WLU ’20 — Lee

Recently, I got the chance to show a friend of mine around W&L and Lex. This place has become my home, and I was excited to show her around. 

I’ve had the privilege of never quite comprehending just how prevalent Lee, the Confederacy, and racism are in this community. I‘ve learned about this town and this school gradually, and it’s so easy to become desensitized given how the history is portrayed. But to my friend, it sounded like this:

This is where Robert E. Lee is buried. That’s the professor who told the class he has a “colonizer fetish.” That was around the time the KKK came to campus. Turn right onto Lee Highway. That’s George and Bob. Yeah, it’s a cute nickname we have for him. Yeah, he did kill Americans.

It’s across from Lee Chapel. Some KKK members make “pilgrimages” here. I took him to Stonewall Jackson hospital. There were 16 Black students in my year. It said “KK-Keep the name the same.” That’s where the flaggers will stand. The KKK targeted that restaurant. This is my diploma. That’s a Confederate general. You pass by Stonewall Jackson cemetery. At the front is a portrait of him in his Confederate uniform. Yeah, he didn’t want that. They told us Lee created the Honor System. Turns out he didn’t. They hung a Confederate flag there when Trump was elected. The War of Northern Aggression. It was Lee-Jackson Day.

And those are just the things that I hear. I am a straight, white student. I don’t hear the racist slurs when I walk into a party. No one questions to my face how I got here. 

My visiting friend is from South Carolina. She was appalled. She was shocked that we could say Washington and Lee’s names in the same breath—someone who helped create our country, and someone who helped tear it apart. 

She is an International Relations major, and kept asking if the students pushing to keep the name the same know that Lee was a traitor. That his army killed far, far more Americans than 9/11 did. That no one outside of Lexington, including in the South, has any clue what you mean when you say “Lee the Educator.”

WLU Law — Ideas

This is a response to the June 23rd (2020) email sent by W&L to alumni and students: 

Your words in the email couldn’t sound more unaware. In response to the criticism and feedback you’ve received about the treatment of minority students, you’ve listed initiatives (minority guest speakers; more diverse faculty/students; more financial aid, etc.) that don’t touch on the main concern. If the KKK comes back on campus again, if minority students receive anonymous racist messages again, or if minority people experience any mistreatment such as those mentioned on this page, I’m sure everyone will rest easy with all your initiatives: financial aid (as reparation for future mistreatment); more diverse faculty/student body (to increase the number of oppressed people); and guest speakers to offer insight to minority students about being a minority student.

Sarcasm aside, you should actually address how your students of diversity are treated by their classmates and by the Lexington community. Yes, it also means attention given to your beloved Lee must be diverted to the legacy of minority alumni’s contributions. And, I assure you, Lee won’t notice, but your minority students and alumni (and supporters) will.

Some ideas:

1. Make the student judicial system more transparent and just. Student hearings should be heard by student’s peers (not just during appeals). If peers aren’t elected to the initial leadership positions that make the decisions, then a jury of peers is impossible. Unjust sentencing follows. 

2. Find a way to get W&L students to socialize with people who aren’t from their exact same background.

3. Read this page, solicit concerns, listen to concerns, understand, and don’t throw money at problems.

WLU ’22 — Strong

In fall term of my freshman year, as some of us remember, the KKK came to our campus in an attempt to punish the community for entertaining a name change.

I remember seeing many upperclassmen of color take in President Dudley’s 1-2 emails on the incident and the too-little support from their peers at the same time as I did. I watched them quickly respond with plans to push the administration to address the root causes of why hate groups felt comfortable enough to come here. I remember looking at the students in awe at how they were immediately so strong and ready to take action. I didn’t know how to emulate that. I felt like there was something missing in me, some secret quality that every student at W&L who isn’t white, cis, and straight should have to take whatever this college throws at them in stride and push for change.

What felt most certain to me was that if I made myself think about how the institution in which I was trying so hard to succeed was at best halfhearted in supporting my and my peers’ right to exist, I would have probably fallen apart. So I blocked out the incident and the university’s response as best I could until recently. Still, I’ll never forget that moment of feeling weak because I didn’t join my fellow students of color in fighting to not be ignored.

Later that year, when I got closer to some of the student leaders I saw as superhuman, I learned how many of them were forced into those roles. They too had moments where, while they were reeling from attacks on their racial and sexual identity, had to summon the strength to defend their right to feel wronged repeatedly–just to push the university to give them the bare minimum of support It’s like they were teaching moments where the lesson was that asking for university support was futile.

That way, we’d feel it fell on us to carry out the emotional labor of supporting our community… even when it was us who needed support as well.

Today, as a junior, I am more involved in inclusion in our community, in part because of that same lesson I had learned with that first incident of hate I saw on campus. I’m driven to do what I can to make it so that no student new to our college ever feels inadequate for not acting “strong” when they need to give themselves time to recover from acts of hate. 

However, so long as students of color and LGBTQ+ students are on their own in supporting themselves, I’m stuck with the near-certainty that that ideal won’t be realized until long after I graduate.

WLU ’20 — Overlooked

Over the past 4 years I went to this school, I was reminded of times where I had to work harder and endure more to feel like I belonged. Two traumatic memories stand out.

In the first instance, I found out from acquaintances’ social media that my identity as a Latinx was not valued at this school, but instead I was a party favor, a gimmick for other students (via the Sigma Nuevo party that used to be held). I already struggle with my understanding of my father’s culture, and therefore part of my own, because of being forced to assimilate entirely to American culture by my white mother’s family. Seeing folks in sombreros and moustaches like it was a joke chipped away at my mental health. After that, I remember going to study abroad in a different country thinking that I would be safe, only to get emails about the General’s Redoubt and the KKK flyers on campus. I remember feeling violated that GR even had access to my email.

As far as I knew, my directory information shouldn’t have been accessible to anyone outside of the school in the first place. I also remember being angered because to them, I was keeping their desired student demographics from admission. As a low-income, brown student that graduated 4th in her high school class with high test scores, it’s not my fault that folks like me work hard because we might not have an option outside of going to school. It’s also not my fault that within the next ten years, demographic minorities will become the majority in some places, including Virginia. I do know that at this point the only thing keeping me from erasing my association with the school at this point is the BIPOC students who are still there. 

As an alumna I can’t let them down and I plan to raise as much hell as I can for them, because we can’t be overlooked and made unwelcome anymore. Something has to give.

WLU ’20 — KKK

The summer after my freshman year, the KKK dropped off pamphlets in front of our homes. This was the first out of three times we received something from the Klan.

My housemate and I were both very terrified, as we are both women of color. We took a picture and dropped it in our GroupMe to alert other students and to figure out the next steps to ensure our safety. An older, white female student dismissed our concerns and included that “they do this every year.”

In a single message she not only normalized the actions of a dangerous, racist organization, but also shut down the concerns of people who are targeted by this group.

What hurt more was that there were people defending her and gaslighting us, saying that there was nothing to be scared of because it had happened in the past. They told us what and what not to be afraid of without listening to us.

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.