My first semester of Oberlin certainly ended with a bang. After the events of Ferguson, the entire campus became a storm of racial discussion, and some of it led to hurtful comments from both sides. The debate of how to reconcile finals with the trauma facing many of the student body highlighted the tension between the community of students of color, other students, and the Administration1.
For those of you not spending hours on Oberlin's Yik Yak every day, an explanation of recent events is necessary. After the announcement that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, the campus erupted. Students organized rides to the Cleveland protests, making sure students of color took priority. Soon after, a sit-in occurred at the Board of Trustees' dinner. Throughout the month, there were protests all around town and many events where students of color expressed their experiences and emotions through slam poetry.
This amount of social activism takes time and a lot of emotional energy, so coping with the upcoming finals became nearly impossible for many students. One math class decided to take action by emailing their professor asking him to provide an option for students who were not ready to take their final. In the three-paragraph-long email, which was written by a white student, the student explained the lack of support the Oberlin Administration was providing and how Columbia Law School was setting a precedent for creating an alternative for struggling students.
His response? "No." One word. That's it. To say the reply wasn't his best idea would be putting it mildly. The justified outrage that followed eventually led to a petition asking the Administration to suspend the grading system for the semester so that no student could receive a grade below a C. When the Administration didn't agree, the protests, anger, and problems escalated.
To say that I was overwhelmed by the conversation would be an understatement. I grew up in an all white town in Pittsburgh. In my graduating class of about 465 students, there were no more than 7 African Americans. Race just isn't a major issue where I live because the entire town is either white or Asian. The only true racial debate that happened in the halls of my high school pertained to the stereotype that Asians are smart and that us overachieving white kids needed to catch up. Obviously, this stereotype is as hurtful as any other. However, all other racial issues were pushed under the rug. My mother once told me a story of the town's police profiling a man of color who happened to be a successful businessman. All the same, incidents like that didn't happen often because there were very few African Americans, so I really didn't think about it. Until I came to Oberlin, I viewed race issues as purely economic ones. I believed that all of the racial issues pertaining to African Americans in this country came from the fact that African Americans had been disenfranchised for so long that now most of them faced poverty. I believed that this poverty was the cause of the racial inequality in America. From my point of view, the solution to this was a complete overhaul of the public school system2 and much stronger affirmative action programs. The moment the Ferguson ruling was announced, I realized just how wrong I was.
I know it is my responsibility to educate myself. Educating oneself about an issue as complex as race in America takes a long time. I often avoided having dialogues about it because I feared that I would accidentally offend someone. Whenever I did mess up, I was often given an ugly look and told to "check my privilege." Many people (of all races) assumed that I knew everything they knew or that I am ignorant because I want to be. Neither of these assumptions is correct and being humiliated didn't make me want to learn more. Personally, I feel very frustrated because I know that the situation is urgent, but I can't make my brain learn things faster. Also, I am generally so wrapped up in thinking about and learning about issues that specifically pertain to disabled queer mentally-ill atheists that I don't learn as much about other issues. They don't pop up on my Facebook feed or my Youtube page, so I have to make an actual effort to do research. I'm used to being the one in the under-privileged group. Only after last semester have I really begun to wrap my head around the ways in which I am privileged. I don't want to exert my privilege, but I feel the need to ask everyone to give me the benefit of the doubt. I don't know everything that a fourth-year Obie who grew up in Chicago knows. I have very good intentions but almost no experience and very little information. It's my job to educate myself, but there's a big difference between being an ignorant idiot (which I fully admit I still am) and being willingly blind to one's privileges. People have a right to be frustrated when I say something shortsighted. It would just be really nice if they acknowledged that I am just as frustrated with myself.
Even after listening to everything that happened during the last month of the semester, I know more about long distance running than I do about the oppression facing people of color in America3. Understanding an issue doesn't merely involve knowing a long list of statistics. As a writer, I feel as if I should know some of the stories behind those facts so that I know how oppression is really affecting people. Unless you have an emotional connection to an issue, you really can't understand it on a deep level.
