by Ajay Abraham
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
As many of you already know, there has been a recent vitriolic, personalized and aggressive debate over the students’ listserv. The instigation for this debate was a party where the theme was “Survivor” and a few Whitman students showed up in “blackface.” This act, of course, is highly offensive and displays an intense and troubling ignorance on the part of those students. However, the debate itself—whether waged on the listserv, in faculty meetings or in conversations with students—has proven itself to be more troubling and more offensive than the incident ever was.
Now, my intention is not to weigh in on the “blackface” debate but rather a very sad result of it. As much as I had hoped that we could find a more common ground and not revert to old, ridiculous divisions, some of the groups in our community have felt it necessary to try to frame the issue as a greek problem. This, unfortunately, did not come only from select anti-greek independents but was even brought up as discussion among other groups within the Whitman community. This is supremely frustrating on multiple levels. So I feel it is necessary, as an independent of color that has numerous close friends in the greek system, to speak to why that kind of discussion is harmful to our cause.
It is true that the particular incident occurred at a greek function, but by no means can the “blackface” issue be pigeonholed into just that particular party. If it were simply a matter of that party, the issue would be simple. However, it was the offensive and ignorant things said in the ensuing debate over the students’ listserv that is particularly disquieting. And some of the worst things were said by greeks and independents alike. Ignorance, it seems, has little to do with affiliation.
Any kind of attempt to move this to an indictment on the greek system would be moving away from the actual problems that have been raised in the last few weeks. When looking at this incident and its response, one cannot view it as something wrong in the greek system and hope to accomplish any kind of progress. Rather, it is a Whitman problem. To say that it was greek students, instead of Whitman students, is to marginalize the problem to a small part of the much larger section of the campus community that needs to be reached here.
We are actually quite lucky to have a greek system like the one we do on our campus. Unlike several other colleges and universities, our fraternities and sororities have a far less pervasive and negative presence. Rather, their members are actively encouraged to make a positive impact on their community. Some of the most engaged, intelligent, and caring individuals on campus made the choice to become part of a fraternity or sorority. At every level of ASWC leadership, there are several members of the greek organizations—including three on the Executive Council. There is no other type of group on campus that so actively fosters academic excellence, going as far as to have GPA requirements for continued participation. And there is only one institution on campus that is involved in more community service than the greek organizations: the Center for Community Service, and specifically the Whitman Mentors—which, in itself, is largely comprised by greeks.
True to form, the greek organizations on campus have begun to actually lead the charge for fostering change in the aftermath of this issue. At a recent meeting of student leaders called by President Bridges to discuss our campus-wide response to the issue, the fraternities and sororities were extremely well represented. The leaders of the greek system have taken several steps within and outside their respective organizations to respond to the issue, because they fundamentally believe that the “blackface” issue does fly in the face of their guiding principles. They recognize that their organizations have played a role in this problem, but also know that by no means can they be made into the scapegoats.
In the end, the Whitman community as a whole needs to commit to working on how to create an open, inviting, and informed campus. Many students, faculty, and staff have joined the ranks of those dedicated to seeing the development of just such a community. This is not the time for old divisions, but rather for new connections. Whitman must heal from this, and we must do it together. Our greek system has made a promise to be a part of that change. The question in my mind is whether or not the rest of our community will follow suit.