A Tale of Two Portraits
To: Chandler Gray
Subj: W&L Diploma Petition
Rec.: Friday, November 15, 2019 at 8:12 PM
“Kiddos, Rec'd your petition. Must say you are all screwed up dudes. It's a shame you are not man enough to stand behind W&L's namesakes - great men who supported and strengthened the school. Sometime later in life you may realize the PC movement is total BS. Until then, please don't have kids as the world does not need anymore [sic] spineless, whiny, wimps such as each of you.”
The alum who sent me this email proudly signed his name and graduation year at the bottom. Every time an old white man does something remotely inappropriate, I feel an involuntary jolt of shock that someone would be so openly rude to another person, even though I am actually not the least bit surprised. This old alum felt emboldened to openly harass current Washington and Lee Law students because of the very culture that I and my fellow law students were trying to combat: one of entitlement, white supremacy, and misogyny.
I resisted coming to W&L for law school. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, enjoying the freedom to hold hands with my girlfriend without the feeling of judgmental eyes on me. Judgmental, Southern eyes. I was convinced that for law school I needed to continue pushing North, away from the homophobia and intolerance of my Southern upbringing. And yet — I sent off an application to Washington & Lee (but of course I wouldn’t actually go to a school named after Robert E. Lee). And yet — I found myself attending Admitted Students Weekend, reveling in the kindness of my potential colleagues, the collegial spirit on campus that flowed from everyone, be they administrator, professor, or student. And yet — visiting my idealized Northern schools left me feeling disappointed when I compared them with the community at W&L. And so I did what any good Southern girl would do, and I deposited at Washington & Lee.
I made a pact with myself: I would only attend W&L if I promised to take an active role in combatting injustice and white supremacy in the community. I attended undergrad in the South during the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement and did not do my part to educate myself or be a strong ally. Since undergrad, I worked on learning more about my role in white supremacy and what it means to work to dismantle these systems of oppression. I vowed to not be a passive bystander in law school. But this was easier said than done, especially for a conflict-adverse, introverted white girl. At first, it was easy to lie to myself that the community didn’t really need my participation. My classmates were warm, brilliant, and compassionate individuals who made me feel instantly comfortable being myself. My professors and the administration demanded respectful discourse. Sure, the Walmart parking lot was filled with Confederate bumper stickers and Confederate tourists coming to see Stonewall Jackson’s grave, but the people at my school were nice!
Walking into the bookstore, however, was another story. Divisive symbols of racial exclusivity were everywhere I looked. Robert E. Lee was on shirts, hats, belts, and, most unfortunately, my future diploma. At first, I was furious. How could this store, this man, exist alongside my incredibly supportive and fulfilling community at the law school? How could the administration dare to put the images of two slaveholders on my diploma, the symbol of my hard work and achievements here at school? And then I thought, well of course there are slaveholders on my diploma. There are portraits of white men staring at me all across campus. There are racist incidents across campus and in the community that I am immune from because I am white. The fact that I defensively tell people I attend “W&L” instead of explicitly stating “Washington and Lee” doesn’t erase the fact that those letters stand for two men who benefited from and encouraged white supremacy and built this institution off of this ideology. I needed to do better.
So when the opportunity came to start a conversation about the presence of those portraits on the diplomas, I jumped at it. The law school has an internal Diversity & Inclusion Committee that hosts dinners where students are free to share their concerns about the community. When someone mentioned the diploma portraits at the November 2019 meeting, the feeling around the table was one of action. Surely if we mobilized as students and presented a petition explaining our reasoning to the administration, someone would listen. Leaders of different law student affinity groups worked together to craft the petition language. We decided to ask for the option to remove the portraits, rather than demanding a mandatory removal, because an option seemed reasonable and also seemed hard for the administration to refuse. We carefully crafted the petition language to reflect that we weren’t judging those students who wanted to keep the portraits, just as we hoped those students wouldn’t judge those of us who wanted them gone.
The hateful emails from alumni started rolling into my inbox almost immediately. I was surprised at first; we’d only circulated the petition among law students, so this meant that a member of the community had sent the petition out to undergrad alumni. But I also decided that if the old white alumni were getting so worked up about our petition, that meant it was working at some level. That meant that these men were threatened enough by a simple, respectfully worded petition that they took time out of their day to send me a harassing email. Of course, though, it is never fun to receive hate mail, and it definitely frightened us. We quickly removed our individual email addresses from the top of the petition and instead set up an anonymous Gmail address.
As the petition efforts continued, I found myself feeling frustrated more than anything else. It made me furious to hear people insinuate that I was only part of the petition because I hated Washington & Lee. I love W&L. I love this school, my professors, the law school administration, and my amazing friends. It’s because I love this school so much that I can see its flaws and that I want to work to fix them. I want to expand the community I love so much to be more inclusive of diverse students so that they too can have this experience. Having the portraits on my diploma reduces my amazing, nuanced experience here to the white supremacy and racism of Lee and Washington. And what was most frustrating is that the solution seemed so simple. Just take the portraits off! Very few schools have portraits on their diplomas; it’s aesthetically unpleasing and unnecessary. Why could the administration not listen to the viewpoints of the students at their own school?
Ultimately, the petition failed to achieve its stated goal. The Board of Trustees denied our portrait option request and refused to allow law students to attend their meeting on the petition and share our viewpoints. The Trustees conveyed to us that we could not attend because they did not want to change their agenda to include students who usually were not invited to attend these meetings. The Trustees also failed to critically engage with any of the points raised by the petition or the numerous student testimonials we submitted to them. Instead, they dismissed the effort out of hand, and disingenuously suggested that the issue was put to rest. The Board touted their “significant action” taken in 2018 through the university’s Strategic Plan. The Board also pointed to their “abiding conviction that the university is rightly named for two men who made transformative contributions to this institution and to education in the United States,” implying that the discussion around the diploma portraits was equal to the discussion about the university’s name. I was frustrated that the Board so incorrectly equated these discussions and did not think critically to separate the two. While I commend the Board for the actions taken in recent years to discuss W&L’s institutional history, it is almost amusing to me that the Board thinks they have “solved” W&L’s institutional history. The work of making our community a better, more thoughtful, and more inclusive place is never over. I hope that in the future the Board engages more directly with current students and prominent issues on campus instead of painting over problems with a broad brush. And so even though I was disappointed to hear the news of the Board’s decision, it made me more determined to continue this conversation.
This experience has given me more things to be thankful for than reasons to be disappointed. We started a really important conversation on campus about the complicated presence of Lee and Washington on the diplomas, which led to a deeper exploration of issues in our community. So many of my fellow law students signed the petition that I feel affirmed in my decision to attend this school filled with such thoughtful individuals. The petition also led to important conversations with the law school administration, who throughout the whole process supported the students’ right to engage in thoughtful, respectful discourse. The process also highlighted some areas for improved communication between the law school student body and the undergraduate student body, which hopefully we will work toward addressing in the next school year. And selfishly, this experience has made me feel that I have done some small part in trying to leave the W&L community a better place than I found it.