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.
Security alerts issued by the college also confirm that harassment on campus has not markedly declined since the students were removed—the suspects were identified prior to the KKK sighting and disavowed any knowledge of the event. Several students have reported being followed and taunted by suspects in a car, and students involved in spearheading the working groups and other venues for advocacy report continued jeers and racist remarks.
In the classic Oberlin tradition of academia-infused hyper-awareness, students have begun to classify hate-fueled affronts as either "microaggressive" or "macroaggressive." Verbal insults, graffiti, and violence are examples of macroaggression, while microaggression concerns the smaller and more insidious inflections of derogation that students say suffuse daily life, often going unacknowledged not only by the administration, but by students themselves. The latter has been the purview of Oberlin Microaggressions, an open Tumblr intended to "dispel the false narrative that all of our students are 'radical,' 'liberal,' or 'progressive,' and that our campus is free from marginalization."
Instances of microaggression itemized on the site include everything from Trayvon Martin jokes to complaints of a student humorously equating his observance of "no-shave November" with "Ramadan for white people" to a student ridiculed for wearing a hijab (the latter arguably a macroaggressive act).
While there wasn't such a structured forum for documenting them before, flare-ups of racial persecution have riddled Oberlin's recent history long before this semester—a "Mexican"-themed party hosted in 2009, at which students arrived with bronzer-caked faces and sombreros, is one example, as is a flurry of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in 2011. "It's not that things were great, even here in Oberlin, and then three weeks ago they got bad," faculty panelist Afia Ofori-Mensa reminded an audience gathered in Finney Chapel in a convocation to address the recent macro-aggressions on campus.
In a later interview, Ofori-Mensa emphasized that "these are the most public and visible and recent examples of phenomena that affect and structure our lives everyday." She says that since she started at Oberlin three years ago, A-house has been vandalized every semester, but that because these transgressions "happen in an environment that is thought of as particular to the Africana community"--as opposed to in "dominant spaces" like the Science Center--"either the news doesn't make its way around or when it makes its way around, people don't care as much as they have cared about these recent things."
This time, the news certainly made its way around—Oberlin's been in the national spotlight since news leaked of the KKK sighting. And students, says junior Michelle Ellison, "have been walking around like chickens with their heads cut off—not knowing what to say, talking out of anger."
Everyone is looking for answers, for concrete solutions, which, as administrative waffling in the aftermath of Monday morning's offense crystallized, school authorities aren't necessarily equipped to provide.
It's Monday afternoon, the heated crescendo of a convocation hosted in Oberlin's Finney Chapel by Oberlin faculty and administration as part of a "Day of Solidarity" in response to Monday morning's sighting and the eruption of events that precipitated it, and shit just got real.
At 7:41 a.m. on Monday, students received an email alert from the Oberlin College Student Senate of the KKK sighting earlier that morning. They were notified that classes would be cancelled and that a day of campus-wide solidarity events had been scheduled in their stead.
Oberlin's website was taken offline for the day, replaced by a message from the administration that announced that the college would be hosting "A Day of Solidarity," including a teach-in, rally, and convocation, in response to the "series of hate-related incidents on campus." The note, signed by the president and three deans, elaborated: "We hope today will allow the entire community—students, faculty, and staff—to make a strong statement about the values that we cherish here at Oberlin: inclusion, respect for others, and a strong and abiding faith in the worth of every individual."
Marvin Krislov, Oberlin's fourteenth president, is on the stage, flanked by a panel comprising two deans, two professors, and four student representatives, and he's shrinking, left knee agitating, his face growing increasingly pallid as he takes intermittent nips at his coffee mug.
Warren Harding, one of the student panelists, has just lambasted Krislov and other administrators for "not addressing these incidents forcefully and communicating with students."
"What does it take for the administration to stop paying lip service to our communities?" he asks attendees crammed into the overcrowded pews and sprawled across the aisles. "Does it take someone getting physically hurt? Does it take a death? [...] From these incidents, it is clear that the administration has failed to show an effort to lead or guide."
