We can do better

Eli Samson

Editor’s Note: The following piece includes instances of uncensored racial slurs. The author has requested that this language remain uncensored to help readers become aware of the words that are used to target Asian Americans and the charge behind them. The Ring-tum Phi chose to honor the authors wishes, but does not condone the use of this language or the prejudice it conveys. 


Washington and Lee is an institution renowned for its small class sizes, quality of instruction, atmosphere and rural Americana setting in the Shenandoah Valley. The vast majority of students are fiercely loyal to the school and its longstanding traditions, their athletic teams and their Greek organizations. I have been lucky enough to find an incredibly supportive network of peers, professors who are genuinely interested in my academic progress and mental well-being and a fraternity that unconditionally accepts me for who I am.

Even with all these things going for me, I can’t help but notice that other students of color just don’t feel the same way. In light of the current social upheaval that has taken the country by storm following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent waves of protests, I have seen many of my non-white peers express their dissatisfaction with the current climate on our campus. I’m writing this article to say that I agree with them.

My first encounter ever with racism and ignorance occurred when I was still a prospective student. While walking back to my host’s apartment in the Creek from the quad, one of my fellow prospies complained that “the school was giving all the scholarships to the japs, chinks, and gooks.” Not quite comprehending what just occurred, I fully understood his intent when he repeatedly began to call me “chink,” laughing as I walked with him in silence, at a loss for words.

The next morning in d-hall, he apologized profusely, assuring me that he wasn’t racist and that it was just a badly executed joke. I looked at him in his eyes and put on a fake smile, because what else are you supposed to do in that situation–say that it’s okay, that reducing my whole identity to a one-syllable pejorative was fine, that him being the first person in my life to ever call me a racial slur was funny to me?

All of the incidents since then have been tonedeaf “where-are-you-really-from’s” while waiting in the Trav line despite me responding that I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, song parodies with fake Asian accents played at fraternity events, drunk “friends” speaking to me in caricatured Chinese even though my ancestors are from the Philippines and hallmates expecting me to answer every question during mandatory diversity training because I was the only person of color on our hall. This is the reality for students of color on our campus: long lists of uneasy situations filled with microaggressions, racial tension and impostor syndrome.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love W&L, and it is precisely because I love our school that I am finally writing about my experience as a student of color. I have attempted to use all these situations as opportunities to educate friends, peers and classmates that this type of behavior contributes to the negative connotation surrounding discussions about diversity and inclusion, that it is exactly because of these situations that we as students of color feel uncomfortable when these topics are examined, that this is why our voices and experiences aren’t being expressed.

I applaud my white peers for continually striving to educate themselves and correct their inherent biases as racial tension is again on headlines nationwide. I have even greater respect for those courageous students who have publicly voiced their trauma and discontent, something that has sparked even more discussion within our community and even beyond, for the Admissions Office that has consistently demonstrated a commitment to increasing diversity on campus, and finally for Dean Futrell and the Office of Inclusion and Engagement who work tirelessly to ensure that minority students have a fulfilling and enriching four years at W&L.

I fear that racism and ignorance will never completely disappear from the fabric of higher education, but we can all work to diminish its prominence on our campus. In doing so, we are helping to create an environment where students of color can come to our school to learn, to make friends and to prepare for their futures without having to fall victim to countless incidents of casual racism and blatant ignorance.

We are all members of the Washington and Lee community, and, most importantly, people, which is why I urge all of us to engage in this dialogue–the most necessary conversations are always the most uncomfortable. We know that tangible change at our school has never been easy, but it has to start from the bottom-up: discuss difficult topics with your friends, call them out when they say something that makes you feel uncomfortable, inform your classmates about issues that you are passionate about and most importantly, uphold the W&L traditions that compel us all to be honorable and unwaveringly mindful of the future.