Oberlin Students Fail to Actually Engage Communities, Show Solidarity

As my final weeks at Oberlin approach, I’ve felt blessed to be surrounded by many incredibly dedicated, inspiring individuals who genuinely work toward change and actively support the efforts of others. But I also feel jaded by the many faults of this institution, with which I’ve become familiar throughout my time here. Among them, I’ve realized that performative allyship is one of the most off-putting yet definitive flaws of this school’s culture — and it needs to stop.

In a nutshell, performative allyship is when one acts minimally to earn approval, creating a façade of detachment from a status quo that systemically keeps marginalized folks oppressed. We see this frequently; people are quick to retweet or share articles with flashy, upsetting headlines to condemn crises in the country or the world, as if sharing them will solve the problems those communities face. Performative allyship is a way for people to pat themselves on the back, gaining a false sense of solidarity that serves their own interests rather than those of a marginalized individual or community.

Oberlin students are masters of performative allyship. In the classroom, students can talk endlessly about histories of oppressed people, dissect racial politics down to the bone, and at times, enter these discussions with gross levels of egotistical confidence. But for every time poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration, racial triangulation, the model minority, and other topics about oppression and marginalization emerge in academic conversation, only a small fraction of students engage beyond the classroom in meaningful ways to create the solidarity needed from allies. Students forget that those discussions remain in the ivory tower, believing that performative allyship replaces and fulfills the activism required of true solidarity.

One of the most recent examples of how performative allyship manifested at Oberlin was Drag Ball. Cis, straight, white folks have tended to occupy Drag Ball, buying tickets early and subsequently preventing the trans, queer, and POC individuals that the event is intended for from participating. Many don’t engage with the historic or cultural significance of drag and attend Drag Ball for a fun night out, while still having the gall to call themselves LGBTQ+ allies. You aren’t an ally if you’re taking up space intended for queer people, and you definitely aren’t if you’re occupying that space just to appropriate it.

But Drag Ball isn’t where performative allyship ends on this campus.

Too often, students — especially white students — flock to the Community and Culture Festival in the fall, Asian Night Market in early December, or the many brilliant banquets held by POC groups, just to consume without engaging. They eat the food, but don’t bother to ask or learn about what it’s called or what significance it holds. At the Filipinx American Student Association banquets, we serve lumpia and pancit, but folks always ask for the eggrolls and noodles, failing to take a second to learn. Students come in waves to eat the food and maybe briefly listen to the performances or speakers POC students work hard to organize and offer. But many tend to leave right after, often without thanking the student organizers for the hours of work it takes to plan each event.

I often hear my white friends talk at length about social, economic, political, and cultural problems, yet they too remain problematic when they don’t even attend basic allyship training, workshops, or events that can teach them how to effectively support the people they supposedly advocate for. As a first-year on the swim team, I invited the entire team to attend our FASA banquet — my first event with the organization. The one other Filipinx student on the team was the only one who came. Last weekend, I hosted my final event with FASA, inviting an alumna and activist, Joelle Lingat, OC ’14, to discuss Philippine politics and how we can further support Filipinos in combating oppression. Several of my white friends said they would attend. Only one came. Needless to say, not much has changed throughout my time here.

I must admit, I am also guilty of ineffective allyship. I’ve certainly felt upset by information I’ve learned and participated in discussions that haven’t always led to action. I’ve felt overwhelmed and stretched thin by personal conflicts, which has limited my energy toward participating in impactful solidarity. I often feel frustrated with myself for this, but I own it, and I’m sure many others have felt similarly.

But being an effective ally doesn’t mean attending every event or being the hero of all oppressed and marginalized peoples. It means actually engaging with those communities in meaningful ways. Be connective and intentional so that when you do act, your actions have purpose. Stop crafting a false, self-fulfilling sense of justice, and ask the folks you want to support how you can best serve as an ally.

Oberlin’s slogan is “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” Many Obies have indeed gone on to make change and serve the people. They’re activists, volunteers, and community-builders. But when others with privileged savior complexes think they can achieve change through vacuous comments on social media or discussions that remain in the ivory tower of the college classroom, they’re wrong. Distancing yourself at the surface-level from hegemonic institutions does not strip you of your privilege and does nothing to serve the people that need your support. If you want to change the world, first change how you engage with it.