Students rally against hate speech at Oberlin. (Courtesy of Aaron Braun.)
On Monday, March 4 Oberlin College in Ohio suspended classes in response to predawn reports that an individual dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia was seen walking near residential dorms on the south side of campus, including Afrikan Heritage House and the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People. The alleged sighting followed a monthlong series of racist and sexist vandalism, which included swastika graffiti, the replacement of “black” with racial slurs on Black History Month Flyers, the defacement of LGBTQ posters, and a “Whites Only” sign above a school water fountain. (Full list via The Oberlin Review here.) Instead of attending classes that Monday, students gathered in Oberlin’s campus chapel for a teach-in led by the Africana Studies Department, and participated in a student-organized day of solidarity.
The following day, the Oberlin police announced that they were unable to confirm the KKK sighting, and that it was possible that a person wearing a blanket had been mistakenly interpreted as a robed figure. Police Lt. Mike McCloskey also indicated that the college had identified the perpetrators behind earlier incidents of hate speech, and was dealing with these individuals internally.
Many students, however, feel that the college administration has insufficiently addressed the incidents that have plagued campus, and that the focus on the investigations—both at Oberlin and in the national media—has drawn attention away from the need for larger institutional change. Regardless of whether the KKK sighting can be confirmed, they say, frustration and fear persist. The following testimonies represent the reflections of four students currently enrolled at Oberlin.
Aaron Braun, Tiesha Cassel, Amber Marie Felton, Chinwe Okona: We are students at Oberlin College compiling our personal experiences as a collection of voices. These are not the first public incidents of hate speech that Oberlin has confronted. In each of our four years as students, we’ve dealt with racist, queerphobic, and anti-Semitic bias-related incidents. In sharing our reflections, we hope not only to shed light on the events of the past few months, but also to speak more generally about larger systems of structural and cultural oppression. Further, we aim to continue a critical discussion about how Oberlin’s institutional attitudes and practices are implicated in the persistence of discrimination on campus.
Amber Marie: “We just need to teach them. Poorer people need to embrace the skills and values of the Upper Middle class.” Nods of approval across my sociology classroom. And suddenly I’m engulfed in this we, and the they I have always associated myself with is invisible. During my admissions interview four years ago, I was assured that the campus was a diverse one that celebrated—not simply tolerated—difference. However, from the moment I arrived, I have been unknowingly othered by the way that I look, talk, study, spend time and money, by where I’m from, by who I befriend, and by the responsibilities I have to my family. More recently, I have been ostracized because of the numerous ways I have negatively experienced Oberlin College, even prior to the incidents of hate.