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WHEN THE BUBBLE BURSTS 

OBERLIN STUDENTS RESPOND TO BIAS INCIDENTS AND RE-EXAMINE THEIR PROGRESSIVE CREDENTIALS

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Kiki Acei, a first-year student from Cleveland, remarks, "I think we feel like the administration isn't taking things as seriously as they should. There is an investigation, but what actions are they taking to prevent this from happening again?" Acei decries the administration's responsiveness to student complaints as "very much lacking," explaining that it "shouldn't take someone walking around in a KKK ensemble to talk to our leaders."

***

Full disclosure: I was an Oberlin student. I was acquainted—not friends, but certainly friendly—with the students who threw the "Mexican party" that caused so much outrage in 2009. I remember being exasperated and somewhat bemused by the uproar it stirred. The students who hosted it weren't total assholes. Most students at Oberlin are not total assholes. The term "Mexican" was the problem. What they had initially planned would have likely been more felicitously billed as a "fiesta"—you know, a party with flatware in kicky colors, Tostitos, maybe some queso, definitely margaritas. Perhaps some blithe appropriation and a hint of racial—not necessarily racist—essentialism. I almost attended.

My freshman year, I also joined a Facebook formed by Lena Dunham entitled "Political Correctness Is Totally Gay." I thought it was hilarious and provocative at the time. Many students who first come to Oberlin are alienated by what seems like an overly severe tenor of militant progressivism – I dropped out of Oberlin's renowned co-op dining system after weathering days of heated, convoluted mealtime "consensus" discussions about the least oppressive forms of sweetener (verdict: maple syrup=bad, honey=really bad, cane sugar=seriously?, agave nectar=prohibitively expensive, date sugar=potentially not wildly unethical but tastes like buttcrack lint). I started eating meat after eight years of vegetarianism in a misplaced gesture of retaliation.

I've since done a lot of growing up and now understand that casual or jocular use of anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and racist language not only re-inscribes and consecrates hegemonic discourses of oppression, but epistemically encodes our everyday encounters with otherness.

As Professor Ofori-Mensa said in her convocation speech, "Words are not just important; they structure the very world we live in. Words create who we are and who we understand others to be. So rhetorical acts of hate [...] are not to be so easily dismissed."

I only internalized this because I opted to take a lot of classes that contained the prefix "post" in their course descriptions. I studied things like alterity and difference and colonial subjectivities and gender performativity. Many students graduate from Oberlin without exploring these topics, which is fine, but just as I lack a vocabulary for articulating, say, facets of quantum mechanical phenomena, a lot of students who don't primarily pursue coursework that addresses normativity and oppression, and even many who do, often unintentionally commit acts of linguistic microaggression.

This became painfully clear in some unfortunate student and faculty remarks during and after the Day of Solidarity. One student, in indignant response to a comment student panelist Zachary Pekarsky made about the importance of acknowledging Jewish privilege without diminishing the reality of Jewish suffering, protested what she misinterpreted as Pekarsky's avowal of Jewish guilt. The student also used the n-word in reference to previous events, which provoked tumult in the audience. As a student next to me murmured, "That just hit like a ton of bricks."

Another audience member yelled "Free Palestine!" while the student was at the mic, which occasioned scattered applause, though the student had not made any reference to Israel/Palestine.

"It's really important not to conflate Zionism with Jewishness," Pekarsky later notes. He confirms that even those in Oberlin's anti-Zionist community agreed that the Palestine comment was "out of place and shouldn't have happened."

"I think it's been a lot easier for the Jewish community to stand up in allyship than to say things about themselves," Pekarsky later commented. "There's this weird suffering Olympics that goes on. There's no reason we can't recognize the things that we go through and simultaneously affirm the incredible struggles that the Africana community is dealing with. I think those two can coexist."

Dialogues like this have abounded in the past few weeks, and not just because the administration authorized a formal, campus-wide response to recent discriminatory gestures: students have lately emphasized the importance of allyship, or the efforts of people from privileged communities to recognize and address their often unintentional complicity in injustice.

