We Are Oberlin: And Here’s Our Dirty Laundry

(Oberlin College Solidarity Rally; credit: Ma’ayan Plaut ’10, Oberlin College Social Media Coordinator)

[Originally published March 2013, on Racialicious.com;

Trigger warning: Racist and homophobic language]

The Klu Klux Klan isn’t new to Ohio, but they were certainly a new addition to the Oberlin College Campus. At sometime around midnight on March 4th a person dressed in Klu Klux Klan regalia was spotted on Oberlin College’s South Campus near the Afrikan-Heritage house and the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgendered People. Soon after the sighting — only the latest in a string of racist events on campus during the month of February — the college made the decision to cancel classes for the day.

Early this morning, there was a report of a person wearing a hood and robe resembling a KKK outfit between South and the Edmonia Lewis Center and in the vicinity of Afrikan Heritage House. This report is being investigated by both Safety and Security and the Oberlin Police Department. This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities for today, Monday, March 4, 2013, and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks.

As people slowly woke up on Monday, rumors were already flying around Facebook and Tumblr as to exactly what had happened. Oddly enough I didn’t find out from a student or a fellow alum, but from a friend on Twitter who’d heard about it through her friend who’s an RA. This was all before Gawker picked it up later that morning, along with a timeline of what’s been going on throughout the month.

Feb. 9: Vandalism in the Science Center included the replacement of “Black” with “N*gger” on Black History Month posters, drawings of swastikas, damage to the “Year of the Queer” posters and reported destruction of the Chinese calendar.

Feb. 12: LGBTQ Community Coordinator Lorena Espinoza found a note in the Multicultural Resource Center that read “N*gger + F*ggot Center.”

Feb. 16: Students found a number of offensive notes written around Burton Hall. “Whites Only” was written above a water fountain, “N*gger Oven” was written inside the elevator and “No N*ggers” was written on a bathroom door.

Feb. 17: The Office of Safety and Security released a Special Alert of a strong-arm robbery of a student near West College Street and Cedar Street. The student reported that he was approached by an individual who made a derogatory remark about his perceived ethnicity and then physically knocked him to the ground.

Feb. 26: Posters were defaced in [The King Building] including those advertising “Year of the Queer” and the Affirmative Action panel, at least one of which had a swastika drawn on it.

Feb. 27: A swastika drawn onto the outside window of West Lecture Hall in the Science Center was seen being removed by custodial staff.

For a depressingly detailed account of Oberlin’s racial divide, one can also check out the Oberlin Microagressions Tumblr, which has record of these events and more.

To put this all in context, let’s remember this is Oberlin College, the supposed bastion of liberal progressiveness. The first college in the country to educate both men and women together and equally (1841). The first college to accept African-American students (1835). The final stop on the Underground Railroad. The college of same sex dorms, dorm rooms and bathrooms, and our famed Drag Ball and Safer Sex Night. A college founded on “religious utopian principles” that boasts a Kosher-Halal food co-op. We read about the above behavior from larger universities like Duke and scoff and insist that it would never happen or be tolerated at Oberlin.

In 2009, a “Mexican Party” was thrown on campus where some attendees chose to show up dressed as undocumented immigrants (whatever that entails) and drug dealers. During my senior year (‘09-’10), I was asked by a white girl one Saturday (in my own house, of all places) if my afro that day was in honor of the “Pimps and Hos” party that evening. Both of these parties prompted campus-wide talks, solidarity meetings, discussions with the student senate and a forum or two. In 2011, someone spray painted “n*ggerf*ggot” on a dorm wall, and earlier this year I saw a few posts on Facebook and Tumblr about someone scrawling “n*gger” on posters (different from the documented incidents above) along with a call to action, but there didn’t seem to be an overwhelming outpouring of student anger or responsiveness from the administration. In the end, incidents like these seemed to always blow over.

These actions may not be tolerated, but they certainly happen. It was happening when I was a student at Oberlin and it’s happening now. What’s changed this time — I hope for the better — is the response.

So far it seems like it’s going to be harder to forget finding a Klansman on campus. Coverage via Gawker, The Atlantic, the BBC, the New York Times, and so many more certainly help, but to give the college credit, they acted immediately in the best way possible for students’ emotional and physical safety by cancelling classes and helping to facilitate and schedule what they’re calling a Day of Solidarity. Students, faculty and the greater Oberlin community have the chance to attend a number of events including a Community Convocation, “We Stand Together,” that had originally been scheduled for Wednesday. While I was disappointed that alumni didn’t get an immediate email from President Marvin Krislov apprising us of the details (Olivia Pope was needed, because leaving a group of frantic, worried 20-somethings to gather factual information through rumors on social media probably isn’t the best way to manage a potential PR nightmare), the programming put in place for the day and the relative speed of action by the students and members of the administration was admirable and faster than anything I witnessed during my time there.

Also interesting to me were the responses from the students currently on campus. “In solidarity” is probably the most used phrase on my Facebook newsfeed from students, alums, and faculty alike. Messages of “stay strong” and “stay safe” have been popping since about 7:30 Monday morning. I would expect nothing less from the people I associate with, but what strikes me is who the messages are coming from: white students.

