To be honest, Wellesley College is one of the most culturally and racially diverse places I’ve ever been to. I had heard a little bit about Wellesley’s impressive student demographics while researching during my college search, and hearing these statistics in person at the annual Wellesley College Convocation on Tuesday, Sept. 6, made me even more excited to get to know my fellow siblings. I came from a high school in northern Seattle, Washington, an area infamous for its past history of redlining and housing segregation. 70% of the students in my high school were white, and learning that the Wellesley community had more varied demographics made me eager to learn about the experiences of my classmates.
Convocation is an important event for the Wellesley community that sets the scene for the coming academic year, with speeches from a variety of leaders around campus, including Wellesley College President Paula Johnson. Johnson’s 16-minute speech covered many talking points, but the theme was heavily centered on the idea of celebrating Wellesley’s diversity and calling on students to have meaningful conversations to further understand each other. Johnson provided a quote from Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley’s second president, about “the wealth that lies in differences,” and used statistics from the demographics of the Class of 2026 to demonstrate the impressive array of countries, languages and cultural backgrounds that the first-year class — my class — brought with them.
However, there was one anecdote from President Johnson’s speech that seemingly undermined her central theme of diversity. Approximately four minutes into her speech, Johnson began to tell the story of Virginia Durr, a white student and a member of the Class of 1925, who was forced to reckon with the difference in values between Wellesley and segregated Alabama. Durr realized that her racist attitude would not be accepted at Wellesley, and began to change her beliefs, later going on to become an influential member of the Civil Rights Movement.
Durr’s story of personal growth and reflection is very respectable and important, and it ties in with Johnson’s rhetoric on expanding perspectives and being receptive to differing points of view. However, it strayed from her secondary topic of celebrating the racial, ethnic and cultural multiformity of the Wellesley College population. The retelling of Durr’s experience focused on the moral education of a white woman and her subsequently praised contributions to a Black-led movement. This is something that the Black community has undeniably seen time and time again after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2013 and again in 2020: black people take on the burden of being the reasons why white people realize the error of their ignorant ways, and white people are praised for their self-growth and personal development. A story that would have felt more genuine would have been one that pinpointed the achievements of racial or ethnic minority students and faculty members who moved to the United States from another country and had to learn about a new culture while maintaining their own.
It’s true that the tale of Virginia Durr embodies the concept of challenging long standing personal values, but it brings a white-centered and, frankly, white-savior-like mentality along with it. It’s important for the large number of non-white students at Wellesley to see that the people who they can identify with were still successful, despite systemic opposition. For instance, President Johnson is an excellent example of a black woman who has broken so many barriers and made historic impacts in her professional and academic life. We’ve come a long way in recognizing diversity in history and in our community, but we can always improve. To close with President Johnson’s words, “Such diversity may very well be Wellesley’s single greatest strength and opportunity.”