Students, community members, and faculty are punctuating Harding's fiery disquisition with big whoops and shrieks of support, their applause drowning out half his sentences.
The indictment continues with the third student panelist, Donnay Edmund. "Since when does saying 'I'm in solidarity' make you an active participant in challenging the stifling and suffocating oppressive forces that have attempted to dismantle communities?" she demands. "People here have drafted and re-drafted ideas that the administration should implement if their imagination keeps failing."
After the student and faculty speeches, when Krislov and deans Eric Estes and Alison Williams join the student and faculty panelists on stage for an open Q&A with the audience, tension in the room escalates, some students turning in their seats to silently mouth "Oh, shit!" to their friends.
When one student inquires about the panelists' personal definitions of "solidarity," Krislov's milquetoast response elicits several groans. Another student asks, with more than a hint of incredulity, "What do you have to say for yourselves?" In response, Krislov cites the college's investigative forays and "resource" expenditure, as well as their "community-building" efforts.
Harding's brazen dismissal of the president's reply shocks many and prompts another round of applause: "In terms of the community-building that you've been involved in, I'm really curious as to what you've learned from that. I haven't really seen you be involved in community-building."
"Well..." Krislov's pregnant pause prompts a small chorus of mocking "Wells" echoed in the audience. "Now, I do think we should try to be respectful," Krislov ventures. He remarks that he's been trying to work with students and faculty to attain a sense of "how people are feeling," concluding with, "We've been listening to students and also faculty and staff as well."
Students present at A-house on Monday morning, however, pose an alternative narrative, one that interrogates the very origins of the "Day of Solidarity," roundly hailed by the media as a judicious response to the episodes of racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic aggression on campus.
Students contend that not only has the college not properly redressed previous occurrences of hate-inspired activity, but that administrative response Monday morning was initially non-compliant with student demands: after hours of negotiations, students in A-house essentially threatened a walk-out.
The deans, who had all either arrived at the A-house lounge or were in touch via speaker phone, likely sensed a mounting PR disaster, and agreed shortly after 5 a.m. to suspend classes.
Two days after the Day of Solidarity, students lounging in the Multicultural Resource Center's cozy office, lined with sofas and tables of food, express dissatisfaction with media coverage of Monday's events, objecting to laudatory reports of administrative initiative in hosting the Day of Solidarity in lieu of classes.
"The important thing to know is that this was student-driven," insists Ellison. "We feel like we're running this campus on our own."
"The Day of Solidarity was a result of student endeavors and student demands," affirms Miata Rogers. "We read a lot of newspaper articles that just mentioned the fact that the president canceled classes." Both Rogers and Ellison agree that without agitation from the Africana community in the A-house lounge Monday morning, "classes would have definitely been in session."
Students drafted plans for a barricade of academic buildings when it became clear that the deans were hesitant to adopt the Africana Studies department's plans to suspend classes for a teach-in. Dean Sean Decatur reportedly demurred that canceling classes would "disrupt" the college's "commitment to learning."
Many A-house residents are astonished by the nasty, persistent rumor-seized upon by recent media reports and perpetuated by the Oberlin Police Department—that the KKK sighting was a "hoax" or a "scare," that the student who reported the Klan figure had in fact witnessed a "pedestrian wrapped in a blanket."
As the student quipped to the Oberlin Review in response to the police report, "So a blanket is going to magically unfold while the wind is blowing and cover their entire body and form a point at the top of their head?"
"The information that has been presented is misguided and incorrect," says Diop, who believes that the administration and campus security haven't been transparent enough in their investigation of the event, failing to dispel or confirm the "blanket theory" to the media.
"It undermines our experience," agrees Daisy Peele, one of the coordinators of the A-house working groups and co-chair of Oberlin's Black Student Union. "People just think we're overreacting. [The student who reported the sighting] is a very serious, trustworthy person—she wouldn't just make that up. It just reflects the lack of support that we're getting."
