Wednesday evening, I received an e-mail message from the Oberlin Alumni Association. I get Oberlin related e-mails a lot, and I click on them sporadically, but this one I was eager to read.
The e-mail was in response to the recent incidents of racial, homophobic, and anti-Semitic graffiti that have been written across Oberlin’s campus (as well as the possible sighting of a person in a KKK robe on campus).
It articulated what so many members of the Oberlin community have been thinking -- both people on campus in Ohio and those throughout the world. The e-mail announced the alumni stand together “to overcome intolerance and fear.” This proclamation of solidarity is indicative of what makes Oberlin such an important institution of higher learning.
Oberlin has been part of my life for a very long time. My sister was a graduate in 1995 and I graduated in 2005. My ideas about the school and its ideologies are not objective. But I remember when I realized how important this place was; it was my freshman year during 9/11. We were one week into classes and I was 500 miles away from New York City, where I had grown up. On the eleventh we all sat immobile as stone, watching the televisions, like so many across the nation.
On the twelfth we went to class -- my schedule that day was English and then contact improvisational dance, a course offered at Oberlin that even Lena Dunham pokes fun at. In our English class we spoke about what happened, and I remember being so grateful to have that space to speak about my devastation. And in my next class, contact improvisation, we were paired up with another dancer. We were told to close our eyes, and without speaking, our partner led us outside, all the way across campus.
I know to many this must sound ridiculous and trite. But it was this nontraditional educational environment that was necessary that day. Without speaking, we were learning to trust. Many conversations came after, but I am grateful for that time to “hold hands.” I didn’t feel better about 9/11, but I did feel community. And that is what is so powerful about this tiny college, 35 minutes from Cleveland -- the sense of solidarity. This sentiment is exactly what is being critiqued in light of the recent events.
It has been horrifying to hear about the language of hate spread across campus over the past month. Like so many alumni I have spoken with, I am deeply saddened by these acts -- and the recent acknowledgement that two students are suspected to be behind the hateful messages. But what I’m equally saddened by -- and a bigger question about this deserves to be asked -- are the abundant responses about how the Oberlin community has overreacted.
In lieu of class on Monday there were teach-ins held across campus, facilitated by administration, faculty and student leaders. In a campus wide e-mail, President Marvin Krislov wrote that the suspension of classes was to “gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks."
An opportunity to engage in widespread discussion? What exactly is the problem here?
And yet, a lot of people have taken issue with this decision.
Comments from readers of Gawker: “Seriously, one dude with a sharpie and a white hood can shut down the entire operation?” and “But why the fuck did they cancel classes? Hypersensitivity run amok. Are all Oberlin students porcelain butterflies that disintegrate if exposed to slurs?”
From “The Plain Dealer”: “Good Lord !! With all this hoopla, fanned by the media, you'd have thought someone got killed. Big deal. So, some whiney college kid (or kids) got their precious little feelings hurt. OMG, lets shut down the school, hold hands, and sing 'Kumbaya' so everyone can feel better !! Since when is it a crime to 'offend' someone ?? What a bunch of babies!!”
From Slate: “Classes cancelled because someone reportedly was walking around campus with a robe on??? Liberals used to have a fine tradition of standing up to hate mongers (i.e. freedom riders, etc). I doubt MLK would have hid in his dorm room because of such an egregious hate crime.”
I look at the language used here: “shut down the entire operation,” “shut down the school,” “hid in his dorm room.” There is an assumption that education stopped because of the incident. However, the lessons were just taught in a larger classroom -- the local chapel, outside the student union, on the grass of Tappan Square, in dorm rooms.
This is not an overreaction by students and faculty, but taking action, engaging in open dialogue to not only prevent future acts of hate, but to have a space to articulate feelings of fear and anger -- sentiments that are completely understandable considering the situation.
The alumni e-mail contained a link to a “We Stand Together” page, which provides 11 suggestions for “How to Support the Oberlin College Community”. This includes: “Create an open space for local alumni and community members to come together and use the Oberlin example as motivation for creating safe spaces in their communities and putting an end (or more of an end) to hate speech.”
The implication? We can use these incidents to evoke systematic change.
Words I hear and use often -- words like “systematic” and “privilege” -- are words I first began to understand while a student at Oberlin. In fact, as an adjunct lecturer in the English department at a city college, I model much of my teachings on how I was taught at Oberlin, in the classroom and in conversations amongst my peers. “So what? Who cares?” I ask my students. “Tell me why this matters.”
We speak about literature, but we also speak about the environments they cohabit. We try to draw connections so they can develop a stronger understanding of the outside world. Such conversations are increasingly valuable at an institution that -- unlike Oberlin -- doesn’t (in large part because of space and financial constraints) have a built in sense of community.
I am by no means saying Oberlin is flawless and criticisms of the college are unfounded. There is much to be improved to make the campus more diverse and inclusive and yes, safe, for people of all backgrounds. But of all the things to criticize, a day to engage in discussion shouldn’t be one of them. In fact, this is a valuable step to give students agency during a time of unrest.
I’m proud to stand in solidarity.