Op-Ed: ‘Culture of Silence:’ What the WWU Administration Will Not Address

Originally Posted on Whitman Wire via UWIRE

These past few weeks at Walla Walla University have been rocky, to say the least. Therefore, in this week’s Swap Issue, I hope to address some of the questions many Whitties have asked me about the blackface social media post at WWU and the discussion it has sparked. I think that this issue is intrinsically tied to some of the other discrimination issues WWU faces as a conservative religious university.

As some readers may know, The Wire’s editor-in-chief, Martina Pansze, covered this incident in her news article last week, accompanied by a comment mentioning Whitman’s own “blackface incident” which occurred in late 2006 at a Sigma Chi party. This incident proved to be the catalyst for the creation of the Power and Privilege Symposium held every year. I believe this response and the sustained social activism which followed have served your college well, promoting an atmosphere of comparative racial awareness and acceptance. I found my tour of Whitman last Thursday to be a refreshing vision of what social awareness can do for a student body. This environment inspired me to share some of the stories of adversity that our campus has failed to address due to a culture of silence. I hope hearing these stories will inspire your campus to continue your work within this community. The blackface incident at Walla Walla University has sparked discussions that we hope can continue, just as they have at Whitman. Therefore, as we share these other stories of discrimination, we hope to broaden the discussion to examine the systemic biases that have facilitated the intolerances we all hope to end.

I tell these stories not to undermine the significance of the blackface incident, but rather to use the empowerment of current discussions to open the issues which our administration refuses to address.

Racial Profiling

Earlier this year a piece was published in The Collegian detailing the discrimination Hispanic students face at WWU’s School of Engineering. Speaking to a number of these students, a disturbing trend of profiling appeared through the racial attribution of otherwise normal grammar mistakes. An engineering student, Carlos*, showed me one of his returned papers which was accompanied by the racist note:

“Since English is not your first language, you will need to get started on writing assignments early and go to the tutoring center to get help with grammer [sic]. Having proper grammar is part of professionalism. But realize you have have a great talent Know [sic] more than one language! — which will be a great asset in your career.”

Carlos was born and raised in the United States in an English-speaking home and considers English his first language. He himself says that his Spanish is “almost as bad as that racist grader’s English.” A lighter-skinned friend of his with a European-sounding surname received a similarly-marked paper unaccompanied by any comment, let alone the racial profiling Carlos received. Another student, Juan*, was also profiled, with a note which derided his heritage as a disadvantage for which he would need to try harder to overcome.

Still more students came forward telling their stories, but as with Carlos and Juan, they requested to remain anonymous or refused to let the stories go to print for fear of retaliation. Moreover, each student refused every appeal made to report his or her story of discrimination to academic administration. Each cited other instances of retaliation, many calling out an engineering professor. These accusations painted a sad story of silence, which the academic administration chose to ignore when The Collegian published the article.

Blackface

In stark contrast is the “blackface incident.” When given a perpetrator that was not a member of their ranks but rather students, combined with news coverage that would paint the administration as heroes fighting racism, the University was easily motivated to condemn racism. Additionally, the perpetrators included a Dominican, two Filipinos and two white Americans. As a consequence, when these guys say their social media post wasn’t targeted at any particular racial group, many WWU students are inclined to believe them. When they claim ignorance of the existence of blackface, WWU students are inclined to believe them. When the perpetrators claim that administration is using them as examples rather than adequately addressing the systemic discrimination that is responsible for their ignorance, I cannot help but acknowledge this sad reality. Harm was not intended but most certainly was done because WWU’s administration has not acted when its own employees, administrators, teachers and graders have perpetrated acts of racism on WWU’s campus. The administration has stood idly by in a position of power; they, as heads of an educational institution, have failed to adequately educate our student body on its own privilege and the racism which we all systemically perpetuate.

LGBTQ+ Discrimination

Last year, and again earlier this year, The Collegian published articles outlining both the blatant and secretive policies the University uses for workplace discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. While the university adheres to the state of Washington’s formal anti-discrimination laws regarding LGBTQ+ persons, the university undermines the laws’ power by maintaining a culture of silence. Previous employees have spoken to other writers of The Collegian detailing interview guidelines which encourage interviewers to avoid offering university jobs to applicants who are open and honest about a minority sexual orientation. Zachary White poignantly distilled these issues in these excerpts from his piece “Queer Reflections on ‘Western Wedding University.’”

