An Open Letter to White Alumni of Oberlin College & Conservatory

Fellow white alumni, when do we turn our outrage into action when our alma mater so blatantly exposes its white underpinnings and lack of diversity? As we reacted across thousands of our personal platforms last week to an egregious offense by Oberlin Conservatory, we wasted time in our surprise, which could have been spent moving resources to support people of color on campus and in our alumni network. 

After the Conservatory posted a flyer promoting its final program celebrating Black History Month, showcasing exclusively white musicians performing works by Black artists, it abruptly deleted the post — a space where thousands of primarily alumni of color had expressed hurt and feedback. The Conservatory followed up with an all-too-familiar public statement: equal parts apologetic and self-congratulatory, reminding us of its diverse programming throughout February and invoking President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s “Declaration of the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity,” stating, these words guide our work always.” 

Now one week later, most of us who conveniently distanced ourselves from, and publicly shamed, our old institution only covered up Black-led efforts and demands on campus. There are too many opportunities to show up for students and alumni experiencing harm beyond our self-serving Tweets. We should redirect our annual donations to campus initiatives led by People of Color, and we should establish alumni channels to support the powerful student organizing on campus. This letter is no way intended to shame, but rather to urge us to put our energy toward genuine acts of solidarity instead of empty individual statements.

Among the spectrum of fellow white alums’ reactions — from dissociation to shock to defense of the College’s legacy — none of this outpouring of energy has centered last summer’s demands of ABUSUA, Oberlin’s Black Student Union; pushed us to redirect our annual donations to POC-led campus or community initiatives; or demanded actionable steps from the administration to ensure that structural changes are underway to prevent these harms from being repeated. 

To those distancing ourselves from the College and threatening to withhold annual donations for the coming year — we can exercise our leverage as alumni out of love instead of spite. Our funds can bypass the administration and support Black-led campus initiatives. Our economic mobility will benefit from the name “Oberlin College” for a lifetime, but the resources we withhold out of protest could go toward those actually impacted by the issue we are protesting, instead of remaining in our bank accounts. And we have powerful models we can emulate or expand upon: Last year, College alums banded together to raise $145,000 and permanently establish the 1833 Just Transition Fund to support community workers whose jobs, represented by the United Auto Workers, were contracted out by the administration. The resources exist, and we need to continue redirecting them.

To those saying we don’t owe the college or community anything — whether we like it or not, we have already invested in this institution, so to wash our hands of it now is to again ignore our power to push the school to better serve its POC community. For many of us, this is the only institution that we have some agency in pushing to commit to the progressive legacy it claims. As for the community, how many of us moved to rural Northeast Ohio from the coasts just to take our elite diploma and return to the coasts? On campus we were 30 minutes away from the now-ranked poorest big city in the country, reading books within million-dollar walls that normalized exorbitant private wealth secluded among a largely working class Lorain County, with a poverty rate almost 5 percent higher than the national average. Nearly all of us left to take our polished activism elsewhere but have not checked in with the same POC-led student and alumni groups, nor the community organizations we were in solidarity with while on campus.

As a transfer student, I was reminded several times throughout my orientation by deans and administrators that Oberlin College was one of the first in the U.S. to admit Black students in 1835, and women two years later in 1837. To those defending Oberlin’s progressive history — as we know, there is no private liberal arts institution that can prevent white supremacy from brimming at the surface. During my sophomore spring semester in 2013, classes were canceled as student-led walkouts ensued for several days after swastikas were drawn around campus and someone was sighted in what appeared to be a KKK uniform

We owe it to Black students and alumni to begin fulfilling the demands that have been posted everywhere except in our deep and well-resourced alumni networks. We owe it to white students and alumni to hold uncomfortable conversations on financial redistribution and no-strings-attached resource sharing. We owe it to ourselves — for those of us who loved and learned beyond our imagination at Oberlin and want others to access the same opportunity.

We — who shout about the roots of white supremacy embedded in Oberlin College and meanwhile expect an increasingly cash-strapped institution to enhance the experience of People of Color on campus given how it already falls short — are naive to wait on the administration to change anything. This is a non-exhaustive list compiled from outreach to a handful of POC-led organizations on campus, outlining where our energies can go. We cannot wait on the administration to:

1. Donate to the Shirley Graham Du Bois ’34 Africana Studies Endowed Fund by going to this link, selecting “Campus Programs & Facilities,” then selecting “Shirley Graham Du Bois ’34 Africana Studies Endowed Fund.

2. Fulfill ABUSUA’s recent Demand No. 6 for “$5,000 to renovate the Afrikan Heritage House lounges with furniture, technology and the house library with books considered fundamental to Africana Studies” by going to this link, selecting “Campus Programs & Facilities,” then selecting “Afrikan Heritage House.”

3. Redirect our annual donations to BIPOC-specific funds: the Equity & Social Justice Fund and the Class of 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Internship Fund.

4. Fund the Coronavirus Oberlin Mutual Aid Fund, “An effort by students, for students, to support First Generation and/or Low-Income Obies in need of supplementary financial assistance during this era of COVID-19.”

5. Fulfill ABUSUA’s Demand No. 18: “We DEMAND the Jazz department have a tenure track position for a professor to teach Introduction to African American Music and related courses.” 

6. Establish need-blind admissions for all applicants.

7. Establish a simple, consistent financial sharing relationship between white alumni and BIPOC students and alumni.

Let’s pour our energy and resources into these options instead of Twitter. Non-Oberlin white alumni of similar institutions, networks, and resumes, are you all organizing with students and alumni of color at your alma maters? What are other models we can look to? Why does it continue to take these moments for us to mobilize? I just shared my most recent paycheck to Afrikan Heritage House.  For those able: Will you match with yours?