WLU ’21 — Deeply Rooted

TW: Racist & homophobic slurs 

I came to W&L a proud Jew from an upper middle class family in North New Jersey. Many folks, including my high school college advisor, tried to talk me out of attending W&L and remaining in the Northeast for college. I was warned that while many students from the tri-state area attended W&L each year, Jewish, Asian, and Black students had always had a very difficult time assimilating to the white, southern culture that still pervades our campus and sets the tone for most of W&L’s student culture. 

I was not worried. I had attended a diverse private school with all sorts of kids from all walks of life. My friend group in high school was a mixed bag of friends which spanned the socio-economic spectrum. How bad could it be?

Unfortunately, the warnings from my advisor, friends and family were all spot-on. The vast majority of Admissions mailings and website photos I was bombarded with as a high school junior attempted to frame W&L as a diverse, open-minded place. These were all nothing more than propaganda, no doubt part of the school’s Strategic Plan to bring in more minority kids to the school. The admissions tour and information sessions were equally transparent and offensive to many listening to the Admissions tour guide and Admissions Rep that chilly spring morning.    

I should have listened to the warnings. Not even a week on campus, racist quotes were scrawled across the bathroom mirror and stalls in my Graham-Lees dorm. “Diversity is white genocide” read one of the scrawlings. 

This “greeting” remained on our stall door for weeks before it was finally removed – just before Parent’s Weekend. “Mazal Tov” (sic),  “Big Nigga”  and “Fag” (amongst others) would also find their way on to the walls of our bathroom that fall, yet no one seemed to really care. Rampant drinking and heavy use of drugs were also a big problem on our floor with some students and took up a good amount of our RA’s time.

My experiences around W&L’s fraternity rush which begins during the Winter Term were equally disappointing and laden with racist overtones and dog whistles. There is a social hierarchy within the men’s fraternal system where the “top houses” are almost devoid of any minority representation. One night, during a study session, I was advised by one of my classmates to avoid rushing certain “Southern” or “Tier 1” houses because of their lack of tolerance for “diverse” northerners. 

I pressed on this statement and was told that there are certain “good ole boy” houses at W&L that do not take Jewish, Black, or Asian pledges. I was told we had our place, and it was not around the students or in these houses. I wanted to see for myself if this was in fact the case, so I attended several rush parties for “Tier 1” fraternities. Most of the brothers appeared nice, but were quick to shuffle you through the house to meet a group of younger members, who I noticed were only talking to north-easterners like myself and who were holding a RED Solo cups. As it turned out, this frat used color-coded cups to identify “worthy” prospects. In the other room were prospective students holding BLUE Solo cups. All of these students were white and predominantly from the Southeast. They were being rushed by a larger group of brothers, many of whom were officers in the fraternity. What I experienced that day was later confirmed by an upperclassman international student that I had met. 

He mentioned that these houses were off limits to folks like us and also mentioned that W&L still has several secret societies (i.e., Cadaver Society aka C. Corp to its members) which draw most of their members from these “elite tier” frats.   

At the conclusion of the winter rush season, bids were given out and wild parties occurred at most of the frat houses. Two of the southern guys on my hall rushed the top tier, predominantly southern fraternity and were both completely lit when they returned back to the dorm to change clothes. All of a sudden, they thrust my door open and presented me with a blue yarmulke with a W&L trident sewn to the cap. The two were dancing  drunk (and who knows what else) with these caps on their heads. They said that they had just broken into the W&L’s Jewish Student Center, the Hillel House, and taken the caps. They ended up parading down the hall with the hats singing Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song. The next morning, I found one of the caps floating in the toilet.

I ended up finding my small niche at W&L. If I had to do it all over again, sadly, I would not have chosen to attend W&L. There are some great profs here, but overall, it has many deep-rooted problems that will not just vanish if the school’s name were to change.

WLU ’21 — Change

Before coming to W&L, I was unaware of some of the problematic parts of our campus and community. I never understood how something like having “Lee” as part of our name could negatively impact any other student’s experience because I was raised in a “War of Northern Aggression” household and community. Being that I was white and went to a small predominantly white school, I never questioned the picture that had been painted of the Confederate general. I bought into the same narrative that W&L pushed, showcasing him primarily as an educator and savior of our university. 

