Yesterday should have been like every other day.
My school, Oberlin College, founded in 1833, is an incredibly unique liberal arts institution. The thing we take pride in most, as a community, is our dedication to our morals. In fact, Oberlin’s history as a school complements this notion: we were the first – not one of the first, as some news networks have claimed – American institution of higher learning to regularly admit female & African-American students.
Unfortunately, as many are already aware, Oberlin’s commitment to equality and justice was challenged Sunday night by an act that has infamously made national headlines. A man wearing what school officials have described as “KKK regalia” was spotted walking around the south side of our campus at approximately 2 AM. As many news networks have already pointed out, the south campus lays host to many students of color, and initial reports of the incident were brought to light by students living in the Afrikan Heritage House. This event shocked us for many reasons, and the administration canceled classes yesterday in order to assemble a day of solidarity in which students and faculty could provide comfort to one another.
Major news networks have, for the most part, accurately portrayed this aspect of the story so far, but there is more information that one must be aware of in order to know exactly what our school has endured over the past month.
Let me start from the beginning.
In early February 2013, a poster promoting events relating to black history month was vandalized. Someone had crossed out the word “black” and replaced it with “n*gger.” This act, while mild in comparison to the incident on Sunday night, spurred uproar in the community. This form of childish vandalism is not foreign to Oberlin, however, it is especially unwelcome.
Throughout the month of February, many other acts of vandalism took place. The vandalism did not only attack members of the African-American community, but also attacked Jews and members of the LGBT community. When a sign was posted on the door of our Multicultural Resource Center, a safe haven for many minority students, calling it the “N*gger + F*ggot Center” the student body felt it necessary to band together in order to take a stand against these ignorant acts of defacement.
A march was organized (prior to the demonstration that took place during yesterday’s day of solidarity). Students came together in front of Mudd – the school’s library – and paraded around campus carrying signs promoting love and acceptance. I’m going to break my journalistic integrity here to say that the demonstration was beautiful and acted as a reminder as to why I chose to attend Oberlin in the first place.
In my mind, this is was far as it needed to go. Following the student body’s first public response, things seemed to wind down. Yes, more acts of vandalism took place throughout the month, but our community was generally unfazed. We had our say, we had our moment to respond to the shallow cries for attention, and we were ready to move on. But then the events of Sunday night transpired and it took everything we had endured as a community to a whole new level.
For some reason, the news networks reporting on this story love to make it seem as if these despicable acts are all connected. For example, news site Gawker.com claimed that the incident on Sunday night was a “culmination of a month of racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic graffiti.” Furthermore, the New York Times claimed that we had experienced a “a monthlong string” of “hate-related incidents.” Both of these writers are implying that these acts had some kind of connection to one another. The truth is, nobody, unless the administration is withholding vital information, really knows who perpetrated these acts. One cannot be sure if any of these acts were perpetrated by a student or a resident of the community surrounding the school. Were these acts premeditated by one clandestine group? Or was it a case of monkey-see monkey-do? It is unprofessional and inappropriate, at this time, to make any assumptions about who exactly is responsible for the actions that have taken place.
Some students are especially critical of how news networks have been reporting the situation here. Junior Elie Goldberg reflected these feelings, saying that “the media attention I’ve seen devoted to the events transpiring at Oberlin have mainly been focused on the actions of the instigators rather than the responses from the students. I wish news outlets would cover the combined actions of the student body & faculty.” Another student, freshman Machmud Mackmudov, also echoed this critical view of the media. “I’m disappointed by the way national media has handled the situation so far. Many networks have not accurately depicted the sense of community here, we are making it through this empowered.”
Disappointment towards the media aside, it is clear that what happened on Sunday night was far from tolerable. While acts of vandalism can be shrugged off, public acts aiming to incite fear into our community cannot, and will not, be ignored.
One can claim that a person walking around in a Klan robe is simply attempting to evoke shock in the student body, however, it represents a lot more than simple “shock value.”
This man had to consciously put on a white robe, venture to south campus, and walk around the school. He knew exactly what his actions represented. He knew that he was evoking emotions in some students that only their parents, grandparents, and fellow members of the African-American community can truly understand. I, as a white and privileged member of the Oberlin community, cannot even comprehend those emotions. What I do know, however, is that whether this man’s actions were influenced by racist notions or an attempt to simply incite shock, he clearly wanted to unleash fear upon our community.
I can safely say he failed. Yes, we were shaken, and yes, we canceled classes to come to terms with the fact that acts like this still take place in 2013, but we emerged from yesterday’s events as a stronger community. As other students pointed out, the past 24 hours have allowed us to come together, not only as a community, but as a family. The media can distort the story all they want, acts of hate may still take place in the future, but what is important is Oberlin’s resilience in the face of hate and fear.
As a student who has dedicated a healthy portion of my attention towards what our community has endured throughout the past month, I can safely say that Oberlin, as a collective, has remained strong and our voice is louder than ever.
Writer, musician, 19, NY native, repping Oberlin
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