AESOP and the Outing Club are Made of White Privilege

It comes as no surprise to most Bates students that our ‘beloved’ AESOP orientation trips are led by an overwhelmingly white organization. Whiteness is central to this path to entry to our college; to have an identity dissociated from a ‘hip,’ outdoorsy norm rooted in a Northeastern white understanding of self seems almost inconceivable by Bates’ orientation standards.

Many of us have heard AESOP horror stories; friends and peers had AESOP experiences they wouldn’t care to relive, and in my experience, many of those friends are those who inhabit marginalized identities. Women of color on white-majority hiking trips that are entirely made of microaggressions, queer first-years surrounded by straight people making eyes at each other across canoes, or simply geeks forced into a beach camping trip despite social anxiety–these experiences, while not at all equatable, are somewhat parallel. It’s easy to feel isolated and lost when you’re surrounded by people with nothing in common with you on a trip that you signed up for because you had to, especially in an insecure environment.

A large part of this discomfort and unpleasantness stems from the organization that runs AESOP: the Bates Outing Club. A club with prehistoric policies regarding gender (saying “two people of different genders” can lead a trip does not avoid transphobia just because you don’t label those genders as male and female), the Outing Club is massively white, sickeningly privileged, and the closest thing to a fraternity we’ve got at Bates. While the college supposedly bans such organizations, the fact that Outing Club effectively has their own houses, trips, parties, and management of orientation makes the club a fraternity/sorority in all but name.

And just like a frat, the barriers to entry are enormously high. The social capital (and outdoors experience) required to be an Outing Club member–let alone leader–is enormous, and the established pure-white-privilege environment that the club has established makes it unlikely for anyone unlike the club’s intended audience to feel comfortable engaging in their space. Unfortunately, this effectively translates to AESOP leadership–folks that don’t match the Club-constructed definitions of acceptable (that is, non-members who don’t have prominent friends) will never know the inside jokes or match the guidelines necessary to be hired as a trip leader or AESOP coordinator.

Outing Club cannot be allowed to maintain their reign over entry into Bates. The current system actively harms students entering the college in its exclusionary makeup and cruel deficiency of offerings. AESOP leadership must be restructured to include a wider variety of clubs that can help students find friends and connections during orientation, especially for first-years of marginalized identities.

Bates is not just made up of rich white people who want to hike mountains, or strip in public, or smoke weed, and especially as students arrive at the college, it’s important that they don’t find those to be the school’s defining characteristics.

It’s true that over the past few years, AESOP trip offerings have started to expand—notable newer trips include service-oriented trips based in the town of Lewiston. But this slow change simply isn’t enough, and hasn’t done much to make students feel more comfortable and at home in the Bates community.

For AESOP to become a valuable, inclusive part of Bates orientation, other clubs need to be involved in the processes of creating trips and selecting trip leaders. I could list any number of student organizations that could positively contribute to a more healthy AESOP. Let first-years get a jump on participating in things they care about, rather than sticking them on a beach with students they, in all likelihood, will forget about after a few months.

Imagine if students arriving at Bates could take orientation trips that involved topics or activities they were interested in. Why couldn’t there be an AESOP dedicated to anti-racist activism in Lewiston? Why isn’t there a trip focused on queer identity formation in tabletop role-playing games? Bates students have a wide variety of interests–but their options are limited by a club that finds itself the most compelling thing about the college.

Outing Club: consider loosening up on expectations like costumed interviews, or flaunting your drinking in class less. Recognize the privileges your members had coming into Bates–not everyone could surf, or ski, or kayak in their lives before college. The environment you’re creating is unhealthy and unconducive to inclusion. Please help students like me feel okay about your hegemony on campus–and if you can’t, maybe it’s time we shut this frat down.