I applied to the school because it checked off all of my boxes, especially my need for financial aid. I come from a low income background and was even on scholarship to my private high school so I needed to be able to afford to attend a higher institution.

Luckily, W&L was able to completely meet my needs, and I am incredibly grateful for this, especially since this is not the case for every student. Even through my first year, I was pretty unaware of some of the negative aspects of our campus. That is until I was starting to really pay attention. 

My family members came to parents’ weekend my sophomore year, and some of them were completely appalled by what they saw. They didn’t understand the necessary push for adding diversity to our campus, and I remember one of them saying how they don’t get why W&L will just let anyone in these days. I was completely taken aback because I knew exactly who they were referring to: the POC and LGBT+ students. At the time, I didn’t say anything for fear that I would come across as disrespectful, and I regret that decision because I know that they were also referring to some of my friends and peers.

After that, I started noticing more comments that peers were making: fraternity members using racist slurs, friends making homophobic comments, sorority sisters bashing lower income families. I started to question if I made the right decision of attending W&L even though I was never directly attacked. 

As I was closeted at the time, I felt like I would never be able to really be myself on campus if this was how my peers behaved. In a family group chat recently, they were complaining about the school’s recent push to add diversity, and an incredibly wealthy family member told me to “check my privilege” since she didn’t believe I could have been accepted without them wanting to fill an economic diversity spot. I began wondering if I had peers who thought that about me as well, and I cannot even imagine what it is like to be a student of color or an open member of the LGBTQ+ community if this is what my own family thinks of me.

Our campus has aspects of elitism, misogyny, and racism built within its walls, and as a white student that has come out to only a few friends, I will never fully understand or experience the negative parts of our community. 

Having “Lee” in our name can only further perpetuate these behaviors among students, faculty, alums, and family members. It makes our campus feel unwelcoming to marginalized groups since the university has catered to these mindsets to maintain funding and prestige among elitist and close-minded members of our community. 

It is a small stepping stone, but taking Lee out of the name pushes our university in the right direction for change.

WLU ’23 — Burden

Prior to college, I never saw my identity as a black girl as a burden. But coming to Lexington, this identity has meant that my W&L experience does not belong to me. The weight of bringing the University’s diversity statement into fruition falls squarely on students of color.

We are charged with educating our peers inside the classroom and out. We are asked to share our experiences which they then invalidate and to give our suggestions for change which they then ignore. Everyday we are forced to defend our existence as they promptly showed us when they threatened to take away Sankofa unless we “showed enough interest.” Despite all this, they throw happy photos of the same students of color on every screen on campus and show us off for admissions tours. W&L has to do more than just want diversity. Students of color just want to be students. 

We go to school to receive an education and to create better lives for our families. That task is already difficult enough without asking us to perform so many extra roles without any reciprocation. 

We are not diversity workers. 

We are not teachers. 

We are not therapists. 

We are students.

WLU ’22 — One Day

I have read so many stories on dearWLU the past few days about people’s personal experiences. It is both heartbreaking and relieving to know that the microaggressions, the day to day stresses, the need to fit in and be someone you’re not – it is not something I alone face. Because while it is one thing to say to myself “I can’t be the only one to feel this way,” it is another thing to read about the experiences other people have had. There is power in those words, in unveiling the things that happen to us when we go to a majority-white school, where uniformity, conformity, wealth and whiteness are emphasized and perpetuated.

But I hope it’s okay if I take the liberty of painting a larger picture. I won’t speak for everyone who has felt marginalized at W&L, but give me a moment of your time so I can take you through what it is like to live a day in my life at W&L:

I walk to class in the morning – whether its over Cadaver Bridge, the bridge to Dhall, or through the Colonnade, rarely is there a person who looks like me. Sure, I see friendly faces, and even friends too, so it’s not all that bad. But imagine, coming from a place where you have friends who are both like you and both not, and then coming to W&L, where everyone looks alike.

