BWW Blog: The Excuse of Tradition and the Urgent Work that Universities, Theaters, and Student Groups Must Do
Princeton has been around for 274 years, and thus, like any of its fellow long-standing American colleges, the school prides itself on "tradition." Tradition is a word I hear almost every day at Princeton. It's a word that when I first arrived at Princeton, I associated with "pride" and "history." The school's continued embrace of traditions seemed to be what made Princeton special and set it apart from other universities.
In many ways, traditions are at the center of a lot of the community building on Princeton's campus. During their first week, Freshman bond over the weird Princeton songs and chants that they are told to memorize, and throughout the year, students make jokes about the fact that Princeton has fancy names for everything. Princeton Seniors try to guess what their class jackets will look like, and every time the football team defeats Harvard and Yale, the whole school gathers to watch a massive bonfire burn in the center of campus. I don't think anyone would deny that these little traditions are a significant part of what makes Princeton a quirky and fun school to attend. But that doesn't mean that all traditions need to be continued, and it especially doesn't mean that it is okay to cite "tradition" as an excuse not to change and make progress. As a white student, I have had the privilege to laugh and enjoy the fun traditions while ignoring the traditions that have injured and suppressed BIPOC students. I cannot ignore any longer.
As you are probably aware, Princeton has recently made news concerning the decision to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from the School for Public and International Affairs and one of the residential colleges. Like many Princeton students, I believe this removal, although a decision I fully support, is too little, too late. The school's decision to suddenly do this now, after years of silencing student activists who pushed for this change, is entirely performative.
Performative change may look great on paper or sound good in an email, but it doesn't dive into the heart of the problem. It's like covering a hole temporarily with some tarp, only to find later, when that tarp has been peeled away, that the hole has grown even larger. Universities like Princeton need to examine those deep holes and respond to long traditions of racism, whiteness, and discrimination with action. It is easy to write a letter or build a statue that aims to explore and reflect upon a "complex history." It is harder but way more necessary to tear down the racist traditions and legacies and build something new.
This tearing down and rebuilding is not just in the hands of head administrators and leaders of large scale institutions. The change can and should start on lower levels, with collegiate clubs and organizations, especially theater groups. One of the main things I commit my time to on-campus is being apart of a Princeton musical comedy group. The group has been around for 129 years and has a long, proud tradition of creating original musical comedy. But it is also known that the club's history was an almost entirely white history, rampant with racist practices
and cultural appropriation. In the last five or so years, the group has tried to implement "tough question" workshops and created an Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Taskforce, all in an effort to dismantle the club's embedded white culture. Although some progress has been made, none of these changes have truly solved the deeper problems. Why might you ask? Because these workshops and taskforces are add-ons, instead of actual systemic changes. It is easy enough for theaters and institutions to create an EDI taskforce, start an anti-racism book club, and release a statement of solidarity. Instead, will they take the steep road of completely restructuring how they program events and how they hire and fill positions? Will they authentically put education and outreach at the center of their mission? Will white leaders step aside so as to let BIPOC artists and educators take the reins? We cannot settle for surface-level fixes that try to ignore and cover-up foundational brokenness. The foundation has to be rebuilt.
Tradition is one of the things that often stands in the way of this real foundational change. The classic excuse I often hear when disruptors try to change or challenge something is that "well, that's how it has always been done." I myself have made that excuse before when a change seems too big and overwhelming. That is not okay. It is the job of white leaders and white students to stop making excuses and do the hard, longterm work. We have to keep pushing back because tradition cannot be what is being protected when BIPOC lives are still left unprotected.
As part of dismantling and rebuilding, theaters, universities, and institutions of all sizes have to redefine why they do what they do. Theaters have to find a clear justification for why their theater is still relevant. Each school and university has to decide why their established institution should keep educating and they must go beyond performative diversity when making institutional changes. At Princeton, our musical comedy group has to find a new and meaningful reason to keep creating and performing musical comedy. These justifications for "why" have to be authentic and substantive and result in an active dismantling of the excuse "that's the way it has always been," because "tradition" is never a good enough reason.
For more perspective on the recent name removal announcement please read the Black Justice League's letter of response HERE.
Also, I highly recommend reading this important essay entitled "We Don't Want Your Statements, American Theatre" written by Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., and Al Heartly. Read more HERE.