What Change and Progress Really Means

It’s been a good year for progress at Washington and Lee. Robinson Hall, named after John Robinson for his donation of property and slaves, was renamed to Chavis Hall in honor of the first African-American student to attend college in the United States, who attended what was then Liberty Hall Academy. Lee-Jackson House was also renamed to Simpson Hall after the first female tenured professor at the university. In addition, the portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee in military uniform hanging in Lee Chapel were replaced with portraits of them in civilian clothing.

What’s significant about these step forwards is that it wouldn’t have happened without the work of a small group of student activists who continuously advocate for the school to change and progress. But there are times when I reflect and ask myself, Why are we doing any of this? With very little of the student body community complaining, why push for change when most people are content? The students who vocally advocate for progress are usually only a minority, who all will end up leaving in four years anyway. Maybe it would be easier for us who struggle on campus to keep our heads down and focus on our schoolwork. If we didn’t worry about problems that many of our peers don’t even recognize, there would be less pressure and burden on us. But despite all the reasons to not advocate on campus, I believe that we still have a moral obligation to fight for the school to change.

In my opinion, Washington and Lee currently stands as a rejection of the move within toward acceptance of progress and inclusion. Instead, choosing to embrace and relish in harmful traditions and inflexible uniformity. Our racial, economic and ethnic diversity is incredibly low. The student body is 80 percent white, and 81 percent of students come from families whose income is in the top 20 percent. With 77 percent of students involved in Greek organizations, we have one of the highest fraternity and sorority membership in the country. We are in part named after Robert. E. Lee, a Confederate general who not only kept slaves but presently stands as a symbol for neo-Confederate groups. We always seem to agree we have a racist past without implementing any changes to addresses it. The commission report laid out great recommendation to do so with most of them being ignored.

Even with all W&L’s traditions and problem, we are still an amazing academic institution. According to U.S news, we are tied for 11th best liberal arts colleges. Forbes ranks us the fifth best college in the South as well as in the top 50 for the best American value colleges. The Economist ranked us number one for expected alumni earnings. But I believe that we as a community should advocate for change not under the justification of improving the school because it will makes us look better or less racist but because we have a moral obligation to challenge exclusion and marginalization on our campus.

When arguing for making the school a better place, I often hear it is for the sake of making the school look better or making the educational experience better for white students who need to have their worldview expanded. That may be true, but that’s not why we need change. Those justifications are economical and fiscal, and they fail to touch at the core issue. We have a moral obligation as a community to minority students who have been oppressed by racist traditions to stand for change. I don’t like the fact that W&L is used as a counter-argument for progress. It is on our shoulders to prevent people from believing that one can stay stuck in the past and yet still succeed in the future.

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