I sit in my class and look around. I don’t see another person who looks like me. But say it’s an English class and we happen to be reading literature about people of color. The professor looks at me, and some people in the class will turn to look at me too. It’s not meant to be rude. It’s subconscious on some level.

I go to Dhall, if I have time for lunch. I’ve gotten used to the standard fare – undercooked chicken, salad bar, pasta that tastes like cardboard. 

An attempt at Chinese food or Ethiopian food here or there. No one is expecting Dhall to be a 5-star restaurant. But I don’t see any food that I am used to eating from my childhood. When I want comfort food, I can’t just go out to Walmart to buy mac and cheese or call Dominos. Lexington isn’t big enough where the kind of things I like to eat when I’m sad or craving something are easily available. I feel farther from home than ever.

I go back to my apartment. I love my roommates. We’re the best of friends. But they don’t take their shoes off when they come into the apartment, or keep plastic bags. It’s small things like that – things about my culture that I have always known, but when I explain to other people, they don’t get. They’ll laugh or think it’s weird. But why should I have to feel like it’s weird?

If it’s Friday or Saturday, I’ll go to a party. I enjoy it, and it’s a good time, and I always have friends to find and people to talk to. But I’ll never forget the times I go to a party and I’m singled out by someone because of the way I look: “Hey, my friend think you’re hot because you’re [insert race here] — he’s always wanted to hook up with someone like you.” And this has happened over and over. It’s more than just being objectified and sexualized, which is uncomfortable enough. It’s being fetishized and being made an object of desire because you are “exotic” – and at a place like W&L, where sexual assault is a fear that is realized more often than not – it makes me feel unsafe and targeted.

They are all small things, and sometimes it’s not about people doing or saying something. But it’s about an entire student and institutional culture that is so blind and within a bubble that it doesn’t realize the kind of diversity and differences that are other there.

Its blindness is suffocating. Slowly, I feel like I am unraveling and have two personalities — one that everyone will find acceptable; the one that went to Disneyland as a kid; the one that shops at Lululemon and Madewell and Anthropologie; the one who’s parents have a large house with a pool and jacuzzi in the backyard. But then there’s the other me — the one who likes to wear crop tops and shorts without being told its too revealing, simply because it isn’t Southern enough; the one who likes to eat well-cooked rice (yes, there is a difference!) and find a good boba place without driving to Charlottesville; the one who likes to listen to music in a different language when studying; the one who doesn’t want to dye her hair or wear certain clothes to fit in because she doesn’t want to feel ashamed of who she is or feel like she needs to be “more white.”

But the more time I spend at W&L, the less I feel like I have space for the other me. 

W&L, it isn’t just about diversity. It isn’t just about numbers, about bringing more students who look like me to campus. It isn’t just allowing clubs like BSA and PAAACE to exist. It’s not just about diversity and inclusion workshops.

It’s about making us feel welcome. It’s about creating a culture where we don’t feel “other”, or feel like we have to explain ourselves everyday. It’s about recruiting students from more than just your usual pool – the privileged set of kids who are nice enough and smart enough, but also ignorant enough to make the rest of us feel uncomfortable because they just haven’t “experienced” diversity or know what it feels like to be “other”.

So W&L, do better. The burden should no longer have to be on the students of color, the students who are “different” from your norm to prove that we are “worthy” of being accepted.

WLU ’23 — Imperfect

I’m a white student that grew up in a small town in SC. Due to a history of racism, my high school of 2,500 students was 90% white, so when I came to W&L I was amazed at all the different races and cultures I saw represented. It was a whole new world for me and I loved my first year.

I worked at the bookstore, and every time I met a prospective student I eagerly told them all about why W&L is wonderful. One time, my Black coworker overheard me, and made a comment about how her experience was far from perfect. We had a conversation afterwards about her perspective as a minority at the school. It was really eye opening for me and I’m glad we had the conversation. After that, I was able to view campus in a different light and understand that even though the student body is more diverse than my hometown public schools, we still have a long way to go. 

