We Are Oberlin…And Here’s Our Dirty Laundry

*TRIGGER WARNING: Racist and homophobic language*

By Kendra James

The Klu Klux Klan isn’t new to Ohio, but they were certainly a new addition to the Oberlin College Campus. At some time around midnight on Monday, March 4, a person dressed in 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 about what had happened were already flying around Facebook and Tumblr. 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 a resident assistant. This was all before Gawker picked up the story later in the 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 a 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 the 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 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 Hoes” 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 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 news feed 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 boogeyman 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 specter 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.

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.

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.


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  • laprofe63

    As an alumna some of this is extremely disturbing. I don’t recall any such equivalents to “Mexican” or “Pimp & Ho” parties in my days (early 80’s), but that could be a function of my own cluelessness at the time. Regardless, this is something that is unbecoming the Oberlin reputation and should be censured by students, faculty and the administration as absolutely unacceptable “entertainment” on campus. If it’s off campus, then the school paper (can’t remember what it’s called) should use its influence to help discourage such offensive behavior. Modern-day minstrel shows have no place at Oberlin.

    The presence of KKK on campus is something altogether different however, and it should put everyone on high alert. CODE RED! I agree that it’s not just a matter of inappropriate and threatening, but of downright dangerous–as in life & death. Domestic terrorism is not unknown to college campuses and the college administration should treat it like the presence of a shooter. Words are a prelude to actions, and if it were my responsibility I would be hiring extra security until the perpetrator(s) is caught. Hate speech has no place at Oberlin.

    I will watch for updates. Thanks for writing this piece and for sharing your perspective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ciciranza Siena Castañares

    Thank you for this article and for sharing your perspective. I wanted to address one point:

    “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.”

    I am a white/Latina student of Oberlin. As someone who identifies as white, I want to say that I was angered earlier in the past few weeks about the defacing of posters and spaces. In response I made a poster for the March in Solidarity that followed, and I began to talk to my friends and community members about what else to do in response. I would not say that I only starting chanting “in solidarity” when this situation directly affected me. When I become aware of these issues, I do take them seriously. Had I been on campus to hear about the “Mexican” party I certainly would have been enraged then as well. I know that other friends of mine who are white feel the same way as I do.

    I do agree that we need to do more. I do recognize that inaction from those with privilege, including myself, has caused the burden of alleviating these problems to fall to the hands of people whom it does directly affect. I am committed to continuing our response. But on behalf of myself, and at least one of my white friends as well, I want to say that alumni donations are the least of our concerns right now.

    • Guest

      I say this in part because white people may also have personal reasons to chant “in solidarity”. White members of our community have been subjected to religious, classist, ableist, sizeist, and sexual discrimination and targeting.

      This is not to say white privilege does not exist or must be ignored; it absolutely DOES exist, and must indeed be attended to and checked. I also do not in any way mean to discount the experience of those who would like to see white community members take more action, who have experienced inaction and unkindness from white people directly and indirectly. On behalf of myself and my fellow white students, I apologize for drawing attention to ourselves at this time and for failing to act when we could have helped the situation, and for giving you cause to assume that we are likely to be worried about our alumni donations. Though this assumption may be hurtful, I recognize that it is not unfounded.

  • http://jude.livejournal.com/ sarahjude

    This whole situation saddens me deeply. I don’t remember incidents of this blatant nature occurring during my time at Oberlin (nearly ten years ago) but the surrounding conversations — documentation of microaggressions, discussions of institutionalized racism, and complaints of the tone-deafness of the faculty and staff of the college sound depressingly familiar. I wonder how much of the wheel-spinning can be attributed to the ever-shifting nature of the student body? I attribute a great deal of my progressive self-education to my Oberlin experience, but I wouldn’t say I was anything like a good ally or a well-educated feminist by the time I graduated. On my way to learning what those terms meant, certainly, and developing the ability to have discussions that involved me doing more listening than talking, among other things — but by the time Oberlin cycled me back out into the world I was only beginning to realize how much I had been (and still was) part of the problem. I am sad to see so many 18-21-year-olds seeming to have the same experiences I had, and producing the same problematic reactions, but I’m not surprised.

    As an elementary teacher in public schools, I can state that as far as my experience goes, my memories from my own grade school experience still hold true — race and class are not discussed as ongoing issues. Even in my inner-city, 99%-African-American school, we hear about the Civil Rights movement as something that solved the problems with race that America used to have. As long as we’re not bringing these conversations to younger students, my fear is that Oberlin will continue to have these same “growing pains” (by which I mean the problematic reactions to and discussion around the initial “bias attacks,” not the events themselves) since so many White students will arrive thinking that they are already good allies without ever having been asked to confront their privilege in a meaningful way, and will have to start the unlearning process that takes so much more than four years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MetjuSwinton Matt Swinton

    I was fine with the article until I got here:

    “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.”

