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.
It was inevitable that people would be baffled by my presence. It wasn’t until holding my tear-stained acceptance letter did I believe that I, a Black girl coming out of the failing Philly school district from a family without money to spare for college, was going to have a quality education. Having been assured that my background would be supported and respected in the classroom, in my dorm, or wherever I found myself on campus, I was proud to bring all that I am with me. There’s no doubt that my liberal, white, and wealthier classmates were fairly alien to me as well, so their questions and moments of shock about who I was were not one-sided. However, they will never be the only Brown face in a college classroom instructed by white professors, reading white authors, and discussing the lives and histories of white people. No matter how different I find my classmates, I will always be the other that slipped into this predominantly white institution.
I don’t blame my classmates for not knowing how racism looks and feels, for not knowing what life looks like for those who don’t occupy more privileged positions in society. But diversity is simply not enough. Many members of our community attempt to achieve a blindness to differences, many of which I carry proudly. Until we acknowledge currently marginalized identities on our campus and put serious resources into true and sustainable inclusion, there will be Oberlin students who are not safe here.
Chinwe: As an incoming freshman and new member of the varsity volleyball team, I made it clear to my parents that I did not want to live in Afrikan Heritage House. It was on South Campus and too far from the gym. Besides, I was set on declaring my major in neuroscience, so it made sense to be close to the Science Center, located on North Campus. With my mind made up, I moved into Langston Hall. My blackness never crossed my mind. Why would it? As far as I was concerned, I was black and would always be black, despite the activities I participated in or the groups of people I chose to hang out with. What I hadn't accounted for were the ways in which students, faculty, and staff members would respond to my identity, or fail to respond. For the three years I lived on North Campus, I found myself completely isolated from conversations about race and queerness, both integral parts of my identity. What Oberlin taught me in those three years was that by playing volleyball or studying natural sciences, I did not fit into a textbook definition of “blackness.” By not being “black enough,” it was almost as if I wasn’t black at all.
Tiesha: When I visited Oberlin during my senior year of high school, I realized two things: I needed to be in this place, and I had to live on South Campus. Coming into Oberlin carrying multiple suitcases of identities like Black, low-income, first generation, and Queer, I knew that this institutional space wasn't the safest for me. I chose to live on South Campus because I felt it would be the best place to find a community capable of understanding what came in my suitcases. While I went to North Campus to access academic buildings and the library, it was my community on South Campus that helped me to grow, uplifted me as I struggled through my first months as a college freshman.
There is a lot of talk about how the folks who choose to live on South Campus are self-segregating, how they should motivate themselves to join the “actual” campus community. But at the heart of this discourse is a failure to admit how race and class play themselves out in the physical spaces we occupy. This wasn't a new discussion, but a discussion that all of us new students inherited, which remains unresolved. I continued to argue alongside other students of color that these spaces are important to us. I am now a board member for the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People. In this place I continue to do the work that has driven my four years at Oberlin, and it was here that I dealt with the events of Monday, March 4.
Chinwe: After four years at Oberlin, I found community. It was because of this love and connection that I didn’t think twice before jumping out of bed and rushing down to Afrikan Heritage House after a first-year student contacted me at 2:15 am about a KKK sighting on South Campus. I called a friend in the nearby Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People, telling students there to lock the doors and stay inside.
Tiesha: A little after 2:00 am, a friend called to let me know that the KKK had been spotted behind my house. I locked my doors and sat in the confusion of that phone call. I was with my roommate, also a black woman, and we waited for someone from the college to contact us. We heard word that folks in Afrikan Heritage House were awake, but the phone call or knock from the college never came. I kept envisioning burning crosses on my lawn. Fear wouldn’t let me sleep.
Chinwe: In the lounge that night, I was feeling anger and sadness, all engulfed by a blanket of “what now?” Even in this state, we mobilized ourselves. We knew that classes needed to be suspended for the day, so alongside other students I reasoned with a key member of the administration, who didn’t understand the urgency. We voiced our opinions and were successful in delineating the importance of the situation. After that we began to organize, and organized all night long.
