I finished my first semester at Oberlin College under rather abrasive conditions. As final exams approached, several threats were made from external persons against the lives of black students. This threat was a response to a set of demands put forth by the College’s Black Student Union, which was a continuation of a greater effort across college and university campuses worldwide to demand the recognition and protection of black lives.
The demands were met with a variety of responses, varying in complexity, compassion, and civility. What struck me, though, were the comments left on President Krislov’s response posted to OnCampus. A general, dramatically scathing sentiment was shared across the board by many, even going as far as to say discontent black students don’t belong at Oberlin to begin with.
Oberlin, in recent media, has been characterized externally as being too “politically correct,” with students that “take things too far.” I challenge this characterization. Was Oberlin going “too far” when the institution decided to be a pioneer in higher education and admit students without regard to race or gender? I believe not. This decision was not without contention or criticism, yet the institution continued to move forward. We, in 2016, are still continuing to move forward.
Even with only one semester in, I can honestly say I love Oberlin College. Some of the very ideals being debated on campus—freedom of speech, restorative, transformative, and social justice, access and inclusion—are some of the reasons why I chose Oberlin.
There are continuing generational structures of oppression at work. As an optimist, I choose to believe that people have the best intentions. Participation in these structures is not always intentional, and is often done without knowledge—good intentions, but destructive nonetheless. This continued lack of understanding was highlighted in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he said that “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I agree with President Krislov’s call for collaborative engagement and shared governance, but we as an institution must acknowledge that the execution of these social models is often insufficient in adequately addressing the needs of marginalized communities, and particularly the needs of black students. A shared governance does not equate to a shared concern for, an imperative commitment to the needs of those whose voices continue to be repressed.
I continue to believe that one individual can change the world, as Oberlin promotes. As the institution continues to move forward, I will personally be taking time to consider what activism is and is not to me, and how my personal experiences, privileges, and ignorance may impact said assessment. I encourage others to do the same.
With immense hope and optimism for the future of Oberlin College, I echo the sentiments shared during last year’s commencement ceremony by the great Marian Wright Edelman: “We are blessed to be living at an incredible moral moment and inflection point in our nation’s and world’s history…Let us not sleep through another revolution.”