MRC Culture Fest Missed Opportunity To Celebrate Culture

Like many, my high school had an event akin to a world culture day, where people would share food, dress, and music of their cultural heritage while discussing relevant social and political issues. Given Oberlin’s history of change and protest and its students from across a wide variety of states and countries, the Multicultural Resource Commons’ Culture Festival seemed like an opportunity to do something similar while connecting with the greater community, and I was excited. Its promotions, from posters with the flags of the world countries to the Campus Digest announcement, seemed to confirm this vision. 

“The event will celebrate the diverse ethnic, religious, and other cultural groups on campus and in Lorain County, highlight local businesses and restaurants, and promote more interaction amongst the diverse groups of individuals that make up the Oberlin community,” the Campus Digest announcement reads. 

On the day of the actual Culture Fest, however, the types of culture represented were different than expected. Multicultural Resource Commons BIPOC Community Fellow Ava Brown, OC ’22, described this diversity in the article “MRC Culture Festival Focuses on Community Building,” published in the Review one day before the event. The article described planned activities, from an obstacle course to a bouncy house to a tinikling dance workshop facilitated by the Filipinx American Students Association to battling friends with a hand-crafted lightsaber. 

I want to clarify that I am not trying to discredit or demean the hard work that the MRC and the event planners put into this event. The event had great turnout among both students and community members, and it was a solid step forward regarding town-gown relations. However, I think combining a cosplay convention, a prospective student tabling event, and a variety of ice cream trucks muddled the actual definition of culture. 

Despite our aforementioned activist history, spaces for cross-cultural celebration aren’t easy to find at Oberlin. The few programs we do have in place with the express purpose of promoting cultural and religious inclusion, such as the Third World House, Third World Co-op, and Kosher Halal Co-op, have been diminishing. Even the MRC has only now been fully staffed for the first time in two years. There have been events such as the Asian Night Market, the Black History Month Ball, banquets held by several different identity organizations — such as the Muslim Students Association, the African Students Association, and the Japanese Student Association, and so much more. Still, there has yet to be an event that is able to offer a space for multicultural celebration — simply put, a world culture day. 

That kind of event is something that is needed, and something that I expected of Culture Fest. I understand that, like many colleges, Oberlin has its own unique culture, and I’m not saying that sci-fi and cosplay can’t go hand-in-hand with cultural, religious, and affinity groups. Lumping it under a culture fest, though, was an unusual decision, and more importantly, a missed chance to celebrate the multiculturality of Oberlin. It’s almost disrespectful to put a bouncy house next to identity-based organizations, spaces, and groups that haven’t really gotten the chance to be recognized, and the opportunity to reflect on these cultures was simply overshadowed by the variation in types of celebrated culture. Because now, when people think of Culture Fest, they won’t remember it as a day to think about and appreciate the cultural heritage of Oberlin students, but instead as a fun time to play in a bouncy house and cosplay. After all, how is a traditional Filipino folk dance comparable to a lightsaber battle? 

Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that Culture Fest lacked a cohesive definition for the cultures they wanted to showcase. Was it a celebration of world cultures? Was it a celebration of things specifically found at Oberlin? Why couldn’t it be called a family fun day or a tabling event? By failing to give its view of “culture” a specific meaning, Culture Fest was aiming for a target that was never set up in the first place. I hope that the MRC can celebrate Culture Fest again next year, but with a more definitive stance on what culture means and an acknowledgement of cultures that haven’t received as much support from the College.