If you’re a white person reading this, I want to encourage you to take a minute and talk to your Black friends and friends of color about their experience at school. Make sure to talk to all of them, because everyone has a different story to share.

WLU ’18 — Conformity

During my time at W&L, I did whatever I needed to do to appear more “white” because this was the only way I knew how to be accepted. The university preaches efforts for diversity, but full acceptance was impossible unless you dressed and acted like your white counterparts. Only after leaving the school did I realize communities embracing diversity actually existed.

A year after graduation, I visited W&L friends in a new city and we went to a predominately white bar. I suddenly became uncomfortable again, feeling the oppressive force of white elitism. I was shocked and told my friend, “wow, there are really only white people here”. She just says, “yes, my kind of people.” A small statement that hit me hard.

I realize now how much I had to conform in order to feel safe. Racism isn’t always overt, it can be a subtle way of being, especially at W&L. While I am so thankful for my education and the true lifelong friends, the culture at W&L is damaging and surrounded by microaggressions (in addition to blatant racism). We need to stop accepting this as fact, reflect on times we’ve been complicit, and start calling out an institution that is deeply rooted in racism.

WLU ’22 — Exhausting

It is exhausting to be a minority at W&L. I dated a white guy my freshman year and was soon given the nickname “Asian wifey” by him and his fraternity; he later prided himself on advertising the benefits of having an Asian girlfriend. Because it was always framed as a compliment, and because I didn’t want to get made fun of, I would smile and nod along. I wish I had called out problematic jokes and comments more, but I felt like there was no use drawing attention to my discomfort. When I did, they often said that I was too young, sensitive, and/or naive; I just needed to understand that growing up and going to college meant adopting a more controversial sense of humor (this was often accompanied by justification surrounding a different PoC laughing at/making problematic jokes). Sometimes I wouldn’t get a response – just an annoyed look. If I was lucky, they did change… and then acted like they deserved a pat on the back.

When one of his brothers started dating an Asian girl, people started to joke about how we were the same (in our interests, in the things we did for our boyfriends) – and how all Asian girls are the same. When I disagreed, they would argue against me. I would then fall silent, or laugh it off.

I always cringe looking back on it now; I feel disgusted with the gross stereotypes and near-fetishization that I appeared to be complacent with. And the worst part about W&L was not these comments — it’s how widespread this ignorance is. It’s the number of times I’ve had to explain why diversity matters to someone who believed that it was the “homogenous” community of W&L that made it most desirable, the number of students who have been told and internalized that they’re only at W&L to better diversity numbers instead of for their merit, and the number of times I was told it was impossible to thrive (traditionally) at W&L if I didn’t assimilate.

When one of his brothers started dating an Asian girl, people started to joke about how we were the same (in our interests, in the things we did for our boyfriends) – and how all Asian girls are the same. When I disagreed, they would argue against me. I would then fall silent, or laugh it off.

There is an extreme lack of understanding of even the minimal conversation we have surrounding diversity. Students of color lecture countless peers about the importance of it, but it never stops feeling like justification for both the diversity initiatives and our own presence on campus.

WLU ’22 — Rush

As a First Year, I rushed due to my incredible anxiety about being a woman of color on W&L’s campus, and the social isolation I believed I would face. While going through the formal rush process, I found myself entering different sorority houses and scanning the room, trying to see how many non-white faces I saw. In most cases, I saw very few. In some houses, specifically the sororities that are considered to be “high tier” I saw as few as 0 people of color (current members) present. I felt like greek life wasn’t a space for me, but nevertheless was interested to accept my bid and see how the experience would be for me. 

While I had reluctantly rushed out of social pressure and anxiety, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my role in perpetuating a system I strongly disagreed with. 

I officially decided to disaffiliate, but had not gone through the process yet at that point. I am currently disaffiliated. 

As a member of greek life, I know I enjoyed a level of privilege that independent students, particularly independent students of color, independent students in the LGBTQA+ community, independent students experiencing poverty, or independent students in other marginalized groups did not. However, greek affiliation aside, W&L is not a very welcoming community for students of color. It may not even be as explicit as a direct, verbal, racist statement, but rather, a feeling of awkwardness and otherness when walking around campus alone, walking past a group of all-white students, or even walking through town and fearing seeing Confederate flags flying. W&L as an institution often talks about diversity, and while there has been a stronger push for “inclusion” more recently, there is still a ton of work to be done. 

