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W&L, Turn Off Your Mute Button

Being a first-year is hard. Being a first-generation college student is even harder. Being a black first-generation student can feel impossible at Washington and Lee. It’s either a Dear White People episode or a never-ending challenge of defending my race. Many days require facing conservative students who are too afraid to acknowledge that times are changing and that with that change comes increased and necessary diversity. I can speak only for myself, but being in a school where the number of minorities on campus is 13 percent is startling. It means that being the only African-American student in my class happens more often than not. I feel this pressure walking down the Colonnade, in D-Hall, or in the Campus Store, where many of our fellow students have the ease of swiping things home.

But this is not a rant about the mélange of skin color or socioeconomic statuses on campus (or more importantly, the lack thereof). This is a reality check.

A reality check of how I personally stand out like a neon pink mime, because unfortunately being here is not easy for a lot of us. “Us”: the people chosen to be the fortunate few for W&L’s diversity initiative. It’s hard having to find an appropriate answer when I’m asked by a stranger, “Can I touch your hair?” or “Can’t you just swipe it home?” It isn’t just racial diversity that seems to cause a reality check – it’s socioeconomic diversity as well.

Some of us cannot afford to be here without a scholarship or a loan. If it weren’t for the QuestBridge scholarship, I would not be at Washington and Lee because of how expensive it is to go here. I can’t just swipe things home because I know I will still have to pay for it. I would never ask my parents for their money because at the end of the day, they still have bills to pay. They have to make sure they don’t waste a single cent of their paychecks because they simply cannot afford to. I can’t afford to waste whatever money I get from my work-study because it either goes back home to help pay for my parents’ bills or to make sure that I can buy what I need when necessary. I can’t afford to take Christmas or birthday trips to the Alps. I go home whenever I can find a ticket cheap enough, and use said work-study money to pay for it. I have to look out for the words “free” when it comes to taking trips on campus because I have to take personal responsibility for my financial obligations. I can’t just ask my parents to pay for it or for them to drop a check, because they can’t do that.

Sometimes, existing here is like encountering Pennywise on the street with a red balloon: frightening.

I sit and watch as people look on with either surprise, disgust, or anger, as our school puts on a musical during Pride Week, and I watch the same reactions (to the point where people look unfazed) unfold when the KKK has the nerve to leave pamphlets on campus. And while I want to be comforted by the school’s attempts prevent it, I’m not. I’ve gone to a heavily minority-based school for the last seven years of my life, just 20 minutes from one of the meeting places of the Klan itself, and yet I’ve never seen a pamphlet from them until now.

The university faculty and staff do a great job of coddling and salving the wounds left by upsetting comments from outsiders, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. I watch my friends who are members of the LGBTQ community suffer in silence or have to make complaints in the safety of our shared common room because they do not feel comfortable speaking aloud about issues that affect them the most. The school’s efforts for safe spaces are nice, but in a community that is heavily straight white people it seems to be all talk and no action.

One of the events during first-year orientation week is a long-winded lecture and activity on tolerance and the acknowledgment of diversity. You have people who state openly in the eyes of others that they are against racism and violence but refuse to extend support towards improving diversity and inclusivity within the student body and the greater Washington and Lee community. These are the people who argue that politics should not be involved in the social dogma of campus, when they fail to realize that the significant few here at W&L have lived their lives and continue to live their life influenced and affected by the very political decision that the former “asks” to be ignored.

But this is not meant to be a rant, and this is not intended to point out anyone in particular. It’s a reflection of the community around me: where a lack of diversity leads to the upmost difficulties, some bigger than others, depending on the day. And I suppose I could just “get over it,” but I don’t want to get over it. I want it to be acknowledged, and I want this community that is also supposed to include all races, creeds, religions, and sexualities of diversity to change. I was always taught that change does not come without struggle, but the start of making a change is to bring acknowledgement to the situation. That’s what I am trying to do here — bring attention to a situation that seems to be put on mute instead of being completely ignored, because the mute button isn’t any better, at least not to the portion of campus that falls into the “diverse” category.

So, yes, being a first-year is hard at Washington and Lee. But being a member of what is considered a diversity initiative is even harder, especially when the word diversity is thrown around so frequently that the meaning becomes questionable. Adding the fact that our problems are muted by the majority, waking up in my room in Lexington, Virginia is not always a walk in the park, and I’m sure many others think the same as well.

Washington and Lee distributed a survey asking what they could do to make this a more inclusive place. My first tip of advice? Turn your mute buttons off and listen to the evident voices of what you consider your diverse students. We’re here, we’re making noise, and we need you to hear us.

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