Kiki Acei, a first-year student from Cleveland, remarks, "I think we feel like the administration isn't taking things as seriously as they should. There is an investigation, but what actions are they taking to prevent this from happening again?" Acei decries the administration's responsiveness to student complaints as "very much lacking," explaining that it "shouldn't take someone walking around in a KKK ensemble to talk to our leaders."
Full disclosure: I was an Oberlin student. I was acquainted—not friends, but certainly friendly—with the students who threw the "Mexican party" that caused so much outrage in 2009. I remember being exasperated and somewhat bemused by the uproar it stirred. The students who hosted it weren't total assholes. Most students at Oberlin are not total assholes. The term "Mexican" was the problem. What they had initially planned would have likely been more felicitously billed as a "fiesta"—you know, a party with flatware in kicky colors, Tostitos, maybe some queso, definitely margaritas. Perhaps some blithe appropriation and a hint of racial—not necessarily racist—essentialism. I almost attended.
My freshman year, I also joined a Facebook formed by Lena Dunham entitled "Political Correctness Is Totally Gay." I thought it was hilarious and provocative at the time. Many students who first come to Oberlin are alienated by what seems like an overly severe tenor of militant progressivism – I dropped out of Oberlin's renowned co-op dining system after weathering days of heated, convoluted mealtime "consensus" discussions about the least oppressive forms of sweetener (verdict: maple syrup=bad, honey=really bad, cane sugar=seriously?, agave nectar=prohibitively expensive, date sugar=potentially not wildly unethical but tastes like buttcrack lint). I started eating meat after eight years of vegetarianism in a misplaced gesture of retaliation.
I've since done a lot of growing up and now understand that casual or jocular use of anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and racist language not only re-inscribes and consecrates hegemonic discourses of oppression, but epistemically encodes our everyday encounters with otherness.
As Professor Ofori-Mensa said in her convocation speech, "Words are not just important; they structure the very world we live in. Words create who we are and who we understand others to be. So rhetorical acts of hate [...] are not to be so easily dismissed."
I only internalized this because I opted to take a lot of classes that contained the prefix "post" in their course descriptions. I studied things like alterity and difference and colonial subjectivities and gender performativity. Many students graduate from Oberlin without exploring these topics, which is fine, but just as I lack a vocabulary for articulating, say, facets of quantum mechanical phenomena, a lot of students who don't primarily pursue coursework that addresses normativity and oppression, and even many who do, often unintentionally commit acts of linguistic microaggression.
This became painfully clear in some unfortunate student and faculty remarks during and after the Day of Solidarity. One student, in indignant response to a comment student panelist Zachary Pekarsky made about the importance of acknowledging Jewish privilege without diminishing the reality of Jewish suffering, protested what she misinterpreted as Pekarsky's avowal of Jewish guilt. The student also used the n-word in reference to previous events, which provoked tumult in the audience. As a student next to me murmured, "That just hit like a ton of bricks."
Another audience member yelled "Free Palestine!" while the student was at the mic, which occasioned scattered applause, though the student had not made any reference to Israel/Palestine.
"It's really important not to conflate Zionism with Jewishness," Pekarsky later notes. He confirms that even those in Oberlin's anti-Zionist community agreed that the Palestine comment was "out of place and shouldn't have happened."
"I think it's been a lot easier for the Jewish community to stand up in allyship than to say things about themselves," Pekarsky later commented. "There's this weird suffering Olympics that goes on. There's no reason we can't recognize the things that we go through and simultaneously affirm the incredible struggles that the Africana community is dealing with. I think those two can coexist."
Dialogues like this have abounded in the past few weeks, and not just because the administration authorized a formal, campus-wide response to recent discriminatory gestures: students have lately emphasized the importance of allyship, or the efforts of people from privileged communities to recognize and address their often unintentional complicity in injustice.