Getting students from different backgrounds to attend W&L is one thing, but I know from experience and from dialogue with others that many students from a variety of backgrounds do not feel included on this campus or in the broader community. From parties that promote cultural appropriation or classism, to being the only non-white person in a room full of students discussing racism, this campus and much of its institutions and culture can feel very isolating and lonely for students in minority groups. 

WLU Transfer – Tired

I’ve been dreading writing this for a while, but I think it’s necessary to share what I endured at W&L, even if some of my experiences reveal my identity.

I want to preface this by saying I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities W&L provided me. After transferring, I was accepted into another amazing university and I think a large piece of my acceptance there was the fact I was coming from W&L.

However, it is only fair to myself and all low-income students on campus to recognize guilt attached to a sizable financial aid package. For me, I would never be able to attend a college without financial aid, but I can also recognize how guilty I would have felt attending a different university at a higher price.

As a foster youth, I have had a lifetime of hardships and continue to face the ways in which I was set up for failure by family, the state, and the education system. When I was accepted to Washington and Lee, let alone any college, I sobbed. I felt like this was finally my ticket out, the one amazing thing after so much sadness and loss. I came for DIVE weekend and had an incredible time, meeting friends I’m still in contact with to this day.

However, when I participated in the ARC program, I began to see signs, but ignored them nonetheless. The KKK came to campus and the administration met with our cohort specifically to have an open conversation. They told us there was a safety plan in place for us, but when we inquired further they did not share this “plan”. This was only worsened by the scandal at the Red Hen. I am a non-passing trans person and upon walking to Kroger, I passed by hateful protests and turned around.

I have never felt so much fear in relation to my identity in my life. The administration did not warn us in time, if at all.

When I came to campus in the fall, I had an incredible time. I felt secure: I didn’t need to worry about money. I had clean water and access to housing and food, not to mention the friends I made. Every day was an adventure, every meal was an insightful conversation. I felt close and connected. I did a damn good job of ignoring the side comments and micro-aggressions. I tried to stay optimistic.

However, when I went to a party at the Pole Houses with two friends, everything changed. Shortly after arriving, someone asked to meet me outside. Naively, I accepted and followed them. I’m assuming this was a member of the associated fraternity, but to this day I can’t confirm that. I was told “people were uncomfortable”. I knew immediately it was because of my queer identity.

I boldly asked him to “say it, tell me why they’re uncomfortable”. His reply was “I can’t change the way people think”. 

I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t stop to update my friends. I was enraged. I went to the outside deck and yelled at the top of my lungs: “I’m being asked to leave this party because I’m gay.” I always hear of community responses on campuses to things like this. I guess I was expecting people to leave or yell with me. However, I’ll never forget the stares, the discomfort and disgusted pity in their eyes that told me “so what?”

I started sobbing and ran down the stares, my friends following. One of my classmates saw me crying and tried comforting me by saying “there’s other parties”. A fraternity brother approached me and told me “our brothers would never do that”. 

When rush came and my hall mates were asked why they’d rush with a fraternity that had homophobic members, they responded “they said that wasn’t true”. With little evidence from the darkly lit party, I launched a Title IX investigation only for it to be closed. I even met with the administration and other queer students, to which we were presented with training modules for the fraternities. I told them that this wouldn’t help, that the issue is accountability. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I remember they dismissed my statement with some other explanation.

This is only scratching the surface. On top of these, I had many comments about my financial aid package and poor academic performance. Classmates inquiring why I never came to class, even making targeted jokes about it. Professors threatening to fail me for absences when the syllabus had no mention.

I am not proud of my transcript at W&L, but I was tired. I fought so hard to leave my circumstances of poverty and abuse and succeeded only to experience constant micro-aggressions and hate that is rooted in the very culture of the school. I tried so hard to bring change at the cost of my sanity and academics. I answered invasive questions, I was vulnerable to complete strangers. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t welcome.

