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 ’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 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 ’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 ’19 — Homophobia

Though I am white, being a lesbian on campus was difficult to bear, and I witnessed a truly horrifying amount of casual racism. Even upon arriving for my camping pre-o trip I saw my trip leaders -who were there to introduce us to our new community, to make us feel safe and welcome – making racist and homophobic jokes. 

The trip leaders were all white students in the Greek system, already weeding out students for pre-rush. They made jokes about how a Vietnamese woman on the trip was “stinky”, they laughed when the international students put their sleeping bags down next to each other, they made frequent homophobic remarks. They were checking to see who would agree with them, who would let their comments slide, and who would speak out.

These situations were pervasive throughout my entire college career. It was a hallmate mocking his very kind and gentle roommate by making homophobic and racist jokes about him. It was a friend telling me I was being gross and creepy when I told her I thought a woman was cute. Another friend disdainfully saying he “doesn’t support that” when I asked him if he was going to the Equality Gala. It never ended. 

Sorority members told me – an out lesbian at the time – how they hated when girls brought other women to formals; they later mentioned how they didn’t want “that type of girl” joining their group. The “lowest tier” sororities were the most diverse, and they still were insidiously racist and homophobic (including jokes about wearing blackface for Halloween). Other students broke off conversations with me when I mentioned my girlfriend, physically turning away and never speaking to me again.

A Black student – an acquaintance of mine at the time – offered me a brownie during his campaign for some freshman student body position, which I happily took. We were in public, it was broad daylight, but my white peers acted like I was crazy – he might have drugged it, after all. They never seemed to have that same fear about the other white students. 

I watched my peers slowly beat down the students of color with their casual and overt racism, as they ripped me apart from the inside out with their homophobia. I watched my friends fight from the moment they arrived on campus to be seen, to be heard, and to be treated with respect by students and administration alike.

Racism and homophobia are so pervasive on W&L’s campus that it feels like the norm of the world, like there are more awful, bigoted people than there are not

WLU ’21 — Campus Culture

TW: Description of sexual assault

This story is an absolute roller coaster of ways W&L’s culture has failed me and people like me. During my Admitted Students’ Day, I was with a current student who I trusted and was dating at the time. He was on Adderall to study that day, though it had not been prescribed to him. While I was in his room, he pinned me down and started doing things to me I told him were not okay. Instead of listening to me when I told him to stop, he flipped me over and I had to fight him off me

He told me his behavior was out of character and only happened because of the drugs he was on. I never reported because my status as someone who hadn’t started at W&L stressed me out, and before I had even begun classes I was worried about my reputation.

I thought about reporting an Honor Violation for his unprescribed use of a drug, knowing that the University may have taken it more seriously, but by the time I had become a student able to report these things, several months had passed. 

I asked a friend to be on the lookout for him at parties in case he tried to confront me (when I removed him as a follower from my finsta account, he gaslighted and threatened me, so I was afraid of what would happen if I saw him in person). Most of my friends don’t know that this ever happened, because this young man was not especially popular and I was worried that people might not like me if my first move on campus was to accuse someone of assault (though I know that the people who are my friends would never treat me this way, I don’t feel that way about the student body at large).

During our relationship, this individual would repeatedly compare my body to his Black ex-girlfriend’s in an explicitly racist way, saying that my whiteness made me more appealing to him for several reasons so nauseating I won’t repeat them. Because of his overall behavior around me, I was so afraid to ever speak up about these horrible things he said and did. It scares me even more now, because he was accepted into a PhD program and can continue to use his influence to be blatantly racist and misogynistic, even if only behind closed doors. I’ve been having nightmares recently about him and how the culture at our university allows people like him to be successful.

WLU ’21 — Unsupported

I had the same English Professor that has come up previously in 2019, and I agree with everything that has been said. I hadn’t heard anything bad about the Professor and personally asked for a space in the course. Boy, was that a mistake. 

This Professor’s “lectures” were filled with sexist and racist claims, virtually unsupported by the text we were meant to be referencing. Whenever students brought up disagreement, it was dismissed, silencing anyone outspoken. 

Some specifics: He claimed that there is no such thing as oppression and that someone cannot be a victim of oppression; that Native Americans were inherently violent and brought about their own destruction by white settlers because of their violence; and pioneer women could not have been oppressed because they did not write about oppression.

I had a requested a one-on-one meeting for an essay, and I have never been so uncomfortable with a teacher in my life; he told me I was quiet and made other veiled sexist remarks. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, I fear. I left every day feeling upset and often horrified. 

