Personal Facebook Posts Not Grounds for Dismissal

Justin Emeka, OC ’95 and Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies

As an Oberlin alumnus, and now an Oberlin professor who was recently granted tenure, much of my identity has been forged in the heated exchange of ideas that exist at Oberlin College. In my first year as a student, I remember meeting Brother Jed, a white conservative Christian from a nearby community who would come to campus occasionally and stand outside Peters Hall and shout some of the most racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic Christian doctrine I had ever heard. I was even more surprised to find some of my classmates agree with some of his points. Many of us spent hours going toe to toe, challenging him and each other intellectually and sharpening our ability to articulate our own perspectives. Brother Jed enraged many of us with his rhetoric, but as far as I know, neither he nor the students that agreed with him were asked to leave. In this regard, Oberlin taught me to focus on strengthening my argument as opposed to trying to silence the opposition. So I was troubled when I received an email on March 5 from the chair of Board of Trustees, Clyde McGregor, OC ’74, that seemed to imply the silencing and perhaps dismissal of one of my colleagues, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega.

Much of the current controversy around Professor Karega began as a result of her involvement in inviting renowned African-American Professor of History Dr. Robin Kelley to campus to speak about Israel as an apartheid state. Dr. Kelley is one of most accomplished and dynamic scholars of his generation. He was tenured at University of Michigan and was later invited to New York University where he became the youngest full professor on staff at the age of 32. He then later taught at Columbia University, University of South Carolina and Dartmouth College, and was the first African-American to hold the Harmsworth Chair of American History at Oxford University. He has spent most of his career exploring American and African-American history with a particular emphasis on radical social movements and the political dynamics at work within African-American culture, including jazz, hip-hop and visual arts. His books include Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, and Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, which received numerous awards.

Dr. Kelley is a long-time critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and in recent years he has begun to explore similarities in the policy and practice of Israel with the policy and practice of the apartheid regime in South Africa. This has made him a target of many Zionist and pro-Israeli extremists who regularly attempt to thwart his ability to share his work. This semester, Oberlin’s Students for Free Palestine and ABUSUA invited Dr. Kelley to share and discuss his ideas with our campus. As a former student of Dr. Kelley, Professor Karega agreed to help facilitate and host his visit to Oberlin.

When it was made public that Dr. Kelley would be coming to Oberlin, many students and faculty involved with the event began to receive threatening emails and harassing phone calls that demanded Dr. Kelley be uninvited. As their demands were refused, these outsiders began trolling online to find something they might use against the college or individuals associated with the event. After trolling the last two years of Facebook posts of Professor Karega, they found the leverage they were looking for.

Professor Karega is the first Black woman in Oberlin’s Rhetoric and Composition program to be hired in a tenure-track position. She has made an immediate impact on students of all backgrounds to develop a passion for writing. I have consistently heard from my Jewish students, Black students, brown students and white students that she is the most dynamic writing teacher they’ve ever had. She is a self-proclaimed radical thinker who regularly uses her personal Facebook page to make “radical” posts that encourage her friends to challenge popular policies that she feels have not been scrutinized carefully enough. She often makes unpopular challenges of anything from the media to hip-hop to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. She often highlights how critiques of Zionism and Israeli policy are met with blanket accusations of anti-Semitism that seek to delegitimize the critique that then often devolve into anti-Black dogma.

After scrolling through hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of her personal posts, approximately three posts were discovered that could be used against her to label her an anti-Semite and to demand that she be dismissed from her job. Baited by the media, many Jewish alums, parents and contributors have begun threatening to withdraw their financial support of the institution unless the institution acts swiftly against Professor Karega. Now, based on a recent email, it appears the Oberlin Board of Trustees is considering — even encouraging — her removal. The logic follows that, based on these Facebook posts, she is an anti-Semite and is indoctrinating the Oberlin students with anti-Semitism and threatening the safety of Jewish students on campus, and therefore she has no place or purpose at Oberlin College. This was not based on her teaching, nor feedback from her students, nor materials she presents in class, nor her course evaluations; nor her scholarship; but was rather based on several posts on her Facebook page.

Recently, Abraham Socher, a Jewish professor at Oberlin, provided an insightful critique of these Facebook posts that identified the imagery and rhetoric she posted as being reflective of a long history of anti-Semitism. This was a profound analysis that clearly articulated a deep pain caused by imagery and rhetoric used in her posts. Yet I have significant concerns about the possibility of these posts being potential grounds for her dismissal. Such a process could have grave implications for our extraordinary campus community. Should personal Facebook posts be used as grounds for dismissing a faculty member? As an Africana Studies professor, I might easily use my expertise to identify racist ideology in occasional postings made by colleagues. Would they then be subject to similar persecution? Does this also extend to students’ Facebook posts that may be deemed some form of bigotry — be it homophobic, sexist or otherwise? Should they not be allowed to attend or be removed from Oberlin? Additionally, if a significant number of Black students demand the firing of certain faculty or staff based on their own experience, but the administration chooses not to respond because the demands attack “valued” members of our community, who is and is not perceived to be “valued” members of our community?

There is a long, beautiful and troubled relationship between the Black and Jewish community in this country and in the world. We have made many great strides together, built many great friendships and partnerships. Yet for some there remain complex and contentious feelings between both communities in regards to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians in which our individual pains become pitted against each other in a way that we still do not know how to address. There are many African-Americans and communities of color who identify with the plight of Palestinians and the Palestinian struggle as reflective of the larger threat of white supremacy in global politics that has oppressed dark-skinned peoples for 400 years. The Black community indeed needs to be aware of the historical depth of anti-Semitism, how it continues to function and its relationship to anti-Israeli propaganda. I believe the conversation around Professor Karega alludes to this larger, infinitely more complex conversation than whether or not her Facebook posts are anti-Semitic. Both sides must resist that polarization if we are trying to gain any real understanding of each other’s pain.

Oberlin was founded on principles that include that the Board of Trustees shall not determine faculty governances as well as that Oberlin would be a protected space of ideas — no matter how controversial — to be presented and challenged. As a teacher, I always caution my students from too quickly dismissing any perspective as “unthinkable” or “unspeakable” — no matter how harmful — because we do not have the ability to determine the convictions of others that we will encounter in this life. I encourage my students to use every opportunity to engage in vigorous discourse that may or may not lead to enlightenment. That is what being at Oberlin taught me. Some ideas are big, some are small. Some ideas are progressive, others are regressive. Some ideas are healing, others prove harmful. Some ideas I thought were revolutionary I later found ridiculous, and some I thought ridiculous later proved revolutionary. None of us will ever agree on which idea is which, though all of us are made and unmade by the convergence of our radically differing thoughts. Most Obies will agree that this in fact is what makes the Oberlin community so robust — our ability to assert or challenge contentious notions, not our ability to remove the people and ideas that do not align with our own.

Should Oberlin College make statements and institutional policy that condemn acts of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia? Absolutely. But we need to be careful and consistent in the process that is used to determine our condemnation, elsewise we end up promoting one system of inequality in the name of undoing another.