A wakeup call from the past

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A wakeup call from the past

The cover of Chips Vol. 86, No .18. Published on Feb. 28. 1969.
The cover was designed by John Severtson with photos by Will

The cover of Chips Vol. 86, No .18. Published on Feb. 28. 1969. The cover was designed by John Severtson with photos by Will Williamson.

The cover of Chips Vol. 86, No .18. Published on Feb. 28. 1969. The cover was designed by John Severtson with photos by Will Williamson.

The cover of Chips Vol. 86, No .18. Published on Feb. 28. 1969. The cover was designed by John Severtson with photos by Will Williamson.

Jacob Warehime, Editor-in-Chief

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“Luther can be seen as a community of white people, having faith in white people, learning about white people.”

I am continually astonished by the relevance of articles published in issues of Chips that are four, five, or even six decades old. The above quote is taken from a Chips story written by Luther student Byron Dean (‘71) in the 1969 February edition of Chips. Dean’s story, titled “Black student union — past, present and future” details what Dean saw as a fundamental problem in Luther’s social and academic climate: the inability of white students to function beyond their own worldview. While reading Dean’s article, I was struck. Dean’s piece could be published virtually word-for-word today and still resonate in many of the same ways. 

In 2017, we find that we are asking ourselves: what is our college’s identity? How do we respect the past while moving forward? And what about students for who there is no past worth respecting? These are the questions brought up by Dean in his article, and, as Luther gears up for the next phase of its Strategic Planning Committee (SPC), these are the questions we are still asking ourselves in 2017.

Currently, Luther is seeing a growing enrollment in international students and a student body whose vocal minority is focused on increasing diversity on campus. The results of last year’s SPC survey proved that students are concerned with issues of diversity. The worryingly low student response rate also showed that these students do not constitute a majority of the student body.

On institutional racism, Dean writes, “Many students remarked that it was either wrong to connect [institutional racism] with Luther or stressed too strongly over more important issues.” And yes, Dean uses that seemingly ubiquitous phrase, “institutional racism” — a phrase too often labeled as a “buzzword.” In fact, he says “‘Institutional racism’ is not a new idea, but an old reality…it has not been overly stressed, but too often ignored.”

If Dean’s article were to be published today, would he be wrong? Do the issues he writes about not still exist in some form or another? Do we not still put the burden of solving issues of equality on those who are negatively affected by inequality?

It would seem to me that issues of inequality on Luther’s campus often do not expand beyond those which they directly affect. And I’m not just talking about racial inequality, but gender and sexuality, as well as cultural and ideoligcal inequalities. Why do we cringe at assessments like Dean’s when he says Luther is a community of “white people…learning about white people”? Is he not right? I am an English major. Not a single one of my nine required literature classes have been focused on non-white authors, let alone authors from non-anglo-saxon cultures. Sure, I took the African-American Literature course, but it was a non-required elective. I would be graduating this spring all the same if I had not. Sure, my senior seminar was on James Baldwin, but students choose which seminar they will take. 

Further, as a white student, how often have you brushed over a Chips editorial about equality because it seemed like just “more of the same?” How often have you walked past the Diversity Center, intentionally avoiding eye contact with the students behind the desk? How closely did you follow last year’s search for Dean for Institutional Equity and Inclusion? How often have you poked your head in Marty’s only to turn around because an international culture night was being held? And these are just happenings within the “Luther bubble.” In fact, I venture to say that the touted Luther Bubble is only a “bubble” because of its white students’ apathy. Perhaps I have chosen an inflammatory way to express this sentiment, but I do so to reflect the tone that Dean took in his article forty-eight years ago. It is better to have an inflamed student body than an apathetic one — a fact I’m sure Dean was acutely aware of when he donned his black beret and leather jacket for the photo attached to the bottom of his article.

As Dean prophetically adjured almost fifty years ago, “If Luther does not change, it will condemn itself.” In 2017, the specifics of what these changes should be may have shifted, but the driving sentiment behind Dean’s assertion has not. In his famous 1962 essay, “Letter from a region in my mind,” James Baldwin touches on this necessity of change, saying, “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant — birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so — and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.”

I do not mean to draw comparisons between Baldwin’s “free men” and the white, cis-majority of Luther’s student body, though others may justifiably make this connection. I mean to highlight the idea that it is these students’ responsibility to be willing to change, not the other way around. As Baldwin also says in his essay, “What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.” Swap out the word “nation” with “college” and I think you will understand Dean’s point. The early results of the SPC’s research showed that the fight for social equality and diversity is high on students’ minds. Going forward, we need to make sure it does not simply stay there.

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