Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole gave the keynote address that kicked off the 2021 Power & Privilege Symposium.
Writer and photographer Teju Cole gave the keynote address that kicked off the 2021 Power & Privilege Symposium.

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Unquestionably a challenging and transformative time, the last year has brought to light a multitude of injustices into greater cultural awareness.

The Black Lives Matter movement engaged the populace in astounding ways. Voter suppression demanded attention during the presidential election season. The intersectionality of climate justice with race and social class was exposed. Social media dispersed lessons in being anti-racist through post, videos and book recommendations. All while the world was facing a pandemic, people became aware of their obligation to confront injustice.

The theme for Whitman College's 2021 Power & Privilege Symposium, “By Any Means Necessary,” is a reflection on the immediate need for social justice action despite systemic and structural obstacles.

The ninth-annual student-led symposium looks a little different this year. All events, from the keynote address to the presentations, the partner events and the debrief that caps off the symposium are being conducted entirely online in accordance with current COVID-19 guidelines.

Although virtual, the overall format of P&P hasn’t changed—entirely organized by students, the symposium centers around a full day of presentations led by Whitman students, faculty and staff. The college cancels classes for the day to allow all of the Whitman community to participate in sessions, which this year cover topics such as hidden racial biases in technology, rhetoric’s role in voter suppression, advocacy and activism through storytelling, and diversity in Greek organizations.

Students gathered around a virtual meeting

Keynote Kickoff

This year’s Power & Privilege Symposium kicked off on Wednesday, Feb. 17, with a keynote address by Teju Cole, the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. Cole is a bestselling author, internationally acclaimed photographer and the former photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. His writing has covered everything from art and race to politics and popular culture. 

Cole’s brief keynote gave way to an intersectional discussion, where he confronted hard topics. He started by reflecting on Māori politician Rawiri Waititi’s recent ejection from New Zealand’s parliament for not wearing a necktie. Calling the tie a “colonial noose,” Waititi instead wore a traditional Māori greenstone pendant around his neck as an expression of his cultural identity. Parliament later changed its tie requirement, but the damage was already done. Waititi had been publicly humiliated by Speaker Trevor Mallard and prohibited from doing his job.

Cole used the incident to launch an exploration of racism, the actions that perpetuate white colonial power, and the ways in which acceptance of white authority can hide racism. “I want us to think about how oppression shows up, almost as a matter of course. This is what people do when they feel they can do it and get away with it,” he said.

“The role of activism is to break decorum, and to force a conversation that, in its absence, would not otherwise be had.”

Cole expanded on the ulterior motives and concealed racism behind dress codes and other methods of policing cultural and ethnic expression: “I think one of the last places where assumptions about who is superior and whose way of life is worthwhile—one of the last places where that hides—is in questions of decorum,” Cole said. “When you take a step back from it, it is so obviously about control, it is about taming, it is about discipline and punishment. It’s about breaking somebody’s spirit. What we can do when we see that is be an ally.”

Digging Deeper

During the lengthy round of student questions that followed his keynote and the moderated discussion, Cole was most often asked for his perspective on current issues.

Replying to a question about literature, he caveated that simply reading about issues like racism and oppression isn’t sufficient.

“The best literature can do is bring us into the zone of understanding some things we did not understand before. It cannot tell us what it feels like,” Cole said. “Experience can never be obliterated by literature. So what I know about being Black, comes from being Black.”

He continued by explaining that he does not believe in waiting for the “good intentions of white people” and referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” in which the civil rights leader stressed that liberation and change are results of action.

“Sure, it’s nice to read, but at the end of the day folks read too much. They also need to step up. Everybody read ‘White Fragility’ this summer and there are still neighborhoods where I can't get a mortgage,” Cole said.

In his closing remarks, Cole summarized his thoughts with encouragement and directives. 

“Don’t be afraid of change. Don't be afraid to step up to people and tell them: ‘We have to do better,’” Cole said. “Do not consent to the people who are disrespecting you or causing you pain. I honestly believe that each of these conversations are a rehearsal for the revolution that is necessary in the ways that we treat each other.”