    Then I couldn’t read anymore. Author, do you really believe white people are so shallow? I know there’s a lot of really strong emotions but people have to consider that while different groups are hurt vastly different amounts and some are far more than others, attacks like the ones this month hurt everyone connected to those directly attacked In Oberlin, this is everyone who isn’t trying very hard to only associate themselves the maximally privileged. I know its natural to want to blame somebody and that the perpetrator obviously prefers one group over all others, but that does not make it acceptable to accuse that group of being shallow, selfish, or lacking in empathy.

    It’s this kind of talk that makes people *not* comes to rallies, marches and educational events. Heck, twice during the convocation I almost left twice when after one of the speakers referred to the “privileged” in a way I perceived as negative there was a large round of applause. A group cannot make social progress without outsiders. So please, if you are a victim, know that when the privileged join a march, protest, or other event, we are there for you, and that the only selfish motive we hold is to gain the satisfaction of helping out friends.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4305235 Connor Goldsmith

      Do you want a cookie?

    • http://www.facebook.com/MetjuSwinton Matt Swinton

      By the way I am very curious to hear any criticism of what I said, which presumably exists considering at the time I’m writing this there’s a downvote.

      • 8mph Ansible

        Pssst! About that white people be shallow remark of yours? I think you’re kinda proving that in your case.

        How not to be a shallow white person? Step back and stop making it about you.

        Seriously, groups of historically & continually disenfranchised people are targeted for abuse, and possible violence, but that doesn’t matter if the words of the abused makes you I’m comfortable or hurts your feelings?

    • http://www.facebook.com/ciciranza Siena Castañares

      Hi Matt,

      I also think that not all white students are apathetic or uncaring, and I have seen many white students speak and act very bravely in the last 48 hours. In particular I want to applaud friends I have who are white and Jewish, who also have been targeted and marginalized by these hateful acts and have spoken out. While I do think that people with privilege should do more and help alleviate the burden on those who are fighting against their own oppression, it is not true of me or my close friends with white privilege that we do not care or that we are worried about our alumni donations right now more than the safety and welfare of our Oberlin colleagues.

      But I also think we need to strive to understand the use of the word “privileged” to connote negativity. In my opinion, the fact that privilege exists is a very unfortunate thing indeed, because by definition it also means that injustice exists. I did applaud when speakers talked about the differences between those with privilege and those without, and also how people with privilege are blind to the experiences of those without and often, even if we mean well, say or do things that hurt others.

      I’d love to talk more in person if you are interested.


    • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

      “Author” here! I’m sorry that you felt uncomfortable at the rally because the word privileged was being used negatively. That said, I’m more concerned with the PoC, LGBTQ, and Jewish students who’re feeling uncomfortable because racist and anti-Semitic slurs have been showing up on campus for the past 28 days.

      I think you need to step back and remember that while “solidarity” is welcome and allies are accepted this is not about you.You’re a white male living in America. You’re privileged. Period.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ciciranza Siena Castañares

      Hi Matt. I posted an earlier response, but I think it was flawed, and anyway, the other responses here say it much better than I did. I believe this is our time to accept the anger we are dealt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.walden Rachel Walden

    “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.” – Yes. One of the more problematic things in the Q&A bit of the Convocation was the white, male student who kept insisting “I don’t know everything” while continuing to take up valuable and limited time for discussion. Uh, okay then, sit down and let people who do, who are more directly affected, talk.

    I appreciated the student comment toward the end that relates to your statement on diversity “in education and credit requirements.” She noted that she got out of doing any real “cultural diversity” credits by taking high school French, and remarked that she had taken glaciology, but she hadn’t taken anything that specifically prepared her to critique and change power structures that perpetuate racism. So. much. that.

    Other than that, I’m still thinking on this, as someone who both loves Oberlin deeply (OC ’00) and recognizes that it is not quite the portrayed liberal utopia for many types of students who aren’t rich white kids from the coasts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1164481042 Mieko Gavia

    I’d also like to add that even if it is a hoax by some white/hetero/non-jewish students it doesn’t make it any less racist. The threat of physical violence may have dropped but those words do damage. The threat implied in them is real. Anyone who exploits that for the sake of a joke or irony or a point about “free speech” (which doesn’t apply to vandalism or threats) is still doing something racist, homophobic, and antisemitic. Treating someone’s trauma lightly for the sake of your amusement is no different than treating someone’s trauma lightly for the sake of your rage.

    A student of color perpetuating these acts it doesn’t change anything. This hypothetical student may cry wolf (it’s happened before), but it doesn’t change the way we should deal with things like this. We can’t respond skeptically to any other crime because some hoaxes have occurred. In 2011, someone vandalized a dorm- it turned out to be a hoax, but the community response was large and swift and put enough pressure on the culprit that he turned himself in. At the very least, this is what it does.

  • HKirkcon

    Thank you so much for your post! I have a lot to think about, and I plan on getting back to you soon when I have some thoughts formulated. Heather, ’11