“As readers of my column might know, I [aspire to] teach history as a professor on the university level. I am not certain where I will want to teach. One thing, however, does seem clear. Joining my beloved professors in the history department at WWU will likely not be an option, as this university has a policy of not hiring faculty who are LGBTQ+, as confirmed by The Collegian’s investigation last year.”

White goes on to detail his efforts to promote equality at the student governmental level. Last year, he served on the ASWWU Senate and wrote a bill in collaboration with other senators and the ASWWU Inclusivity Committee to call for an ASWWU inclusivity statement that would declare that the student organization stood for the inclusion and acceptance of all its students, regardless of gender, race, immigration status, religious affiliation, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“While I believe that the Senate at the time was likely to affirm such a bill, the bill’s other authors and I were invited to a meeting with an administrator, during which we were asked to discontinue our efforts to push this bill forward. The administrator cited the bill’s mention of LGBTQ+ inclusion as the primary reason for their apprehension in allowing the bill’s passage forward.”

This trend of LGBTQ+ discrimination only deepens with each subsequent investigation. In my own experience as a queer student at WWU, I’ve found far more systemic homophobia than a straight-passing white male would expect. It’s a sad reflection of the incredibly-limited parameters used to differentiate those worthy of respect from everyone else. An example of this systemic homophobia can be found in the anonymous replies to our weekly The Collegian Facebook polls. One week our poll asked if the LGBTQ+ community should receive positive recognition from the administration. The responses were nothing short of horrifying:

“Because people should keep their sexuality and mental illnesses to themselves.”

“Because the LGBT community is not conducive with the morals of this school. There is no need positively acknowledge something ‘wrong.’”

“LGBT etc. is a choice that is not according to God’s design. Should we positively have positive[sic] acknowledgment for all of this? How then can we consider the University following the Bible”

These vitriolic comments are the sad manifestation of a reprehensible culture which I believe the University and the non-affirming theology of the Seventh-day Adventist church help propagate.

This perpetuation is most horrifyingly illustrated in the story of Emma*. Emma is a trans woman, veteran and Seventh-day Adventist. This past spring, I met with her to hear her story. Emma came to Walla Walla not too long ago; she was already “out” as a trans woman but was pre-transition. The University moved to put her in the boys dorm, citing the gender assigned to her at birth. This led to a protracted negotiation which was ultimately resolved by putting her in an off-campus apartment. Soon thereafter she began transitioning. As some of you may know, transitioning is a long, complicated and emotionally-taxing experience. Her mental health buckled under the stress of her academics and the sheer weight of transitioning.

With no formally recognized LGBTQ+ groups on campus, and therefore no organized LGBTQ+ community, Emma was left with nowhere to go. She began self-medicating after the on-campus counseling center failed to provide the support she so desperately needed. Her friends became concerned, which led one of them to report her to the University. The report led to two different raids of her apartment. The stress was further compounded by the death threats she received from other community members, and a litany of bathroom bullying stories which can only be described as beyond hellish. Finally, after a little over a year and a half at WWU, Emma left.

It was clear that the administration was unable and unwilling to protect her. Instead it chose to keep her comfortably hidden, favoring their own ease over the morality of the faith upon which their institution was built. Their apathetic work was a disgrace to the entire campus. It illustrates a culture of silent oppression built upon a few cherry-picked Bible verses while choosing to ignore the message of love on which all Christendom was built.

Sadly, many of these stories never reached university staff because of this culture of silence. Publishing such exposés in The Collegian takes weeks to get approved, often accompanied by a mitigating set of edits. The results of this culture trickle down to the individual student level, generating even more stories that desperately need to be told but are all the more silenced. It’s a toxic cycle that leaves the University’s administration unaware of its own abuses and even less equipped to address them. Something must change, and I hope together we can help bring about that brighter future. Thank you.

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