On one hand, I feel like my white privilege combined with my ignorance obliges me to do whatever the African American community says to do in these situations. Having white privilege means that I never had to think about race. The little that I've learned has taught me that being aware is the first step to checking my privilege. For example, when I was at the teach-in hosted by the Multicultural Resource Center, I didn't notice that 3/4ths of the seats were filled by white students while people of color waited to get into the lecture hall until someone pointed it out. Yet, I don't like to form opinions before knowing everything. I try to base my world-view on facts and evidence. Without that evidence, I don't feel comfortable believing in any cause. Every day, I try to balance the need to check my privilege with the need to critically think over a situation. Yes, I signed the petition. Yes, I attended the rally behind Wilder during which the conversation between President Krislov and leaders from the community of POCs was played. Nevertheless, I don't know if everyone should have passed every class last semester.
The only firm opinion I've developed is about the Administration's behavior.
First off, the fact that it was very unclear who was in charge of temporarily changing the grading system disturbs me. During the rally I attended, the students who spoke to President Krislov said that they were sent on a wild goose chase. Every administrator they spoke to said that they weren't in charge of grading and sent them to another administrator who then sent them to another administrator. This went on until they ended up at President Krislov's door. Then, Krislov said that he wasn't in charge and that it was up to the faculty. Isn't someone in charge of the faculty? As students, we should know exactly which member of the Administration controls which aspect of our education. I don't care if a student wants to petition Safety and Security's no trespassing list4 or the horrible scent present in 3rd floor Dascomb 80% of the time. That student should know exactly who to go to. It's a matter of transparency. Yes, there are online resources that describe how Oberlin is run, but they don't lay out exactly who's in charge of what. The fact that the Administration wouldn't come out and say who's in charge is unsettling. If the school has the right to basically control our lives for 3/4ths of the year, then we should have the right to know exactly who's in charge of what.
Not only does no one seem to know who's in charge, but whichever invisible man5 is in charge didn't do anything till the last minute. I haven't decided whether the Administration went far enough in accommodating students' needs. Frankly, their reaction isn't important. It's the fact that they were reactive instead of proactive. They should have acted immediately. There's no way it is acceptable to carry on as usual when an epidemic of police violence has come to light. We as students didn't pretend nothing was going on, so why did the Administration? They waited until multiple protests had occurred to do anything. They needed to be proactive and do something the moment the ruling was announced. I don't know exactly what they should have done. Canceling classes the day of the big protest in Cleveland so that students wouldn't have had to choose between going to class and protesting would have been a good start.
Despite my brief rant, I'm not writing this to discredit Krislov, the faculty, or the Administration. Any type of Administration or Institution or even Charity for that matter has major flaws. People are imperfect, and when you have a large group of people working together in a controversial and high-stakes situation all of those imperfections are bound to come together and create problems. Plus, we can't forget that Oberlin is part of the American education system which is a breeder of systematic inequality in itself. I know that individuals can and should fight against unjust systems, but that's hard to do when working in an Administration of any kind.
I will continue my quest to educate myself on racial issues so that I can understand what's going on at my own school and in my own country. One item on my long list of spring semester resolutions6 is that I will read more and diversify my library. I know that reading books about racial issues that combine facts with narratives is one of the best ways to educate myself holistically. (I'm more than open to book suggestions!)
I love Oberlin. I love it so much that I want to see it change for the better. I know I am not meant to lead this movement, but I hope that the energy doesn't disappear as we return from our winter term adventures. I haven't been at Oberlin long enough to know how campus advocacy works in the long-run, but based on history, things aren't looking bright.
As a very ignorant white person, I know that having things carry on as they were before wouldn't affect me. However, I want to help people and be part of a college who shares that passion. I hope the burst that occurred on our campus was actually 1000 sticks of dynamite powerful enough to reshape Oberlin's racial attitude.
1The capitalization of "Administration" is not a typo.
2I still think this needs to happen. The way the public school system works in this country creates an almost unavoidable cycle of poverty. A full explanation of this phenomenon will require an additional blog post, but Googling it yourself wouldn't hurt.
3Reminder: I'm the kid in the wheelchair.
4Which really does need to be addressed.
5In theory, it could be an invisible woman or an invisible genderqueer. But let's face it, we live in a patriarchy. It's an invisible white dude wearing a suit that costs as much as my housing fee.
6We all know that New Year's resolutions don't work.