When you said ‘we,’ did you really speak for ‘us’? A statement in support of 2020’s Class Day speaker Marshawn Lynch| March 5, 2020
Shortly after the announcement of Marshawn Lynch as the 2020 Class Day speaker, a small group of graduating seniors took it upon themselves to hastily denounce the invitation on behalf of the entire class. In a short period of time, many major media outlets have sensationalized this story.
Though it appeared as if these writers were entrusted intermediaries of the class’s opinion — delivering the message of a disappointed Princeton community — this framing is unequivocally wrong. It must be stated plainly and unmistakably: those few students, no matter how vocal, did not truly speak for “us,” the University community, nor the approximately 1,300 members of the senior class. In light of this, the many of us who had words proverbially shoved into our mouths without permission, consent, nor consultation have chosen to decisively rebuke the initial op-ed in its entirety.
Considering that the authors of the original piece were most concerned with transparency, it’s telling that they themselves made no efforts to seriously engage with the Princeton community about their concerns. Instead of directly citing opinions other than their own, the authors invoked the simultaneously vague and collective “we,” “us,” and “members of the senior class” to express and defend their points. Who exactly is the “we” these authors are referencing?
Despite what had been written about the entirety of the senior class of 2020, a significant number of graduating seniors affirmed the choice of Marshawn Lynch as this year’s speaker. A simple questionnaire widely distributed around campus on Tuesday afternoon found that out of 327 seniors — over one-fourth of the graduating class — about 73 percent of respondents expressed interest in hearing Marshawn Lynch speak at Class Day. The survey was anonymous but verified the respondent’s Princeton email address in order to prevent multiple submissions. While this quick survey is far from conclusive, we — as the authors of this piece — are attempting to ground our claims in the opinions of the Class of 2020. We believe it deceitful and unnecessary to hide behind the veil of an imaginary collective in order to validate our opinions and inflate their perceived importance.
On that point, it is concerning that Marshawn Lynch was seemingly the catalyst for this rallying cry of “reforming the speaker selection process.” To many students and some observers beyond this campus, the original open letter serves as little more than a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack against Lynch. After all, why would the op-ed authors not decry all previous Class Day speakers invited under this opaque selection procedure for lack of sufficient student input? Indeed, the authors do the opposite — lauding the invitation of Cory Booker and Ellie Kemper. If this was truly about the selection process, where was the op-ed when the Class Day Committee was formed last spring? Why the silence on the selection process until only after Marshawn Lynch had been selected?
As the authors’ affirm themselves, something about Marshawn Lynch’s selection seems counter to the logic of previously selected speakers. The very inclusion of Lynch muddles whatever it is the selection committee is looking for — it makes it “[inevident] what the set of criteria for nomination are.” Perhaps we can elucidate on some of the differences between Lynch and the past 19 speakers. Since the tradition of selecting a Class Day speaker, which began in 2001, Marshawn Lynch is only the third person of color, one of three first-generation, low-income college students, and the first professional athlete invited to speak. Although the op-ed alleges that there needs to be a connection to the University — or, by extension, New Jersey — Lynch is the 11th speaker invited without any connection to either the state or the University. Moreover, like previous speakers Chevy Chase, Ellie Kemper, and Baz Luhrmann, Lynch’s primary pursuits are not achievements always recognized within academia. The op-ed, however, seems to suggest a different set of concerns that are particularly troubling.
By virtue of the article’s hasty generalizations of Lynch’s merits, it seems natural to conclude that the authors are really taking issue with Lynch’s eloquence, his contributions to society, and his ability to inspire and demonstrate leadership to Princeton’s graduating class. Intentionally or not, this invokes the trope that black people are innately inarticulate, as well as reinforcing the hurtful stereotype that athletes have nothing else to offer beyond their physical prowess. With regards to leadership, while the authors of the piece commended previous speakers for giving voice to the people of their community, they blatantly undervalued how Marshawn Lynch has done the same through his Fam1st Foundation and “Phones for the Homeless” initiative.
As the Class Day Committee has suggested, we must start a conversation about what our shared values and perspectives are as a graduating class — understanding that shared is not the same thing as common. Sharing involves taking as much as it involves giving; listening as much as it does speaking; connecting as much as it does reflecting. For over 200 student-athletes, Lynch can speak to the largely unrecognized herculean effort required to be both a disciplined, competitive Division I athlete, as well as a dedicated student. Nearly 17 percent of the students in our class are among the first in their families to attend college and, as a first-generation college student himself, Lynch is a beacon of inspiration that sets a powerful example of lifting his community with him as he climbs. Besides this, for many black students, Lynch encourages them to be who they are — proudly and boldly in the face of anti-black constraints on hairstyles, language, and expression. For some of our classmates, Marshawn Lynch is the first Class Day speaker they’ve genuinely been excited for.
To Marshawn: While the few sometimes seem to speak louder than the many, many of us are thrilled to have you, and we hope to welcome you with minds as open as our arms. It is a privilege and an honor to have you on our campus and learn from all that you have to give.
And for those that still question whether a speech can be expected, speaking at Class Day is an uncompensated role, and therefore it is not an honor to be the speaker but an honor to be the audience. Marshawn Lynch isn’t coming so he doesn’t get fined. He is coming because he graciously accepted to do so and chose to share and contribute to one of our final moments together as an undergraduate class. The real question is whether we can find the humility and willingness to engage and to be — in Lynch’s own words — “’bout that action, boss!”
Nathan Poland is a senior majoring in African American Studies. KiKi Gilbert is a junior majoring in African American Studies. Manuel Stefano Castaño is a senior majoring in Politics. K. Stiefel is a senior majoring in Chemistry.