Student-Run Forum Dissects Racism on Oberlin Confessional
What are the implications of a website where someone can post a question asking why “negroes” have more children than whites and offering the suggestion that it is because they are “closer to the animal kingdom?” This is what 35 students gathered in Wilder to discuss on Sunday in a talk called “Racism and the Oberlin Confessional.”
The event was hosted by the Oberlin College Dialogue Center and worked to shine light on the negative consequences of a website where anonymous postings can induce a ripple effect across the community. The unstructured format of discussion offered the opportunity for free expression.
Facilitators Kara Carmosino, and Liz McConnell, College Junior and Senior respectively, opened the discussion by passing around the above-quoted sample post, as well as some responding posts. They also handed out a document called “A Reminder…Some General Allyship Dos and Don’ts,” which was a list of what an anti-racist ally can do to maintain that identity. Parts of the document suggested, “Know that the past is not your fault, but the present and future are your responsibility” and “Understand your own privileges.”
The floor was then opened to anything that anyone wanted to say.
“Liz and I are here not to advocate any specific position but to create a space where all voices are welcome,” said Carmosino.
Carmosino described the OCDC as “an organization that’s devoted to creating dialogue. We strive to be multi-partial, especially [providing an outlet for] voices that aren’t usually welcome.”
Multiple voices joined in the discussion. Over the next two hours, the group talked about whether the Confessional is “a haven for vicious racism and hate-mongering,” or a place where people could potentially be educated.
People attempted to define the word “racism.” One person noted, “The word ‘racist’ seems like a blanket;” another said, “I’m not committing hate crimes, I’m not a racist.”
Since confidentiality was one of the ground rules of the discussion, no participants’ names will be cited with quotes in this article.
As the conversation progressed, it became clear that students came primarily to voice concern over the posts, but some also offered creative suggestions for how to bring the issues to the attention of the broader campus. The suggestion for guerilla, or activist theater, for example, was met with much enthusiasm. This idea was to take the posts out of the obscurity of the Oberlin Confessional into the light of day.
“The posts we’ve been talking about can be used as a rallying point, because if anyone has doubts [that Oberlin contains a racist element], being shown these posts will open their eyes,” said one participant. “There [are] obviously issues here that need to be dealt with.”
Another person offered, “I think putting up quotes from the Confessional all over campus could also be a useful tool.”
The talk concluded with a free-write exercise on “where to move from here” and “the question of whether it would be helpful to take ownership” of otherwise anonymous posts.
McConnell said the event was held because people had come to the OCDC office expressing concerns over how the Confessional was affecting people. The talk, she said, was designed to be a jumping-off point for further discussion and organizing.
Recently, The Grape published an article comparing Oberlin’s own Confessional with Wesleyan University’s similar website. When asked if his/her site had experienced problems along the same lines, the Wesleyan confessional’s site administrator, who wished to remain anonymous, replied, “As far as I recollect, there have been hateful/racist/bigoted statements, but they’re mainly discounted, and often the poster is mocked for hir [a gender-neutral pronoun] choice of an anonymous forum to express hir opinions.”
According to the student, Wesleyan has not found it necessary to host an event like Oberlin’s Sunday talk, and conversations about the Confessional has been confined to the Confessional itself.
“Most of this type of discussion has taken place in the context of mocking people for hiding inflammatory comments behind a mask of anonymity,” said the student administrator.