There’s a difference between learning from a professor you disagree with (which I have enjoyed in my time in college) and attempting to make it through this garbage. I was able to drop the class and switch into another in the department, but this course is still on my transcript. 

Luckily the English course I moved into was taught by an incredibly welcoming Professor, I just wish I didn’t have to experience this first.

WLU ’20 — Imposter Syndrome

This is one story out of the many things I have experienced at WLU. During Orientation week, we were split up into our University Big/Little groups. I was the only POC of that group. My big approached me and asked me, “Where are you from?” I answered, “I’m from [city], Virginia.” (I was raised here, so I do have an American accent). He continues, “Oh, I thought you were one of the ESL kids.”

The other students in my group had already known each other from their Pre-O trip, and did not speak to me at all. When we walked the Get Downtown part of the trip, I tried to socialize with them, but was basically ignored and invisible, so I walked the entirety of the town by myself before retreating to the dorms.

A lot of times during my First Year, I felt out of place and suffered from Imposter Syndrome. I questioned my worth and whether or not I deserved to be at WLU.

I didn’t feel like there was a resource I could reach out to, let along friends that I could talk to because I felt isolated from the friend groups that emerged from Pre-O. I saw my peers thriving so I invalidated my own feelings and attributed it to my introverted-ness and poor social skills. I really wanted to transfer after fall term. After coming back from break, the Imposter Syndrome really grew and developed into a depressive episode. I really considered suicide then because of 1) how unhappy I was, and 2) fear of disappointing my parents. I had no support system but ultimately decided to ride out the rest of the year. 

I was able to meet really great people that I was able to relate to in our experiences. Besides them, I didn’t build deeper friendships with anyone else on our hall because they made me feel uncomfortable, out of place, or like I didn’t exist.

I did stay the entire 4 years. And things didn’t get better. Most of the time, the school made me feel like a statistic, and I was trapped by the financial aid and opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to get at other schools. I’m grateful for my friends that made the experience bearable. The support they showed made the events our organizations planned worthwhile. 

For everyone out there that’s now realizing how racist our school is, you have a lot to go. Reading these stories is a great first step, but also reflect on what you did and didn’t do for your peers. You can’t separate yourselves from these experiences because you were also there and contributed to these stories.

WLU ’21 — Disrespectful

A white student was being extremely disrespectful to our Statistics professor, who is a POC. She kept saying the professor was wrong and questioning her intelligence, although the professor had done extensive research in her field as a PhD candidate & continues to do research to this day.

When the professor politely explained the answer (for a 3rd time, because the student refused to accept her thorough reasoning & kept arguing), the student said “whatever, I DON’T CARE” in front of everyone. Nobody in the room defended the professor although she looked hurt. Although she could’ve reacted impulsively to the blatant attacks (rightfully so), the professor said “that wasn’t very nice of you.”

The student acted like she had nothing to apologize for while laughing in the back with her sorority sisters and hesitantly forced out a “sorry” in the most dishonest and privileged tone possible. 

This was not the first or last time something like this happened. Students often made fun of the professor’s accent, especially white frat guys.

To this day, I wonder how the professor (along with other POC faculty) manages to teach classes with mostly white, privileged students who are xenophobic and racist, hence fail to show any respect. I wish I would’ve used my voice to speak up, but I sat there shocked and too scared to intervene.

This is the truth about W&L that we are so embarrassingly proud of. Stuff like this happens all the time & there is no accountability. We are more concerned about being seen as “sensitive” by our peers than calling out racism. We go around wondering why POC students don’t feel welcomed.

If POC faculty isn’t welcomed or respected, what can we expect for students, especially outside the classroom?

WLU ’08 — Overt

I will always remember the first cocktail hour I went to at a certain very southern, very conservative fraternity (known for pledging only white men) where all of the bartenders were black men and the frat brothers addressed them all as “boy.”

I had never experienced such overt racism in my life and I remember going completely numb. The racism was constant, it was accepted as ‘the way things were in the south’ and I’m still ashamed of only speaking up sometimes, when instances were too disgusting for me not to say something and call it out (ie rampant usage of racist and homophobic slurs at frat parties.) Even then it gave me a reputation of being “difficult,” “crazy,” and a “bitch” in the Greek system.

As a white woman at a school with deeply embedded misogyny, even with my immense privilege of being in a “good” sorority and from the “right” socioeconomic background, I felt powerless.