It's really fucking hot in the lounge of Afrikan Heritage House at Oberlin College. Shucked outerwear forms crumpled nests on the floor. Someone is handing out cookies from an organic yogurt container. Students are touching each other's necks and arms with the wary grace of new mothers, laughing gently, bodies lolling on haphazard clusters of rearranged furniture. Most are exhausted. It's been a long week.
Students are gathered here for the second night of "working group" meetings, the product of a recent retreat hosted by Oberlin's Multicultural Resource Center. Working groups are intensive discussion groups tasked with generating concrete proposals for minor policy changes—things like, you know, dismantling centuries of institutionalized racism. Despite the sobering topic of discussion, the atmosphere in the lounge is giddy, the prospect of productive activist ferment from which Oberlin derives its legacy palpable. Three nights ago, the lounge was the site of a very different scenario.
Shortly after midnight on Monday, March 4th, an Oberlin senior driving her boyfriend to Afrikan Heritage House spotted a figure wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume near the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People. She notified a Resident Assistant, who then woke up A-House residents for an emergency meeting around 1:30 a.m.
"Everyone was crying," says Eliza Diop, a third-year Africana Studies and Politics double major and a resident of A-house. Diop was in the library when her R.A. texted her about the sighting. She raced back to the residence hall and helped the R.A.s knock on everyone's door to round them up for the meeting. "Imagine," she urges, "One o' clock in the morning. So first, we're black. Then, this is our space. All this has been happening for three weeks, and then you hear someone's been spotted wearing that."
Oberlin, despite its reputation for progressivism, has seen a spate of anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist provocations this semester. While everyone agrees that the events aren't unprecedented—any heterogeneous community inevitably becomes riven by intolerant acts and individuals on occasion, and Oberlin is no exception—this semester's offenses were more flagrant and numerous than past blemishes on the college's climate of acceptance and unity. There is an ugliness, an ache of unrest and uncertainty, that wasn't there before. Oberlin is scared. As students chanted at a rally later that Monday, Oberlin is also "fucking angry"—angry at the perpetrators of past and recent hate crimes, yes, but also at an administration students believe has failed the college's precepts of inclusion and equality.
You should know that Oberlin is a bubble. You should know that the institution, with a legacy of progressivism unrivaled in American academia—the first coeducational college, the first college to graduate a female of color, the first college to implement a policy to admit qualified candidates regardless of race, a stop on the Underground Railroad—is regarded by many as a liberal utopia, a place where students cavort in group showers, pass brittle roaches under North Campus' wisdom tree, rend dense loaves of fresh-baked bread together in co-op kitchens, tangle sweat-slicked limbs under strobe lights on Safer Sex Night, and take classes on "itineraries of postmodernism and "native Pacific sexualities" and "language pedagogy."
That, of course, is not the whole story. You should also know that there are students who wear khakis. There are maybe twelve Republicans. There are non-soy-based entrees in the dining halls. There are Computer Science majors. There are need-based admissions.
And there is racism. There is fear gnawing at the periphery of Oberlin's bucolic campus, pangs of a centuries-long hurt quickening in the belly, burning in the throat.
You should know that the bubble just burst.
Students say dread permeated the early hours of Monday morning, as A-house residents shuffled into the lounge, tired but electrified by fear. "You think about your history, you think about your ancestors, you think about everything," says Diop. "The response that night was really moving, in a very traumatic, frustrating way."
This semester's hate-motivated crimes, which were compiled by student newspaper the Oberlin Review, began on February 9th—days after students returned from winter break--when someone defaced posters for Black History Month in Oberlin's Science Center, replacing "Black" with "N*****." Drawings of swastikas were also confirmed. Several days later, a coordinator at the Multicultural Resource Center found a note that read "N***** and Faggot Center."
The acts of vandalism continued in freshman residence hall Burton, where "Whites Only" was written above a water fountain and several other marks of racist graffiti were found. The next day, a student reported a robbery by a suspect who muttered a racist epithet before knocking the student to the ground. A week later, another swastika was found in a classroom building, along with defaced Affirmative Action and queer awareness posters, followed by another swastika scrawled on an outside window of the Science Center the next day.
College administrators alerted students gathered at A-house Monday morning that two students suspected of responsibility for some of the vandalism and inflammatory posts on online student forums like ObieTalk and Oberchan had been removed from campus the previous week, but one of the culprits denied any affiliation with the incidents to the Oberlin Review.
Many students believe the removal of the two students was a minor advance in addressing the much larger and increasingly urgent imperative of devising a strategic plan for improving diversity and equality at Oberlin, and that the administration's triumph in identifying the two culprits, even if they were in fact involved, derails crucial dialogues about the liberal complacency and misleading veneer of security students see as dominant and upsetting factors of life at the school.