an acknowledgement by the consumer that they are receiving real benefits from social justice media. In elite liberal spaces like Whitman, knowledge about social issues can serve as a form of social capital — for individuals, but also for the College, as it attempts to compete for students with other private, liberal arts colleges.

In requesting payment from elite white consumers of social justice media, creators recognize that these consumers derive a social benefit from their labor. In “For The Record,” the authors called Whitman’s bluff: their labor in putting on Power and Privilege wasn’t just “for the good of the community;” it served to improve Whitman’s standing among its peers.

This is one reason why I’m critical of Whitman’s new Official Land Acknowledgement. In the context of an institution serving a socially heterogenous population and dependent on state funding, such as a hospital or a state university, a land acknowledgement would be a powerful act. With skin in the game, something is risked, sacrificed; they’re taking a stand.

But at an elite, relatively homogenous institution like Whitman, a land acknowledgement could too easily serve just as a mark of distinction in the market for liberal-arts education, rather than a real tool for decolonization. I believe Whitman’s land acknowledgement will only become meaningful when it is accompanied by material sacrifices by our extraordinarily well-endowed College. This could involve substantially increasing discounted admission of students from C.T.U.I.R, returning some of Whitman’s considerable landholdings to the tribes, or at the very least replacing the statue of Marcus Whitman with one that celebrates Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla history.

For their consumption of social justice media to be politically meaningful, wealthy white consumers of social justice media have to pay creators for their labor. This also applies to the elite institutions that serve them. We must continue pushing the college to back their statement with real, material redistribution of wealth and power. Only then will our Official Land Acknowledgement be part of a real decolonial effort by Whitman.

Access “For The Record” here: https://issuu.com/eidiabpress/docs/for_the_record