Conservatory Apology Shows Oberlin Isn’t Listening

During my short time as a Review columnist, I’ve written a lot about tone-deaf and unhelpful interactions I’ve experienced at Oberlin. Recently, I was working on a piece highlighting my journey to pursue happiness and Black joy because, even if I can’t fix everything wrong with the world, there is value in taking a moment to look at the world’s good to stay sane. 

Unfortunately, that’s an important article I need to write another day. This week, the Conservatory halted my pursuit of Black joy and self-care on the last day of Black History Month. 

On Sunday, Feb. 28, the Conservatory released a flyer for a Black History Month event that made me laugh for minutes as soon as I saw it. The top of the photo was titled “A Celebration of Black Artistry,” but the five faces shown for the event were white. Funnily enough, all of this sounds eerily familiar; I wrote about a different issue of representation with Oberlin’s Sophomore Opportunities and Academic Resources program only two weeks ago. In my previous article, “Amid Successes, SOAR Fails to Deliver on Student Feedback,” I talked about a gentrification panel that was a part of SOAR programming. In the piece, I said, “The information given by the panelists was not incorrect or offensive per se — my issue was with the identity of the presenters. I was shocked to see a 5:1 ratio of white to Black people speaking on the topic of gentrification.”

It is laughable how quickly this issue of representation has come up again, and the fact that these oversights are so widespread and recurrent says enough about how little this school listens to Black students. My heart goes out to all Black students currently enrolled at Oberlin, and I want to express special solidarity with the Black musicians and Conservatory students on campus. I may not be in the Conservatory, but I write and release my music on Soundcloud in my spare time. As a Black creator and a music lover, I am sadly never shocked when Oberlin continues to uplift white voices unintentionally in moments like this (if it is unintentional). Somebody high up making these decisions is clearly not hearing me (or simply not listening). In addition to being a student senator and proactively having conversations with administrators on these issues, I have been writing articles about this very type of oversight for months, and I was still not heard. I can only imagine how tired and powerless Black students without my same position feel at this moment. I wrote about this phenomenon even further back in my piece titled “Administration Lacks Proactive Attitude Towards Improving Mental Health Resources.” Simply sharing and skimming over my articles is useful enough for surface-level solidarity, but I won’t be impressed until administrators actually listen to what I’m saying and use the information to improve. As I put it previously, “That’s fantastic and spreads plenty of awareness, but it is a hollow victory if everyone hears you, but nobody listens.” 

It may seem like I’m reiterating what I’ve said in the past, but I have no problem with that since the Conservatory didn’t hesitate to repeat themselves in their apology. There is so much wrong with the Conservatory’s apology that I could honestly dedicate an entirely separate article to dissecting it, but here are the most problematic transgressions: 

It takes the Conservatory just only one apologetic paragraph before they return back to the self-congratulatory nonsense I’ve critiqued over and over again. In the first line of the second paragraph, they attempt to excuse their oversight by linking to the College’s work to promote equity and combat racism: “This event was just one of many in the spectrum of our Black History Month celebration events found on this website, of which we are very proud.” In the same paragraph, they linked a second article on their BHM programming without any self-awareness or reflection whatsoever. Since the College is hellbent on regurgitating the same things they’ve already said and done, I’m happy to do the same.

After the third link in the apology directed people to last year’s  statement on the Conservatory’s commitments for diversity and equity, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. I was immediately proven wrong when the Conservatory page chose to use President Carmen Twillie Ambar as a shield from criticism by linking to her previous Declaration of the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity. I genuinely hope whoever runs the page got President Ambar’s permission to use her words, initiative, and good intentions to excuse this atrocity. 

The embarrassing apology finally ends with a quote which is about as abhorrent as the rest of this mess. It reads, “We want you to know that we hear you, and we will do better.” I’m not going to beat around the bush: I don’t believe this one bit. If the administration heard us and cared about doing better, they would have listened to the people already bringing these issues to their attention. They would not have repeated what almost seems like tradition by now. 

The worst part of all of this is that white people messing up is a cycle which fuels itself. The administration avoids accountability, and many white Obies criticizing the Conservatory’s deleted flyer get to portray themselves as progressive on the internet. Many of these students are upset with the College’s oversight, but a lot of them never shared a poster, a Zoom link, or even attended an event that Black students labored to create last month. There’s a clear lack of self-reflection from white students and faculty while Black people have to help clean up the College’s mess and image once again. Is it so shocking that a College satisfied with surface-level activism will raise a new generation of students that does the same? It may be a surprise to some, but not to me.