Crossfire: Power and Privilege attendance

Bex Heimbrock and Kaitlin Cho


Illustration by Holly VanVoorhis

The Problem with Power and Privilege – Bex Heimbrock

The Power and Privilege Symposium (P&P) started, like most co-opted neoliberal phenomena, as a protest. Before P&P, in 2006, there was the student-organized symposium on race relations and community – created by the sheer force of student activism following a blackface-infested party at Sigma Chi. 

The first symposium is largely remembered as a frank, honest conversation around issues of race at Whitman and beyond. Now, however, the symposium is shackled both by the paternalism of Whitman’s administration and burnt-out student leaders who – while well-intentioned – seem to prioritize buzzwords and agreeable content over difficult, sometimes painful discussions. 

Take, for example, this year’s P&P keynote speaker, Loretta J. Ross. Ross is a principal partner with a consulting firm – 14th Strategies Consultants – that brands themselves as having “business and real life experience from the streets to the boardroom.”

While Ross is a truly exceptional activist and advocate whom I greatly admire, 14th Strategies Consultants is emblematic of the very issue with P&P – conflating corporations and administrations with social justice. 14th Strategies Consultants proudly declare on their website that they have worked with Fortune 500 companies. 

Whitman College’s Power and Privilege Symposium is missing the point. The commodification of racial justice language, used to benefit big corporations, is antithetical to the very nature of this fight. Of the thirteen sessions held during this year’s symposium, only three explicitly mention race as a topic of discussion. 

Certainly, it is much easier for Whitman’s 59.6 percent white and 66 percent upper-middle to upper-class (seriously, in 2017, 66 percent of Whitties were from the top 20 percent) to spend a day talking about what it means to be an accomplice than it is to have difficult discussions about race at Whitman and beyond. 

What’s the point of mandatory attendance when the information that students will be forced to receive is nothing short of standardized, barely political, corporate jargon?

P&P Doesn’t Need to be Perfect, You Just Need to Show Up – Kaitlin Cho

The Power and Privilege Symposium at Whitman College has its roots in not merely understanding issues, but understanding each other. It’s one thing to discuss in the theoretical, to read an article or to watch a YouTube video; it’s another thing entirely to come into a room, listen and talk to members of your community.

Particularly in our post-COVID world, we often conduct or witness “discourse” on the Internet, or with strangers, which always carries some loss of reality. The conversation becomes impersonal. Ultimately, the many issues we talk about during the Power and Privilege Symposium – race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, war, healthcare and climate change – share one thing in common: they are human issues and are almost always discussed by the people affected by them. Almost as importantly, we are connected to those people: they are our peers, our faculty or our fellow residents. What the Power and Privilege Symposium offers us, more than anything else, is de-abstraction. These problems and these discussions become individual, personal and real.

Of course, all of this is only possible if people come. To be honest, I don’t even think people need to be “ready to engage.” I’ve found any initial reluctance fades quickly when the session begins. The trouble is that for many students, that initial reluctance is enough for them to simply not attend the Power and Privilege Symposium sessions – and it’s often the students most averse to going that would benefit the most from attending. It’s for this reason that I believe Whitman College should make P&P attendance mandatory.

It’s not that the Power and Privilege Symposium is perfect, but it doesn’t need to be – the point of the Power and Privilege Symposium is, after all, to have a dialogue. P&P offers us an opportunity to turn hashtags and Instagram infographics into something personal and community-oriented, leading to an intellectual and emotional understanding of these issues. The first step to taking advantage of this is showing up.