Dear President Dudley,
Thank you for your continued service to our beloved institution. I do not envy your position of leadership during what has turned out to be a very tumultuous year. I have no doubt you are receiving a huge influx of letters from alumni with strong positions on both sides of the table, and I am writing to join the chorus in sharing my own perspective. Many thanks in advance for your time and consideration.
I came to Lexington as an incoming freshman in the fall of 2006, from a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Despite the geographic proximity, as I’m sure you’ve heard from many others, the overwhelmingly southern traditional atmosphere of Washington and Lee was a bit of a shock to the system.
Though ubiquitous across online reviews and print publications, I was unprepared for the extent to which the W&L moniker of “white and loaded” pervades the social hierarchy and cultural tapestry of the college. Being a white female, I fit the former, but was painfully aware of my otherness when it came to the latter. As an impressionable, insecure 18 year old, I did my best to fit in and was able to, somewhat seamlessly, “pass” amongst my peers regardless of the fact that my parents did not earn anywhere close to the average income for W&L student families. I’m sure I checked some kind of demographic box when it came to my admission, being from the relative middle of nowhere and needing extensive financial assistance.
In reflecting on my years in Lexington, there are a great many aspects of W&L for which I am immensely grateful. I found a wonderful group of friends who continue to support and challenge me to this day, I was taught by professors who inspire critical thinking and imbue knowledge beyond what I could have ever expected. I was able to be a part of a community and partake in the social benefits of Greek life. The curiosity and passion for learning and personal growth ignited during my W&L education persists today. However, I realize in retrospect, that I was afforded these benefits because I was able to assimilate so flawlessly despite my perceived otherness. I was never put on the spot in classes for a “diverse” perspective, I was able to walk amongst my peers on campus without being reminded of horrors committed against my ancestors. Being a white woman, I was able to hide any aspects of my background that I felt did not fit with the social constructs of W&L, and as such, was able to participate in the unique W&L college experience that so many (who look like me) hold dear.
I came to W&L on a full scholarship, and from my first day on campus did everything in my power to hide this fact, lest it become clear that I was not on the same playing field as my peers with respect to generational wealth. Though I had earned the gift of tuition, I felt shame instead of pride. Looking back, I’m horrified by this fact, and disappointed in my 18-year-old self at the extent to which I became a chameleon, and in turn, became complicit in the ostracization of students who could not hide their otherness.
I hesitated to share my own story at all, because my internalized insecurities during college pale in comparison to those who have experienced true otherness at W&L, especially Black students and those of ethnic and gender diversity. During my time in college, I did not speak up against injustices against my peers, and at times actively participated in what I know today to be racist and divisive practices. From party themes, to insensitivity on social media, to the homogeneity of the Greek system, the W&L from 2006 to 2010 was rife with structural racism to which the vast majority of us turned a blind eye.
This began during Orientation Week when our class, like those who came before and after, was piled into Lee Chapel for numerous monologues about honor, humility, and the gentlemanly values imparted upon us by the college Presidency of Robert E. Lee. I’ve seen others use the term indoctrination, which is not untrue, as W&L called upon whitewashed and cherrypicked aspects of Lee’s legacy and wholly ignored the abuses he championed as a traitor, slaveowner and white supremacist. From that beginning came four years of a collective ignoring of Confederate flags on campus, lack of diverse representation in the Greek system, and an echo chamber of predominantly white voices in social and academic life. Reading accounts of other student experiences more recently, it is clear that not much has changed.
I am guilty of perpetuating these racist structures during my time at W&L because I did not use my voice constructively against injustices. This is my greatest shame when reflecting on my years in Lexington, and I can no longer remain silent. I blended into the background, concerned only with myself (a right afforded to me because of my inherent white privilege), and not once standing in the shoes of my Black classmates who had to sit, dressed in their Lee Chapel best, before a shrine to the father of the Confederacy. Who had to endure discrimination, abuses, and emotional burdens that come from attending a university that has, for 150 years, made only marginal efforts to truly create an inclusive atmosphere. I cannot imagine the pain and otherness felt by students of color in this environment, from which they were unable, and remain unable, to hide.
The push for inclusivity and diversity at W&L is long overdue and the efforts required for true change go far beyond a name. But I write this letter to express my urgent support for the removal of Lee from the name of the university, as a necessary step to distance the institution from a figurehead of white supremacy, and initiate an important reckoning about what it means to be truly honorable, respectful and just.
W&L’s culture and traditions continue to embrace segregation, otherness and ostracization amongst students under a thinly veiled guise of “honor” and “legacy”. No one should feel they need to hide in order to experience college to the fullest, and it is the responsibility of those of us who could, to speak up for those who cannot.
I implore you to listen to the voices that you are hearing, filled with passion and pain. My story is not one that should matter, because my privilege as a white woman afforded me the opportunity to reap the full benefits of W&L. For a great many students, there is another side of the college, where racism is packaged in jokes and theme parties, written off as “just a part of the W&L culture”, “don’t go here if you don’t like it”, and perpetuated in the essence of the institution itself as long as Robert E. Lee remains a venerated namesake.
It is time to live up to our own motto, we must not be unmindful of the future. The future is calling upon us to make a change, and to learn from the past in order to build an institution that will welcome and nurture the best and brightest students of the future, from all backgrounds. Time for Lee to go.
Samantha Hogans Walsh, 2010