The following critique of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association is not the first time anyone has raised these issues. Many people have experienced or continue to experience various forms of classism, white supremacy, ableism and other manifestations of oppression within OSCA. My critique only serves to join these discourses and bring them to the attention of other white, able-bodied OSCAns.
In a recent co-op discussion, one co-oper said, “OSCA is not some shady government.” While I can’t claim to acknowledge all forms of oppression within OSCA, I hope to undermine this misconception by shedding light on some of the forms of oppression that I have seen and experienced firsthand.
I stayed behind from Cleveland the day after the news broke that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the murder of Mike Brown. I remained in Oberlin to address the white supremacy that manifests in OSCA. However, my attempts to raise this in committee meetings that day were shut down, as they have been throughout my time working for OSCA. I returned to a co-op to eat dinner and sat there, angry at myself for being stupid enough to stay behind thinking I could actually effect change in OSCA, when two people walked into the dining area. They were commenting on how few people were in the co-op, complaining about how quiet the campus had become since noon and pouting about feeling lonely.
Excuse me? No one is around because they are in the streets fighting against the hundreds of years of oppression of Black and Brown bodies. Others filed in to eat; they sat around laughing and talking about nothing. Nothing. Not a single person mentioned Ferguson, Mike Brown, John Crawford III or Tamir Rice. Not a single person in the room was a person of color. The silence of my fellow white OSCAns and Oberlin students and faculty does not equal neutrality, and the lack of action apart from a few Facebook posts does not constitute “allyship.”
Yet OSCA staff spray-painted the raised fist across their staff T-shirts at the beginning of this semester, as if OSCA is actually a force for social justice and change. White students at this school post #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook, then joke about their sex lives, while others are exploding into the streets, calling for outrage and demanding justice. All-OSCA staff fail to recognize their own complicity in the systems that have enabled and relied upon the marginalization, criminalization and murder of Black and Brown people in this country and this world.
In my time as an all-OSCA staff member, I have sat on numerous appointments committees, which review applications and interview candidates for different all-OSCA positions. Unsurprisingly, these committees are always predominantly, if not entirely, composed of white people deciding among white applicants. However, I have sat on recent committees for positions that require an understanding of how various forms of oppression exist and play out in OSCA, and these almost entirely or entirely white committees have been forced to appoint people to these positions who have not demonstrated an adequate understanding of the ways in which they participate in these systems or how these systems manifest in OSCA.
I know that as a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman, my knowledge is far from complete, and I will always have to continue to challenge, criticize and educate myself. I’m not assuming that there will be a perfect applicant who has completed their education on systems of power. I did, however, expect that my peers in OSCA would show more support in trying to put people into these positions who recognize explicitly that so many people feel that OSCA or the majority of co-ops are alienating spaces. Some efforts were put down by OSCA leaders citing the threat of the IRS closing OSCA due to potential tax status conflicts, while others were suppressed by apathetic, exhausted and/or uncritical OSCAns. Next, those who directly forced the outcomes of these committees were able to hide behind rules of confidentiality so that no one beyond those white walls would know what had occurred within. If we are going to engage in discussions about the unjust rulings of grand juries in countless cases of police brutality and murders, we must recognize the ways in which these same forms of systemic oppression that exist in this country and in the institution of Oberlin College also manifest on OSCA’s board and committees.
One member of OSCA recently talked to me about how the present conception of the U.S. government is too big to address the concerns of the millions of people it is supposed to serve. Even the state level is too far removed, they suggested; we need to refocus on community. I considered how this applies to OSCA and the communities that have formed in different co-ops.
In this regard, one of my biggest mistakes during my time in OSCA was applying to be an all-OSCA accessibility coordinator. First of all, my understandings of systems of oppression were and continue to be limited; rather than taking up more space by applying to an all-OSCA position, I wish I had sat back down and continued educating myself while actively working to educate those around me. Secondly, in prioritizing community, I should have remained AccessCo for Fairchild Co-op — if re-elected — to work on that individual community. Fairkid was the closest thing I had to community at the time, yet I had naïvely believed that I could address the manifestations of oppression in Fairkid from an all-OSCA level.
However, through classist food politics and policing of people’s diets, the space became toxic and damaging to me, and I ultimately had to leave. In the fall of 2013, as AccessCo for Fairkid, I had to facilitate numerous intense discussions about cheese. Some vegans raised issues about from where we were buying our cheese because of the ideological issues they had with how Amish farmers treat their cows. We discussed the most minute details of cheese, stereotypes of Amish farmers and whether spending four times as much on a different cheese was actually a practical idea. My co-AccessCo and I struggled to remind people that we were having these conversations about cheese while others in this town, country and world are starving every day.
In the end, each hour we spent having co-op discussions and reconciliation committee meetings was time taken away from expressing outrage over the police murders of people of color, time reflected in the four and a half hours Mike Brown lay uncovered in the street, or in the years spent in prison awaiting release or death. Having the time not to be outraged is a privilege, one which so many white OSCAns don’t realize they have. And expressing this outrage only in words will not help bring about change; we must instead enact change by participating in resistance and rejecting systems that perpetuate oppression and violence.