Peer Support, Solidarity Only Provided During Campus Crises

Robert Bonfiglio, Contributing Writer

Two winters ago, in a student study room at a Dartmouth College medical building, I got bored with my Winter Term project and took a break to watch a documentary on the Belle and Sebastian album If You’re Feeling Sinister. I had been trying to find the album on YouTube, but ended up happening upon this documentary that details the simplicity and beauty of the lyrics. The lead singer, Stuart Murdoch, suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome early on in his life, explained how his simple lyrics came to be so meaningful. “I wanted to write about normal people doing normal things because I was not normal,” he said. “I was not part of the game.” Everyone feels this: being left out of the game. Murdoch’s lyrics express this universal human experience.

At Oberlin College, there is a divide that most talk about and acknowledge: the physical divide of North and South campuses, with South where it is assumed that students of color reside — Afrikan Heritage House and Third World Co-op are both prominent features of South campus. This divide is more than just geographical and erases the commonalities that people living on either side share; North is often stereotyped as a more athletic side and South is often thought of as more diverse and politically radical. We forget that we can all identify as college students, an identity in this nation that is criticized as we combat racialized police violence, rising tuition costs and technological developments. Yet, despite our collective power as students, we are prevented from coming together and living productively on this residential campus by this divide. Yet every year, an issue will require both sides of campus to unite in solidarity, and this issue almost always involves anti-Black racism. My freshman year it was the March 4 racist incidents. Sophomore year, it was the Student Senate debacle. This year, it was the violent response to ABUSUA’s demands.

This consciously racial divide on Oberlin’s campus elicits pockets of solidarity, where the entire student body gathers together to demonstrate recognition of the struggles that Black students face, where they feel distanced from the rest of the Oberlin community, where they do not feel “part of the game.” I say Black, because that is what I have been conditioned to say; all those posters and event descriptions that declare priority seating or participation for “Black students and other marginalized communities,” leaving as an afterthought other students of color, students who are not straight, students who are struggling daily to find a place on this campus that will make them feel normal, whatever they feel like normal means.

This conditioning is because, as Sandra Harding states in her Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader, “not all marginality is potentially equally politically progressive,” and at this time in our nation’s history, it is all about race, and especially about Black individuals. Other forms of discrimination, such as racism against other students of color, sexism against women, gender non-conforming people, homophobia and transphobia are also prevalent on campus and can often intersect with issues of anti-Blackness, but anti-Black racism is the most hypervisible oppression that divides campus.

So when North campus becomes aware of some racial injustice, they rally together and think about how they can help the community that they are divided from. They become compassionate, but then, as laborious students at Oberlin College, they fall back into their routine of self-focused activity, with no time to drive someone to the airport, to get lunch with someone, or step outside of their comfort zone. According to Lynne Fauley Emery in her book Black Dance, there is a dedication “to the idea that greater sympathy … among the peoples of the world derives from knowledge of each other’s way of life.” Momentary support in times of crisis is just momentary; there can be little knowledge gained from each other in that time. There becomes a complacency that this will always be the case, which creates two situations: one in which others will be compassionate and supportive only for a time and one in which others who are struggling and feeling lost on Oberlin’s campus will receive neither compassion nor attention.

The risk in subverting Oberlin’s campus divide is in making oneself feel abnormal, something individuals do all the time when encountering new jobs or classes or activities. The sheer notability of the divide on campus is no different, except that there is a greater risk. It cannot be overcome during times of crisis, however, because it is too impersonal. That is not when relationships are made and risks are taken. To overcome the divide, there needs to be compassionate interactions among students, where it is explicitly stated among individuals that you are welcome to be here, you are welcome to join us, and you are welcome to be a part of our game. And if people don’t want to join, that is not the point. The point is in the transparency of knowing that, yes, we might not normally socialize, because we define ourselves through socially-constructed identities that limit interaction; but you are still welcome to take this risk with me and learn something about me, and I’ll learn something about you. Especially when the reasoning concerns someone who has no one else to be with, has no community at Oberlin and does not fit onto either side of the campus divide. Then it is even more important that they are welcome to try to feel normal, to take that risk. You never know when someone might need to feel welcomed, because it is not always in times of crisis. According to our childhood friend Kermit the Frog, “Maybe you don’t need the whole world to love you, you know? Maybe you just need one person.” At times people might not need their community; they might just need a welcoming hand and an open heart.