Tiesha: I stayed awake until sunrise and walked over to Afrikan Heritage House. The lounge was a flurry of activity and planning by students and by my community coordinator from the Multicultural Resource Center. I was relieved to be surrounded by this community. After a month of hate speech on campus, and four years of micro and macro aggressions, I was angry, but not surprised, that this was happening at Oberlin.
Aaron: The results of that organizing were tremendous. The events of the day began with a powerful teach-in led by the head of the Africana Studies department. Hundreds of students rallied from the Student Union to Finney Chapel. There, a convocation titled “We Stand Together” was held. We heard from student leaders, faculty, administrators, and our president. I was overwhelmed by the celebration of solidarity with those who have been most targeted by incidents of hate speech.
Whiteness showed up for the rally on Monday. White students, like myself, filled Finney Chapel with shouts of “we are Oberlin!” However, as the demand for institutional and cultural change has grown separate from the willingness of the institution to seriously confront issues of structural racism in our communities, many white students have become defensive. I have heard white students claim they feel “targeted” by the attempts of students of color to hold this institution accountable to its principles and platitudes, by attempts to challenge the student body to recognize and address the segregation that continues to exist on campus.
No doubt we have the tendency to react defensively, now that our complacency has been shaken. This backlash has taken a number of forms, such as the many racist comments reported on Oberlin Microaggressions. We appear ill equipped to effectively deal with this discomfort, to know where to place our angst and frustration. The real target of this frustration should be complacency itself, or the Oberlin institution that nourishes complacency among its white student body. Instead, many of the same students who claimed “solidarity” on Monday are now identifying with the Oberlin administration against many students of color. These students of color are both expected to and chastised for engaging with an institution that has refused to engage with them, investing in an institution that is not fully invested in them.
Chinwe: Media also showed up for the rally on Monday. Whether or not these media sources were “in solidarity” with us students, I’m still not sure. In a matter of hours, the KKK sighting had gone from an actual event to an allegation. I could continue by giving reasons why it’s completely unacceptable that a student’s story was so blatantly questioned. I could dispel any doubts that have come to the forefront of this story by providing “proof.” That’s what everyone wants, right?
While I understand and, in some ways, appreciate the administration’s commitment to investigate this sighting, I think there has been a failure to acknowledge the ways in which investigative language has been used to delegitimize and silence those most directly affected by these events. Not only does this language invalidate experience, but the media perpetuates it, further invalidating the emotions felt in Lord Lounge that night, in plain view of greater society. Regardless of whether or not the sighting was mistaken, the fear and frustration felt by students was extremely real. My fear and frustration are still real.
Aaron: I have profited from this institution’s educational practices without the burden of actually having to ask anything from a structure that already invests in me, that already identifies with me. This is why it surprised me to hear white students claim they feel empathy for the institution, to the point of being “embarrassed” by the students of color, primarily, who continue to demand institutional and cultural change. I was embarrassed by these comments, which contradicted my own faith in the progressiveness of the communities I claim to be a part of. Given this, I feel compelled to ask them and myself, why are you embarrassed now? Weren’t you embarrassed before?
Aaron, Tiesha, Amber Marie, and Chinwe: Student organizers have reiterated that our academic “utopia” is not free from the outside world. The racism, queerphobia, classism, anti-semitism, and sexism that we have encountered in other places come with us to Oberlin. This realization has mobilized many of us, but it is saddening to see, in these past months of anguish, that it has also stifled many of our peers. Still, there are many at Oberlin who have been organizing for institutional and cultural change for a long time, and continue to do so. Change is more than the acknowledgement of racist events. It is more than a discussion about Oberlin’s progressive history, since this history has not yet been truthfully told. Effective change requires re-evaluating and restructuring institutional practices and perspectives. Oberlin must make the safety of every student, faculty, staff member, and administrator its priority, for we will not have true, sustainable change until our institution reflects and nurtures the intersectional and manifold experiences of the college’s communities.