Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school southwest of Cleveland, is in the midst of an upheaval of student, academic and cultural life on campus. Longtime frustrations rose to the surface of community dialogue when blatant acts of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia shook the campus, which has historically been a place of progressive thought.
On Sunday evening, March 3, after a month of hateful incidents on campus, a student spotted someone wearing what appeared to be KKK regalia. The next day, students demanded a Day of Solidarity, and classes were cancelled. The entire campus continues to engage in deep reflection, struggling to discuss and discover our individual roles and collective responsibilities in light of the recent events.
I find it hard to describe the fear, anger, confusion and exhaustion that my college community feels. My feelings reflect my position as a white student with a limited perspective. What is clear, however, is that we, the Oberlin community, are finally beginning to confront our complex problems.
It is a confusing time to be a Jew on campus, at least for me. How do I reconcile our history of being an oppressed people with the reality of Jewish privilege in this country? As a Jewish student, it was scary to see an anti-Semitic act among the many racist and queerphobic ones. Because I don’t live with the constant, daily labor of personally confronting oppression as students of color often do, it has been easy for me to forget about anti-Semitism. Until now.
A swastika painted on a dorm room door reminded me that hate takes many forms. What makes Oberlin College — or any place for that matter — the kind of space where people feel the need to express such hate? The college administration has been minimizing the school’s systemic problems by reducing our anger to a reaction to vandalism, suggesting these were isolated incidents rather than a reflection of the climate on campus.
The hate crimes were scary; there is no doubt about that. They made our homes, classrooms and town into unsafe spaces. However, the immense amount of organizing, teach-ins, workshops, demands and meetings that have been set into motion by these expressions of hatred are not proposing ways to penalize the still-unidentified individuals who committed these crimes. Rather, they are designed to cultivate a supportive, accepting college environment in which diversity is neither ignored nor given token recognition but is actively embraced and celebrated.
While students have come together in many ways, new divisions have also appeared. Oberlin has seen the solidarity of last week disintegrate into disharmony, with students who are angry, and those who are angry that they’re angry. There are those who call for productive anger, and there are those who believe that all anger is productive when it comes from recognizing injustice. But everyone is mad.
So how do we move forward?
My progressive Jewish values have kept me grounded through this. My responsibility as a Jew is to support the communities affected, particularly students of color, as allies. Jews have been allies and have been supported by allies throughout our history. My Jewish identity encourages me to speak up when I see injustice anywhere in the world, and especially in my own community. I stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed.
I’ve learned that being in solidarity requires action, and it requires respect. Students in the Afrikan Heritage House and their allies have been working nonstop since March 4 to collectively heal, strategize and work toward a better campus. These students, along with our Multicultural Resource Center, formed working groups to address specific problems and propose policy solutions.
Although administration officials are attempting to listen, they remain limited by their political and financial agendas, and must be pushed to live up to the idealistic campus they claim Oberlin to be.
Being a community means supporting one another, and pushing each other to be the best we can be. My criticism of Oberlin comes from my deep love for this place — for what it’s taught me and the potential it has to teach even more. I am hopeful, I am angry, I am confused, but I have faith in my school, and I believe that we will come out of this a much stronger community.
Hannah Weilbacher, a junior at Oberlin College, is from Merion. She is studying politics and is pursuing a career in education.