In Response To Hate, Obies’ Privilege Unchecked

Trigger warning: This article contains original language used in hate speech.

Will Rubenstein, Columnist

As I was walking through Wilder Hall one morning a few weeks ago, I noticed that an event poster related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been altered with a blue marker to display the phrase, “Dirty Kikes.” Half Jewish on my father’s side, I felt a brief tinge of personal fear and revulsion before reminding myself that Oberlin College is an overwhelmingly tolerant community, that many people here are paid a great deal of money to keep us safe, that many Jews and members of other groups both historically and in the present day have faced many orders of magnitude worse on account of their identity — and last but not least, that I had other stuff to do. After this thought process took all of a few seconds, I put the matter behind me and went about my day.

That I am able to react this way with so little effort is a privilege, stemming not just from my vaguely “white” appearance but from my very ability to attend an overwhelmingly privileged institution like Oberlin College. The socioeconomic bubble that exists here allows us all to avoid the severe forms of oppression and violence that have ripped and will continue to rip gaping holes in billions of human lives, regardless of our race, gender or any other aspect of our identity. As members of an academic community allegedly devoted to the pursuit of social justice, Oberlin students, faculty and administration should strive to remind each other of such facts and encourage each other to act accordingly.

Since the events of the past few weeks and those of Sunday, March 3, in particular, we have not acted accordingly. In response to the defacement of a few posters and the alleged sighting of an isolated figure in Ku Klux Klan regalia, we have cancelled classes, held rallies and had our stories publicized as far and wide as The New York Times and The Guardian. We have made impossible demands of President Krislov and any other authority figures within shouting distance for a community devoid of hate, bias or indeed any direct evidence of the oppression that we have banished to distant and not-so-distant corners of the globe. We have even gathered in view of a CNN camera, interrupting President Krislov’s efforts to balance the College’s alarmism with the wider world’s facepalming, to fill a portion of Oberlin’s moment in the international spotlight with the chant of “no bullshit.”

None of this is to say that fear and outrage are not a legitimate emotional responses to events such as those of the past few weeks; emotions are not appropriate objects for the judgment of legitimacy or illegitimacy in any case. But our education at Oberlin is supposed to be training us to balance feelings like fear and outrage with a more rigorous understanding of the world and to act in accordance with this understanding rather than reacting to whichever emotional traumas happen to be closest to our immediate personal experience. Indeed, conditioning ourselves to reflexively adopt such an academic worldview is central to the justification for locking ourselves away in the cloistered confines of the ivory tower to begin with.

The absence of such a worldview at Oberlin over the last few weeks, or at least its scant impact on our day-to-day decisions, has been sorely disappointing. On an intellectual level, students and administrators alike have attached the label “bias-based” to recent events, implying that bias is not a cognitive process inherent to each and every one of us but a character flaw in deviant individuals that warps their views into safely censorable il- legitimacy. On a material level, the March 4 rally took place on Wilder Bowl out of reach for community members on the College’s much-maligned No Trespass list, and (as advertised in last week’s Review) supplies for the rally in “solidarity” with the oppressed were obliviously purchased at the one-stop shop for social irresponsibility — Walmart. On an ideological level, the campus has seemed to ignore the implications of demanding a cancellation of classes in memory of past movements whose student members’ most recurring response to far worse suppression of academic thought was a demand not to postpone their socially minded academic studies but to continue them.

As eager as we often are to brand ourselves with the label “radical,” Oberlin College would do well to internalize the fundamental radical principle of defining real-world phenomena based not just on their outward identities but on their internal contradictions and material opposites. By responding so disproportionately to oppression at Oberlin as opposed to the wider world, we are implicitly endorsing the relationship between the oppressors within our bubble and the oppressed without. If our only show of solidarity is to declare this college a safe space free of hatred, all we are doing is banishing hatred to unsafe spaces in other parts of the world where we don’t care to tread. The fault, dear Oberlin, is not in our bigoted vandals but in ourselves.