Another year, another Most Outstanding White Senior

Photo courtesy of Thomas Shannan

Photo courtesy of Thomas Shannan

Thomas Shannan

In 2004, Vanderbilt made national news when a gay student, a male senior, ran for Homecoming queen. In 2005, the university discontinued the tradition of Mr. and Ms. Vanderbilt in an attempt to move away from the gendered popularity contest toward a more egalitarian recognition of student excellence, and thus the Most Outstanding Senior award was born. The intentions of the award were noble in that it recognized that a lack of representation plagued our campus, but good intentions mean little if the actions surrounding them fail to bring forth change. In this way, the Most Outstanding Senior award is just as feeble as its predecessor.

If you don’t believe that the Most Outstanding Senior perpetuates a system saturated with privilege, then consider the facts:

1.) Of the 11 individuals who have ever been named Most Outstanding Senior, seven of them have been men;

2.) Nearly all of them (from what I can tell based on their blurry black-and-white photographs on the VPB website) have been white; and

3.) Of the last three Outstanding Seniors (those who have been named during my undergraduate career), all were men, and the last two were white men.

These statistics, obviously, are based on visual identification alone, meaning they don’t take into account invisible privileges (or lack thereof). So if we just consider what can be seen, it’s evident that a skew exists at the very foundation of the award, allowing for a perverse misrepresentation of the student body that continues to promote the “mythical norm” of American society: one that recognizes the well-being and efforts of white men.

Statistically speaking, it was three times more likely that one of the 15 non-white-males from the 20-person nominee pool would be named Most Outstanding, yet our university still found a way to recognize white, male excellence more so than any other lived experience.

This is true despite the overwhelming amount of non-white-male candidates that are nominated for the award. In 2015, only five of the Top 20 nominees were both white and male, and half on the list were racial minorities. This means that, statistically speaking, it was three times more likely that one of the 15 non-white-males from the 20-person nominee pool would be named Most Outstanding, yet our university still found a way to recognize white, male excellence more so than any other lived experience.

The contest, at its very core, is a competition that judges the value and quality of students’ experiences without controlling for outside privileges, leaving a substantial portion of the student population unaccounted for and disregarded. We don’t recognize this because, superficially, the candidate-pool has started to become more and more colorful, allowing us to believe that real inclusive change is currently taking place. But the white-washing (and male-washing for that matter) still persists in our consistent crowning of the award to individuals who have been privileged enough to find excellence in the most obvious ways, many of them simply by being born into it.

Because every single student on this top-15 campus is outstanding in their own right, the Most Outstanding Senior has to be someone that goes above and beyond. They test limits, lead their peers toward effecting change all while taking courses at a rigorous university. But when we continue to reward the students with the same narratives (or at least very similar ones), then we’re no longer acknowledging outstanding individuals. We’re just acknowledging anyone who represents the traditional dominant narrative. The award then becomes “Most Typical Outstanding Senior,” undermining its very existence.

This year can be different, though. The Most Outstanding Senior Top 20 list for 2016 is, by far, one of the most diverse combination of students on campus. It contains 17 non-white-males, including 14 women and 8 racial and ethnic minorities, and it represents a wide variety of student organizations. It includes individuals who have worked tirelessly to better Vanderbilt University for future students, who have fought for civil rights and social justice, and who are far more outstanding than can be described by our traditional definitions.

In short, we have an immense opportunity to change the narrative of Most Outstanding Senior and of Vanderbilt as a whole. Our university has illuded us into believing that real inclusion is upon us, when the only time real change like that can take place is when we, ourselves, demand that it happens. The time for a non-white, non-male, racial and ethnic minority to win Most Outstanding Senior is now, and it’s long overdue. Use your vote to ensure that alternative narratives of excellence are represented on this campus, and don’t settle for incremental change when what we desperately need is transformative change. Representation in every sense of the word is what we should strive for if we truly want to be an all-inclusive, diverse university.

Thomas Shannan is a senior in the Peabody College of Education and Human Development. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that this year’s Top 20 list included 16 non-white-males. The number is 17.