So I withdrew, with no plans of where I’d go next. I was not brave enough for the war fought by marginalized students on campus. I was not equipped to keep fighting in a battle that was so heavily skewed against me.

After spending a year at my current institution and working in therapy, I felt brave again. 

I felt again like the can-do foster youth that WOULD be a success story. I missed my friends at Washington and Lee, despite the hardships. I missed the small class sizes and, honestly, I missed the money and job prospects.

I planned to apply for reinstatement, with the understanding campus was still the way it was when I left. I asked for 4 recommendation letters, I prepared my essays, and I gathered all other materials for a deadline in August.

As a final blow, Washington and Lee moved the deadline to mid-July with little notice. I only found out days before when I checked the reinstatement website again.

I don’t know if I’ll try again for Winter term. I’m so tired of trying and being let down by this university. I’m so tired of my excitement turning into disappointment. 

Washington and Lee is a special place in a lot of ways and I’m so blessed to have the friends I made there, but I can’t keep doing this. I can’t let Washington and Lee invalidate all the work I’ve done to get where I am.

WLU ’19 – Cultural Problem

We have had literally endless conversations about name changes and civility. The problems that plague this university are systemic. The kids who want to go to W&L tend toward racist, classist, and oftentimes sexist viewpoints. Alumni graduate after having incubated themselves into tight cliques of their frat/srat members and classrooms rife with discourse colored by “diversity of thought”. The school is a safe haven.

So, why come here? Because of incredible financial aid packages. Because of persuasive admissions counselors. Because you think that things might be different for you and your class. I didn’t realize that the culture shock of attending this university would run a lot longer than the first few months of my first year. 

I was left grappling with conflicting feelings of guilt over not being grateful enough for my financial aid package, inferiority for not fitting in with the rest of my classmates, anger that my closest chance to gain social capital came with such a hefty price tag, confusion over what facets of social life here I should just dismiss and what I should raise a complaint on, and frustration over having to handle all of that by myself.

Yes, I knew I could always go to OIE or counseling, but that seemed ridiculous. Why should I seek administrative help for what seemed to be a cultural problem? How could I explain it beyond “Not many people are interested in forming deep ties with me due to my race, my politics, and socioeconomic background”? Beyond “I am not willing to sacrifice my identity for the sake of placating my peers, yet I know that without the social boundaries these students are placing upon themselves, we could be friends”?

Bringing BI&POC students into that environment, silencing their concerns with calls for civility, placating them with superficial change – it’s so violent. Making the politically moderate students feel better about themselves by doing the bare minimum to include BI&POC students isn’t justice. Favoring a few token BI&POC and LQBTQIA+ students as the faces of student activism and student-administrative exchange isn’t justice. The existence of the Greek system, especially as it exists now, is violent. The glorification of both Washington and Lee is violent. The endless passes given to displays of support of white supremacy on campus is violent.

A white race economics professor said he didn’t need to attend a professional workshop because he didn’t have any implicit biases. Violence. A black history professor was doxxed and quit. Violence. 2016 Mock Con… the whole thing… violence.

The KKK came to campus and left flyers stating (among other things) that phrenologically, black women are the most intellectually inferior people. A ‘town meeting‘ was held, students spent some time airing their grievances to whoever chose to come to commons, and the night ended. Charlie Kirk… for what? Y’all did that, for what? 

Sometimes BI&POC students seize up when they get to campus, made to choose whether they want to try and ride with the status quo or get unofficially cast aside as some kind of social pariah. If you are white/cis passing, the temptation strengthens. You literally have to choose – non wealthy, non white, non cishet friends, dead parties, dead club events, a committee or commission or two VS a crumb of dignity in the face of the W&L social system. 

We should definitely strive for eradicating racist symbols, but I cared a lot more about the kid who slept across the hall in my first year dorm who was a participant of Groupme Gate than I did about the name. I know they’re all connected – change the name, dissuade a bigot from attending. 

Still, the violence runs a lot deeper than one might think.