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January 18, 2023: Rowing Against the Currents

From Dr. John Johnson, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion:

Welcome to 2023. As we turn the page on the calendar year, we often reflect on the past with Best of and Top Ten lists that remind us of the passing year’s highlights. We might also revisit our struggles and lessons from the previous year and resolve to do better. We articulate explicit commitments to do things differently and take intentional action to make the next year better than the last. We say we’re going to eat healthier, exercise more, finish that project we started. Because we know if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. 

As we come into 2023, it feels like we are moving further and further away from the events of 2020 that rocked our nation and challenged us to create the communities we want to live in and see in the world. In that ripe moment, rich with collective trauma and pain, all of us reeling from the sting of witnessing essentially the equivalent of a public lynching, it seemed like so many of us had a battery placed in our backs and were activated to effect long overdue change. Those batteries appear to be draining as time passes. While some of us are experiencing battle fatigue and exhaustion, others may be shielded from the continuing urgency of the circumstances and imagining an achieved victory or sense of accomplishment. But just because we look away, the social misery and harm experienced by so many marginalized communities does not cease. 

Last week, I learned about the death of Keenan Anderson. If you are unfamiliar, Anderson was one of a number of people killed during interactions with members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the first week of this new year. While the actual moment of Anderson’s death was not captured by the officer’s body camera (he died in the hospital a few hours after his arrest), his apprehension was recorded and the video was released by LAPD. Keenan Anderson. Takar Smith. Oscar Sanchez. Preliminary information suggests that all three of these individuals were experiencing a mental health crisis when they encountered law enforcement. All three of them are now deceased.

I am lifting this up, not to encourage people to view the footage of Anderson’s arrestwhich is itself traumaticor direct people to the similarly distressing despicable and callous comments offered in response to the news coverage on the YouTube page where it is accumulating hundreds of thousands of views, nor am I intending to proffer any kind of anti-law enforcement message. This missive is intended as a reminder that we must continue to row against the currents. 

Last semester, our LGBTQIA+ Student Services and Religious and Spiritual Life units came together to organize a Trans Day of Remembrance program. The names of the individuals killed in the Colorado Springs shooting were spoken and we mourned their deaths and acknowledged the violence and social conditions that contributed to their passing. Our Third Space Speakers last semester reminded us that the rolling power outages in California, undertaken as a strategy to reduce the potential for wildfires, placed the lives of some disabled community members, who rely on power for their survival, at risk. During the Freedom Songs event last month, many international students shared stories of conflict, war and displacement in their home countries along with experiences of marginalization and harm during their time here at Whitman.

I frequently quote Dereca Blackmon, who says “bias is the water, not the shark.” This is important for us to appreciate, understand and remember. That bias pervades. It is all around us and has material consequences. If we extend that framing and imagine we are situated in a boat on the water, the current of the water flows in the direction of the status quo, which produces stratification, bias, marginalization, exclusion, harm, violence and social misery. If we row with the water’s currents, we reinforce the systems that produce violence and harm and perpetuate hierarchies that deny the humanity and rights of select members of our community. If we sit idly in the boat and do not row, the boat still moves with the currents and in the direction of social misery and white supremacy. If we want the violence and the killing and the degradation and the harm to stop, we must row against the currents. We must row against the currents persistently and intently. We must row as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

Whitman College is part of the Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance (LACRELA). Through our membership in LACRELA, we have access to a number of resources and materials to assist our community in developing competencies around antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion. A key feature of our LACRELA membership, is the regular webinars or eConvenings that provide alliance members with ongoing DEIA education and insights from diversity professionals and scholars. The next session is scheduled for January 24, 2023 from 9 a.m.12 p.m. and is focused on “Managing and Resolving Racial Tensions in the Workplace.” Please contact diversity@whitman.edu if you are interested in attending that session as limited space is available. Resources and recordings from previous LACRELA eConvening sessions have been archived and can be accessed through this folder using your Whitman account.

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