College incident prompts good lesson on dealing with racism
The Whitman College community, faced with racist cyberbullying, quickly brings everyone to the table to address rifts in its culture.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The Miami Dolphins could take a lesson from the Whitman MIssionaries on how to deal with heated issues, in Whitman’s case a cyberbullying incident involving race and ethnicity.
Whitman College is a small liberal-arts college in Walla Walla known for its high academic standards and student-centered culture. Every graduate I’ve met has a warm feeling about the college, which always scores high in student happiness in national rankings of educational institutions.
But it still exists in the real world.
Around Halloween, a student posted on Facebook a link to a request that fellow students avoid costumes that appropriate other people’s cultures. Whitman students are generally scholarly and thoughtful, but not immune to the ills around them.
Every year at Halloween, a college or university somewhere makes news because students dress in inappropriate costumes. A few years ago, a couple of Whitman students showed up at a fraternity party having painted themselves black, so the reminder this year was not out of the blue.
An online debate followed the posting, and some of the responses got nasty. Sayda Morales, the student who wrote the cautionary note, was harassed on Facebook and later on Twitter. There were also hostile postings to the online, student-run message board, Encounters.
Morales, a junior sociology major from the Bronx borough of New York City, said one male student was primarily responsible, but she feels a wider tension on campus over the conflict, with his supporters and her supporters taking sides.
“People are rallying around me and rallying around him,” Morales said. “I don’t want it to be like that. This individual is feeling uncomfortable as well.”
Fear of being labeled or attacked keeps too many people from having vital discussions. It shouldn’t be that way.
In the wake of the first online exchanges, a group of students met, discussed the situation and decided to hold a rally against racism and cyberbullying. The rally was scheduled a week after Halloween to coincide with a meeting of the diversity committee of the board of trustees. It included some faculty as well as students.
Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland told me one of the trustees tried to count the crowd and stopped at 225. It was a racially diverse crowd. “I was proud of them. They did a really good job,” he said.
Whitman’s student body is more than 72 percent non-Hispanic white, its faculty could be more diverse and it’s in Walla Walla (a nice place to visit, but not so diverse). It doesn’t need more obstacles to building a more diverse community.
Cleveland told the students the administration supported their efforts, and he invited student representatives to come inside and meet with the trustees. The students presented the trustees with a letter requesting mandatory workshops on race and mandatory attendance at the annual Power and Privilege Symposium, workshops put on by students for the first time last March.
The students also wanted the administration to take a stand, which it did two days later in a letter from President George Bridges, who wrote that the personal attacks defied Whitman’s values and that he and the trustees, “commend persons who signed the letter and those who supported Thursday’s rally and call for action.”
He assigned faculty to meet with students and form a plan to get at the causes of rifts on campus. And he said Cleveland was meeting with students who took part in the online exchanges, using it as an opportunity to discuss the effects of hostile comments.
Bridges wrote: “Whitman College is dedicated to preventing this behavior through educational experiences that begin by requiring members of our community to interrogate and question their own beliefs and prejudices from the perspective of those who they harass or attack.”
The executive council of the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) also issued a statement saying there is no room for discrimination at Whitman. ASWC President Tim Reed wrote, “we must find the time, space, and language to discuss these issues deeply and compassionately.”
While this was playing out at Whitman, the news has been full of stories about hazing in the Miami Dolphins locker room and in the NFL in general, and particularly how the team and others around the league have responded to accusations of harassment and racism: individual attacks mixed with denial. What problem? It’s just football culture.
Whitman has been examining its culture and trying to bring its values to bear on the beliefs and attitudes people bring to campus.
There have been several kinds of meetings over the past week or so, Cleveland said. There was a campus discussion about ways to talk about difficult issues, and the faculty met to discuss its role.
“We need to do some educational programming that is continuous. It can’t be one and done, which we know from history doesn’t work,” Cleveland said.
The programming might include instruction about race for new students each fall. The college will likely hold a series of discussions leading up to the Power and Privilege Symposium next March.
I asked Morales what she thought of the response so far. She said she worries that the incident has become larger than the broader problem she sees, which is that too many students lack an understanding of the role race plays in society. She said only mandatory education will address that. She’s right.
Morales, who identifies herself as Mexican-Honduran, said first-year students are required to attend sexuality training and that there should be a similar approach to race. Not blame, but rather education should drive the agenda.
“Our campus culture should be one of understanding and acceptance, not ignorance and denial,” Morales said. Whitman’s values leave no room for anything other than taking that objective seriously.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 17, 2013, was corrected Nov. 18, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Whitman’s mascot is the Pioneers. The school’s mascot is the Missionaries.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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