"We are not a utopia," Ellison maintains. "It's not flowers and trees and smiles and giggles all the time. I think it's key that the faculty and students know that if you want to just be comfortable, Oberlin is not really the place."
Though the college has enlisted assistance from the FBI to investigate Oberlin's hate incidents (the FBI, when reached by Scene, declined to share further information about their involvement), many believe that "solving" the crimes doesn't necessarily mean solving anxieties about inequality at the overwhelmingly privileged, overwhelmingly white school.
"I don't start the conversation with whether or not these things happened," says Professor Ofori-Mensa. "And I don't start the conversation with whether or not they were perpetrated by someone within the student body or outside the campus. What matters to me is that what we have produced here in the after-effects of those incidents is a campus conversation about hate and about privilege and oppression and the manifestations of those things in people's everyday lives."
Oberlin's annual tuition is $44,512, which doesn't include mandatory on-campus housing for non-seniors ($6,650 yearly for a single-occupancy dorm room) or food (all students are required to be on a college meal plan, which totals $5,820 for a modest 14-meal-per-week plan). All told, the cost of attending Oberlin exceeds the national median income by over $4,000. While 65% of students receive some kind of financial aid—the average annual grant is $27,100—need is still a factor in the admissions process. Borderline applicants who can pay full tuition may be favored, while more qualified candidates who indicate significant financial need may not. So yeah, Oberlin students are, for the most part, financially privileged.
They're also still pretty damn white—72%, to be exact.
Whatever students believe, President Krislov's job is not to improve equality or to diversify the student body; it's largely to ensure the college's financial solvency, which, while it doesn't always conflict with Oberlin's progressive tenets, also doesn't rely on them.
"I think it's important to not fall into the trap of treating the administration as a unitary actor and forgetting that it's composed of individual people making individual decisions," says Pekarsky. Ofori-Mensa agrees: "People talk about 'the administration'—that's one of those vague terms, like 'society.' [...] A lot of times I think the way that people process their feelings is by directing them towards somebody. And I think that the president, as the figurehead of the institution, but also as a white man who represents privileged identities to a lot of students, becomes a target," she says.President Krislov is not a monster. He's generally considered a really nice, regular guy. He wore a Nike baseball hat to the student rally on Monday. He was a guest DJ on my friend's radio show. As an attorney in the early '90s, he prosecuted federal hate crimes. As the University of Michigan's General Counsel, he defended affirmative action lawsuits. While an easy target, he's not the crux of the problem.
Antonio Gramsci, a theorist revered by many Oberlin students, dissects the ways hegemonic systems co-opt and integrate dissent to pacify rebellion and retain existing power relations. Oberlin is as much a business and a site of producing ideological consent as it is a stronghold of progressive education. Liberal, prestigious institutions like Oberlin often reinforce social stratification and neuter strains of radicalism by furnishing young, wealthy liberals with a forum for self-expression that doesn't significantly challenge or problematize structures of repression and inequality.
Except when there's a rupture. Except when the bubble bursts, if the bubble ever existed at all. Students are now in a position to achieve more than curricular progressivism and semi-ironic hand-wringing about their own privilege: they're in a position to demand substantive changes from a system whose flaws have become manifest in the past few weeks.
The student-led working groups, scattered throughout A-house the Wednesday after the KKK sighting, are a start: some of the ideas students drafted, concrete measures coordinators will submit to the administration, include mandatory allyship, racial violence, and white privilege training during freshman orientation, assigning Multicultural Resource Center liaisons to every school department, improving policies in the athletic department for transgendered people, strengthening cultural diversity requirements (which can currently be met by taking French or studying abroad in London), and recruiting more professors of color. If these advances seem small, that's because they are: they're practicable solutions that don't require extra funding, which means the administration has no excuse not to adopt them.
If they don't? Well, Oberlin is fucking angry, and honestly? Really, really loud. We'll probably hear about it.