Student Community Invites Discussion on Racial Issues


Eliza Diop

Recent instances of vandalism at Afrikan Heritage House have been perceived by residents as attacks on their community and culture. The drawing of penises on artwork is one example of the vandalism occurring in this safe space.

Alex Howard, News Editor

Discomfort and discontent with hate crimes occurring at Ohio State University and the perceived racism and prejudice existing within the Oberlin community have elicited discussion and action from students this week in the form of petitions, letters, and community meetings.

Vandalism at Afrikan Heritage House

Afrikan Heritage House, a safe space for people of African descent and for the preservation of African and African-American culture, has been the victim of a number of different instances of vandalism in the past month. Penises were drawn on several paintings of important figures in the Black community and a wooden plaque representing one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Imani, signifying faith, which stood in Lord Lounge was removed and defaced.

Ralph Jones, Faculty-in-Residence at Afrikan Heritage House, said this is not the first incident of vandalism at Afrikan Heritage House he’s seen in his time here. In November of 2010, a student stole numerous paintings off the walls of the residence hall. Jones sees a very thin line between a prank and deliberate action, and said, “none of it is funny and none of it is tolerable.”

Jones continued, “I take this as a direct attack on our culture because this is our space, this is our cultural center and a lot of people don’t understand what that is or what it represents. As I got into living here I began to see things and understand what the importance was of the Afrikan Heritage House. I’m really very proud and honored to be a part of it. We need to make sure that everybody knows our standards.”

As of yet Director of Safety and Security Marjorie Burton said that Safety and Security has no leads on possible perpetrators.

“It’s unfortunate this occurred and no one is taking responsibility. We wish we could have done more to find a solution to this,” said Burton. “That residence hall especially is one where students feel at home and take pride in their community, and the disrespect shown for a community in their own home is sad.”

The Letter From Concerned Members of the Africana Community

The vandalism of Afrikan Heritage House served as a catalyst for the letter written by a few members of the Africana community and its allies published in last week’s issue of the Review. The letter, which addressed perceived racism and prejudice on campus, extending beyond the recent vandalism, suggested means to unite and combat these issues.

College junior Joshua Moton, who was instrumental in the writing of the letter, spoke to multiple communities in order to better understand the issues facing them. Moton said he worked with over 50 people and helped compile their concerns into the wording of the letter, “in a way that captured their urgency, passion and frustration.” He said his intent was for the letter to be representative of these various calls to action.

“Though [the letter] was not inclusive of every single person in the community and though it was not a complete and thorough acknowledgment of every black experience… [at] Oberlin College, it was not meant as a stand alone document,” said Moton. “It was meant as a first step, and it is the first of many steps which will be taken to rid Oberlin College as much as possible of the ugly specter of racism and all other forms of oppression, which still exists here despite people’s fierce belief that they are nowhere to be seen. ”

Moton said he realized the letter would result in a fair amount of controversy, which he noted was part of its purpose. The letter aimed to force the members of the Oberlin community from their comfort zones in order to confront issues that he said are often difficult to acknowledge and address.

“I was expecting the school to be shaken up a bit because it came to realize in the smallest way the pain that stems from racism, prejudice, Euro-centrism [and] white supremacy. It’s a pain that is deep down inside of all Americans. It’s a pain that we would like to ignore because it’s easy to ignore and it makes us comfortable to ignore it,” said Moton. “The fact remains that there are still massive racial inequalities that exist here on this campus that we would just like to gloss over, and I feel that we can’t do that. We can’t ignore this pain. We have to go to the places that scare us, to approach what we find disgusting, to teach those that we feel we do not want to teach, because it is by approaching these ugly issues that we are able to advance as a society.”

College first-year Kara Mahon, contributor to the letter and presenter at the community forum sponsored by Afrikan Heritage House and its allies on Thursday, said that the letter was not intended to be an attack on the white community. Rather, she said the purpose of the letter was to generate understanding and encourage people to engage in discussion of these issues.

“I want those not in the POC [person of color] community to realize that being white or being privileged — we’re not attacking them for it, but we would like them to use that privilege to help others. And not just to make themselves feel better, but out of the goodness of their hearts, [to] honestly want to change something and get active and help us lift our voice,” said Mahon.

Petition to Show Solidarity with OSU Students Against Hate Crimes

Different community meetings have already occurred on campus to discuss issues the letter raises. The two most attended public meetings thus far have been the Umoja meeting at Afrikan Heritage House on April 11, before the letter was published in the Review, and the “Afrikana Community Responds to Bigotry” forum that took place in King yesterday.

