To the Editor:
Student Senate kicked off its spring semester with what many are euphemizing as a ‘divide.’ “From the start, it was clear we were not wanted on Senate. Within the first 20 minutes, some senators called for a re-election,” according to a newly elected senator who wished to remain anonymous. “As the passive aggressive attacks continued, it wasn’t long before conversation devolved completely.”
For the last two weeks, Senate’s ability to perform even its vital tasks has stopped.
Appointments to the Student Honor Committee have been held up as a result. “The problem with this,” one senator remarked, “is that every week and every day there were more students with pending cases. Those are students with ambiguous academic futures, some of whom get expelled. We are doing a disservice to the entire student body by stalling these appointments.”
Senators College sophomore Kiki Acey and doubledegree junior Arianna Gil have propelled discussions of structural oppression, race, class and identity to the floor, though not always in a productive manner. “It’s critically important for Oberlin to have a conversation regarding structural oppression; however, it should be conducted in a way that’s inclusive of the entire community and not simply used as a rhetorical veil for intimidating others,” Senator and College sophomore Machmud Makhmudov stated.
Witnessing plenary discussion, I have only seen a series of ad hominem attacks from Acey and Gil. As student senator and College sophomore Jesse Kohler mentioned, “They use the words like racism, sexism, [and] oppression to try to scare us away from speaking. I have been called a racist, a white supremacist and a host of other extreme words that are not true.”
“When I walked into Senate for the first time, before I said a word, a label was slapped onto me,” Kohler continued. “I cannot change the background I come from. I understand that my identity as a white male informs the way I interpret my surroundings, but this does not invalidate my concerns or mean I do not care about all people on this campus.”
“We all care about the issues Kiki and Arianna are bringing up — that’s why we came to this school,” senator and College sophomore Mia Wallace mentioned. “That is the only reason the violent speech that is happening has been [able to] continue.”
From what I have seen, most senators are eager to work with one another, understand one another and advocate on behalf of the students as they are supposed to do. Student Senate has been working on a number of initiatives: Machmud Makhmudov has been working on the tobacco ban; College junior Peter Arden has been working on a program to have student EMT workers assist Safety and Security with injured students; and College sophomore Ziya Smallens has been working to make Student Health Services more accessible.
However, by week four, such discussions were no longer happening. Plenary had become dominated with anger, causing some senators to leave the discussion entirely.
I believe these failed discussions in Student Senate represent a larger problem with identity
politics. “When you assert that your opinion is inherently more informed or more valuable because of your background, you’ve already lost the battle. That is not being inclusive. That does not acknowledge people’s experiences, and it does not allow for productive discussion,” Wallace argues.
Having witnessed and listened to the discussions taking place in Student Senate since the start of the semester, I have been disappointed to see identity politics run amok. Student Senate is actually quite diverse, including international students, multiple ethnic minorities, Muslims, Jews, gays, low-income students and athletes (and combinations therein). Most senators get along beautifully. Discussion only devolves when some students use their identity as a tool to oppress and negate the opinions of other senators. Past experiences, some of which may have been difficult, are not a carte blanche to speak or behave maliciously toward others.
Every senator I spoke to recognized that racism, oppression and injustice are real and serious — many of them have experienced these issues. But the personal attacks must stop.
“I encourage everybody to listen to the audio of last week’s plenary session (available on Fearless and Loathing’s website) and come to their own conclusions regarding whether senators are responsibly holding their positions or not,” Makhmudov said.
“I think the best thing Senate can do is to focus on the issues and not the personalities.”
Kiki Acey and Arianna Gil both declined to be interviewed by the author.