With a student body of “20% underrepresented students” (the enrolling class of 2016 was “24% American Ethnic Minorities”) it’s not hard to imagine that much of the response seen via social media would be from white students. They are the majority on campus and as like any other Oberlin student, they have the right to be outraged that this series of events has occurred in their safe space. But that outrage can’t be at the expense of drowning out the voices of PoC and LGBTQ students who may not only be upset, disappointed, and affronted, but genuinely scared.

I doubt I have to remind anyone how the KKK operates and what they’ve proven capable of throughout history. This is an American terrorist organization. Imagine walking back from a late night study session at the library, looking down to pull out your key card only to look back up and find that you’re standing a few feet away from a stranger dressed like the boogieman of a supposedly bygone area. It may be nothing more than a prank by a local high schooler, but what if it isn’t and what if you, as an obviously non-white student, are in danger of verbal abuse, physical harm, or worse?

It doesn’t matter if nothing happens, it doesn’t matter if the sighting only happens once or if most people on campus didn’t witness it. The spectre of fear is now there. The paranoia is there. The reality is that you are now forced to wonder who in your community is smiling at you during the day while doing such a powerfully damaging thing at night. So when I saw Black and other PoC students posting that they wouldn’t be going outside today, or that they didn’t feel comfortable attending today’s events, I understood. When I listened to convocation panelist Warren Harding (’13) speak about how the knowledge of a potential Klansman on campus scared him just as much as seeing Emmett Till’s body for the first time, I get it and I respected it and I hope non-PoC students understood it too.

Personally, I’m not sure I would be able to stomach discussing this in any forum that contained a white majority, not less than 24 hours later, at least. I got angry enough watching the convocation livestream from my bed and seeing a white Jewish student casually use and defend his use of, “n*igger.” I can’t imagine actually being there for that. Were I still there as a student or faculty member, I would be busy being upset and scared and angry at the (frankly irresponsible) unsourced claim from Gawker that the Oberlin Multicultural Resource Center staged these events to justify their funding (In response to that Dean of Students Eric Estes joked, “if only I were that smart”).

Finally, I know that at least part of me would be wondering where all this White Outrage was back in 2009, or even before that; wondering why the white students of Oberlin, and the administration, only seem to start chanting “in solidarity” when situations start directly affecting them… and likely their alumni donations.

(The Convocation Panel answering questions during Q&A on 3/4/13)

Like Harding expressed during the convocation, it’s exhausting to have to deal with a new incident week after week, while also feeling that the burden of change and facilitating discussion is on you as the oppressed party. Professor Afia Ofori-Mensa followed up on that idea, noting that fighting oppression takes labor and so far, the labor at Oberlin has fallen upon the students, staff and faculty of color, which takes time away that they should be spending concentrating on their work and studies and living their lives.

During the ensuing Q&A, many students echoed the feeling that the administration wasn’t doing enough to curtail and stop February’s incidents and the pervasive feeling of being “the other” on campus. College president Marvin Krislov did detail that he had been meeting with students and various student groups throughout the month, but ultimately, even after his claim that the anti-Semitic incidents struck at him too, his answer seemed to lack the substance the students were looking for. Dean Estes offered clear steps that the college is taking to facilitate diversity in student life, which includes both hiring and retaining staff and faculty members of color. The panelists also reacted positively towards the idea of an official plan for strategic diversity within all aspects of school life.

As I’ve written before at The R, I’d hope that plan would involve diversity not only in the student body and faculty, but in education and credit requirements as well. Of course, it’s all well and good to lay out plans and offer lip service to aggrieved students, but what happens when it comes to actually making the promised changes? According to Dean Estes, staff retention has already started and he intends to make it a priority during his tenure. My hope here is that the responsibility of maintaining racial awareness and sensitivity doesn’t fall onto the backs of these retained, diverse staff members by default. Regardless of race, every staff and faculty member is there to provide a safe, productive learning environment for all students on campus. No matter how “small” the incident, the reaction should be the same on behalf of the students they’re being paid to mentor and educate.

(Oberlin College Professor Afia Ofori-Mensa answers questions during the convocation panel on 3/4/13)

There was an overwhelming desire to know what it’s going to take to get the Oberlin administration to respond to events like these with the same overwhelming show of force and support each and every time. A physical altercation? A lull in donations? A drop in applications? A death? Was a KKK sighting what it takes to make sure that Oberlin continues to take all incidents of racial or religious discrimination and aggression seriously? Or will this be the Mexican and Pimps and Hos parties of this Obie generation? Incidents that get the student body riled up for a few days until they leave for Spring Break and come back more concerned about Drag Ball and finals than whatever happened two weeks before.

I spend a lot of time telling people how great Oberlin is, encouraging them to apply, and congratulating people who’ve gotten in… even if I don’t actually know them (I work around high school students; it happens). Sometimes it’s hard to balance my enthusiasm for this place with the reality that it’s by no means a perfect campus, but I do want it to be better. And it can be better, but as Professor Ofori-Mensa said, the campus program houses and PoC-focused academic departments can’t do it alone. The labor that goes into making it better needs to be spread around and the campus collective memory needs to find a way to last past midterms. In other words, the next time I hear about Oberlin spontaneously cancelling classes? It had better be for a snow day.