by Christina Russell
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” wrote W.E.B Dubois in 1901. In an effort to address this problem here in the twenty-first century at Whitman, a “town hall” style meeting was held on race relations last Sunday in Cordiner Hall.
President Bridges began the evening by making a few remarks about the nature of race relations in America at large and how, as he put it, “the effects of the color line are everywhere.”
He then introduced Dr. Victor Chacon, the director of Multicultural services at Walla Walla Community College, who served as the moderator for the night’s discussion. When Chacon first invited people to line up at the microphones, no one moved, but soon one brave student asked a question and the meeting was underway.
The discussion focused first on whether or not it was possible to have the discussion in a way that didn’t make white students on the campus feel defensive. A senior named Paul suggested that it is important to separate the person from the action and that just because the action might have been racially insensitive or offensive doesn’t mean that the person is a “racist.”
Professor Julia Davis agreed and suggested that students here try to advance beyond the gut reaction of “I am not a racist” because such a response doesn’t actually advance the conversation in a productive way. In letting go of that initial response, Professor Davis said, students can actually step back and listen to their own language and discover what might be offensive rather than just assuming that because they didn’t have a racist intent that what they said was OK.
Another primary issue addressed was the divide between students who feel that they don’t have to “live race in everyday life” and those who unavoidably do. Senior Bevin Hall stated that as a white student at Whitman, she works to be aware and responsible for the privileges bestowed upon her as a white member of society and encouraged her fellow students to do the same.
Natalie Knott talked about how the most difficult part of being any kind of minority is dealing day in and day out with the little things, not the big issues.
Another student shared that she feels particular pressures to succeed as an African-American student at the school because of the unfortunate stereotype that people from her background always do poorly in college.
Though student response to the forum was generally positive, some expressed frustration about certain aspects. Sophomore Chloe Tirabasso questioned why there is a forum on this particular issue of race when there has been no forum to address the other –isms, particularly the debate that occurred last spring about the Bible passages put in students’ mailboxes.
One junior said that she had hoped the meeting would include a summary regarding the theme of the function and the actual actions of the two boys involved to clear up any confusion about what actually happened. She felt, also, that the moderator was too intent on bringing the discussion back to the “blackface” incident rather than moving it into a larger discussion about race at Whitman.
Hall reiterated what many other faculty members have said: that this forum is only the first step. It is a dialogue that both the administration and many students hope to continue throughout the remainder of the year.