"We are not a utopia," Ellison maintains. "It's not flowers and trees and smiles and giggles all the time. I think it's key that the faculty and students know that if you want to just be comfortable, Oberlin is not really the place."

Though the college has enlisted assistance from the FBI to investigate Oberlin's hate incidents (the FBI, when reached by Scene, declined to share further information about their involvement), many believe that "solving" the crimes doesn't necessarily mean solving anxieties about inequality at the overwhelmingly privileged, overwhelmingly white school.

"I don't start the conversation with whether or not these things happened," says Professor Ofori-Mensa. "And I don't start the conversation with whether or not they were perpetrated by someone within the student body or outside the campus. What matters to me is that what we have produced here in the after-effects of those incidents is a campus conversation about hate and about privilege and oppression and the manifestations of those things in people's everyday lives."

***

Oberlin's annual tuition is $44,512, which doesn't include mandatory on-campus housing for non-seniors ($6,650 yearly for a single-occupancy dorm room) or food (all students are required to be on a college meal plan, which totals $5,820 for a modest 14-meal-per-week plan). All told, the cost of attending Oberlin exceeds the national median income by over $4,000. While 65% of students receive some kind of financial aid—the average annual grant is $27,100—need is still a factor in the admissions process. Borderline applicants who can pay full tuition may be favored, while more qualified candidates who indicate significant financial need may not. So yeah, Oberlin students are, for the most part, financially privileged.

They're also still pretty damn white—72%, to be exact.

Whatever students believe, President Krislov's job is not to improve equality or to diversify the student body; it's largely to ensure the college's financial solvency, which, while it doesn't always conflict with Oberlin's progressive tenets, also doesn't rely on them.

"I think it's important to not fall into the trap of treating the administration as a unitary actor and forgetting that it's composed of individual people making individual decisions," says Pekarsky. Ofori-Mensa agrees: "People talk about 'the administration'—that's one of those vague terms, like 'society.' [...] A lot of times I think the way that people process their feelings is by directing them towards somebody. And I think that the president, as the figurehead of the institution, but also as a white man who represents privileged identities to a lot of students, becomes a target," she says.President Krislov is not a monster. He's generally considered a really nice, regular guy. He wore a Nike baseball hat to the student rally on Monday. He was a guest DJ on my friend's radio show. As an attorney in the early '90s, he prosecuted federal hate crimes. As the University of Michigan's General Counsel, he defended affirmative action lawsuits. While an easy target, he's not the crux of the problem.

Antonio Gramsci, a theorist revered by many Oberlin students, dissects the ways hegemonic systems co-opt and integrate dissent to pacify rebellion and retain existing power relations. Oberlin is as much a business and a site of producing ideological consent as it is a stronghold of progressive education. Liberal, prestigious institutions like Oberlin often reinforce social stratification and neuter strains of radicalism by furnishing young, wealthy liberals with a forum for self-expression that doesn't significantly challenge or problematize structures of repression and inequality.

Except when there's a rupture. Except when the bubble bursts, if the bubble ever existed at all. Students are now in a position to achieve more than curricular progressivism and semi-ironic hand-wringing about their own privilege: they're in a position to demand substantive changes from a system whose flaws have become manifest in the past few weeks.

The student-led working groups, scattered throughout A-house the Wednesday after the KKK sighting, are a start: some of the ideas students drafted, concrete measures coordinators will submit to the administration, include mandatory allyship, racial violence, and white privilege training during freshman orientation, assigning Multicultural Resource Center liaisons to every school department, improving policies in the athletic department for transgendered people, strengthening cultural diversity requirements (which can currently be met by taking French or studying abroad in London), and recruiting more professors of color. If these advances seem small, that's because they are: they're practicable solutions that don't require extra funding, which means the administration has no excuse not to adopt them.

If they don't? Well, Oberlin is fucking angry, and honestly? Really, really loud. We'll probably hear about it.

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