Generally, Umoja meetings function as house meetings. However, the entire Oberlin community was invited to attend the meeting on April 11 to discuss the vandalism that occurred, and to obtain feedback on the letter, which was still being written. Approximately 71 people attended the meeting, including residents, other students, members of the Oberlin College Dialogue Center, professors from the African-American Studies department and staff from the Multicultural Resource Center and from Residential Education. Professors, students and staff remained in Lord Lounge until well past midnight.

The meeting functioned as a space to discuss problems and propose solutions to issues both within and outside of Oberlin. Recent hate crimes on OSU’s campus were brought to light, along with action taken by Oberlin students to respond to these crimes. College senior Meredith Diamond brought the crimes at OSU to attendee’s attention and discussed the petition she drafted in solidarity with the OSU students opposed to these acts of racialized violence.

Diamond said the attendees demonstrated their support almost immediately. “The first few days there were 30 people and then it really got bigger and right now I think there are [about] 230 people signed on to it,” said Diamond.

The petition enumerates the hate crimes on and around OSU’s campus in the past few months, including the burning down of the ex-president of the Muslim Student Association’s house, which occurred after repeated instances of vandalism on his property, including graffiti calling him a terrorist and telling him to “go home.” Graffiti on OSU’s Black Cultural Center read “Long Live Zimmerman.”

College senior Andres Feliciano, who helped draft the OSU petition and contributed to the Afrikan Heritage House letter, said that he initially questioned the effectiveness of a petition coming from outside the OSU community. After reading the petition and further contemplating the issue, though, Feliciano said he realized that refusing to take action makes Oberlin students complicit in these crimes.

“This is in Columbus, Ohio. So what I imagined is, ‘Wait, what if Case Western students, Oberlin students, OSU students [and] Miami of Ohio students’… what if we all said ‘We stand together on this, and even if we are a minority of our own student bodies, we are going to speak’,” said Feliciano. “That is very powerful because I feel like the most powerful things are the things that aren’t expected. If you want to see change happen — and by that I mean if you want to see an end, if not a minimization, of violence — you need to act. That’s an imperative. So what better way, what simpler, more efficient way, than a Google document.”

With regards to racism and prejudice on Oberlin’s campus, Feliciano expressed the importance and necessity of dialogue in which all views can be heard, respected and addressed.

“We need to create a climate of respect and understanding. An understanding that we are not perfect, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. … There needs to be a climate of dialogue where that is understood by all in a community like Oberlin’s, where it’s okay to be wrong just like it’s okay to be angry, because that’s real. It’s coming from a real place. It’s coming from a genuine place,” said Feliciano. “What’s dangerous, what’s harmful, what’s bad ultimately and what will be internalized until it is externalized is falsehood, is hiding, is anonymity, is not being genuine. We need to create a climate where it’s not like ‘Let’s demonize people who say racist things,’ because there are many of those people. Most of us say racist things, but most of us don’t know it.”

“Africana Community Responds to Bigotry” Community Forum

The community forum on Thursday in King 106 was a space designed for the expression of different opinions concerning racial tensions on Oberlin’s campus. The seats were filled and many were standing along the side and rear walls. Students, community members, professors, Dean of Students Eric Estes and President Marvin Krislov were in attendance. The meeting opened with comments from members of the Africana community on the purpose of the letter published in the Review, the need for greater understanding and respect in the Oberlin community, as well as an invitation to take a tour of Afrikan Heritage House on Friday, April 27 at 7 p.m. Following these remarks, seven demands — directed at campus groups such as the Student Finance Committee and the College administration — were given with the intention of stemming perceived racism present on campus at both the institutional and individual level.

The discussion that followed these opening comments ranged from issues facing international students, race relations in the Conservatory, the Eurocentricity of the curriculum in both the Conservatory and departments in the College and differing responses to the recent letter from the concerned members of the Africana community. Some students expressed discomfort with the abrasive language of the letter and argued that it contributed to the dichotomy between white and black students.

In response to a proposed orientation session for freshman, designed to address topics of allyship, oppression and white privilege in and outside of Oberlin, a student argued that acknowledging oppression and white privilege may serve to legitimize racial distinctions, which he said he perceived as problematic.

Krislov said he “looks forward to working on the concerns,” while Dean of Students Eric Estes, in a letter of support for the OSU petition, said that he “welcomes the opportunity [to] listen, to seek to understand, to build mutual respect, and to take action together when action is needed.”

Those in attendance emphasized the importance of continued dialogue concerning issues of racial discrimination and potential solutions.

“If we are to really come together as a campus across race, we must get out of our comfort zone,” said Moton. “People in A-House need to go out and do activities on North campus and people on North Campus need to come and attend activities at A-House. We need to learn to respect each other. We need to learn each other’s history.”