It'd be easy to write this as an allegory. "Young Goodman White, crossing Wilder bowl one morning, suddenly sees a line of people across Mudd Ramp. He's a good liberal, so he knows that people of color with signs must be right. He goes up to Sister Activist, and politely inquires, 'Sister, what troubles you? Are you angry that Mother Cole has left us?'
" 'No,' quoth she, 'people of color have been fucked over on this, our campus, for yea these 4 years that I've been here. Our ire was slow, but now 'tis up. It will not down until we're heard.'
"Goodman White is little wiser for this speech; but, feeling that he should be, he continues on his way. Later, as he returns..."
Yeah, it'd be comforting to make myself into everywhiteboy like that. But this is a story of individuals, trying to communicate and sometimes partly succeeding. If we're going to make progress, we have to be able to put our generalizations aside to hear each other. Sure, the crazy pants I was wearing that day made me just another Obie Hippie; but if "Sister Activist" understood that they are also my statement of individuality, she was seeing my side too. The problem is, if this story isn't an allegory, then how does it have a moral? I'm not going to just write do-nothing essay about what's wrong. I have ideas about what's to be done. But I can't write a fable that goes straight there like an Oberlin road.
Because where does my story lead? A white boy who knows that he's had his chances to hear why the protesters angry, if he had cared. Who doesn't want to be an Uncaring Passersby, so he stands by the protesters, but off to one side and quiet because he doesn't really understand. Too ignorant to join, too afraid to find out, and too PC to walk by. And when I did join, I'm sure I looked as stupid as the other hippy-looking joiners and temporary rhythm providers. But what were we supposed to do?
And mine's not the only story. What about the students who wanted to go in and out of Mudd? Selfish fools, why would they mind just having to go around to the bottom door? Or maybe they're poor innocents - the problem's not their fault, and how are they supposed to know to go around without a sign telling them to? So one of them pushes through; and someone pushes back, tired of being pushed around. "You don't push me!" Who's fault is that? It's hard to see both sides when one of them is yours, but we all still have to try.
And Bill Stackman, standing there looking concerned. Great job, Bill, you were the one administrator to make an appearance. But was I the only one in the group of protesters you talked to? If so, doesn't it bother you - although it makes sense for you to say hi to a friend - that the only person you talked to was one of the 3 or so white people in the group?
There's a pattern to these stories. So far, I've told about basically well-intentioned white folk who sometimes let their ignorance trip them up. Something's missing, something besides the stories of people of color. If all the white people are so well-intentioned, how have a bunch of smart Oberlin students been driven past their patience?
Melody Waller obviously doesn't see as many goodwilled people around her as I do. In her letter to President Dye, published in the last Review, she compares Dye to a general skilled in the art of deception and suggests that Dye and the trustees have a plan to strip students of color of representation.
It simply won't work just to accuse her of paranoia. Perhaps she doesn't realize that each graduating class appoints a trustee for a two year term, and that recently these have tended to be people of color and activists. But in a way, this proves her right: there is an art to "some students being privy to information, and how it looks to students of color who are already marginalized..." I've talked to people on Senate and the Review who think that they understand what happened with Cole and with McNish before her, who even think that it is obvious. They've got their anonymous sources in the administration, and the story they get might not make them happy, but at least it makes sense. The rest of us just have to trust them to help us keep an eye on what's going on; but why should Ms. Waller trust a system that removes everyone that she ever sees fighting on her side? Senate and the Review aren't lily-white, but they're closer than they should be.
That's the part that doesn't fit into my story: the real patterns which threaten the interests of certain communities of color on this campus. You can't deny that of retention of people of color is horrible on this campus, for students, faculty, and administrators. You can't deny that Third World House and Afrikan Heritage house have faced more threats to their identity and existence in the last 4 years than most residences. Sure, there are some explanations. For instance, no matter how many times "the House" explains how it serves a necessary function on this campus, there will always be someone new around who didn't hear it last time. These explanations can function as excuses, or they can be calls to self-examination and change. But, especially with the Cole situation, there aren't even enough lame excuses yet to cover the facts.
Well, I promised I'd have something concrete to recommend at the end here. Obviously, my stories are about failed communication. The way I see it, there's three parts to communication. First, we all have to keep telling our stories, showing why we feel the way we do, and not just acting on our feelings. Second, we have to listen to each other, strain to see things from others' points of view.
The third part to communication is just as important as the other two. We can't just talk and listen, we have to find out. We need to ask each other for what we need to know. I'm asking you: what do you feel? Write for the Review or the Voice or Trembles Our Rage, let us all know. But various student voices are already out there. The most important question is the one we have to ask the administration. WHAT HAPPENED? We have a right to know. This question isn't going to be answered just because of some words on a piece of paper; we have to back it up with actions. However you feel about the results of what happened, I doubt many of you really think you know the details. Asking the administration and ex-dean Cole what happened is something I think a lot of students could get behind. And if enough students are willing to take action that might endanger their positions or their grades for it, the administration will have to give us answers. If you, like me, think it's not too late for a strong, cooperative protest for information, and you want to be part of planning it, email me and I will set up a mailing list open to all students.
Since I arrived here last February, not a day has gone by that I haven't pondered the apparent paradox: How could someone smart enough to get accepted at Oberlin be at the same time so stupid as to think that inhaling the effluvium of smoldering leaves is "cool" or "grown-up"? On the surface, the combination is patently ludicrous. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with college being for most of you the first time out from under the prying eyes (and noses) of mommy and daddy. And all sorts of formerly "forbidden fruit" is suddenly fair game: drinking, drugs, sexual promiscuity - even simple laziness and lack of consideration for others. You think your parents don't know this? Geez! Most of them went off to college in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when college campuses made the Oberlin of today look like Amish Country! Let's look at tobacco with honest objectivity, huh? Rather than filtered (no pun intended) through multiple layers of adolescent rebellion. This is the only substance sold in this country that, when used exactly as the manufacturer intends to kills its user. Hell, even crack and heroin have to be abused to kill. What's next, kiddies? Snorting asbestos??? As ol' Robbie the Robot was wont to say, This...Does...Not... Compute. We're not talking about a bunch of rednecks with double-digit IQs who can't be expected to know any better. These are the smart kids, fer gossakes! At least your parents can claim that all the proof of the hazards of smoking weren't known when they became addicted. But the Oberlin student of today grew up bombarded by the awful statistics - about how tobacco kills more Americans every year then every war America has fought since 1775 combined, about how the tobacco companies have to recruit tens of thousands of new smokers each year just to replace the market share that their products killed the year before. How can Oberlinians claim to be protective of the environment, when more carcinogens enter the atmosphere here each day than on the Long Island Distressway at rush hour? When over 98% of all the litter on this campus is tobacco related? What sort of sense are we to make of students who'll go a block out of their way to recycle an aluminum can - then drop a cigarette butt on the pavement and walk away? I sit in class with you people every day, and I know you're not that stupid. Or are you? Getting into and out of Mudd, King, Wilder and Stevenson without a gas mask involves breathing the atmospheric equivalent of toxic waste. I've seen students literally sprint out of buildings after classes and meals in their haste to light up, showing withdrawal symptoms that would embarrass a crackhead. People outside King and on the Mudd ramp literally puff away while leaning on the No Smoking signs. . .! This is cool? This is socially and environmentally responsible? What are we to think about people whose hearts bleed over shampoo in the eyes of laboratory dogs, but have no problem at all with subjecting their fellow human beings to second-hand carcinogens...? Do you really think appearing "grown-up" means having your skin, hair and clothes smell like a wet ashtray? Do you know, offhand, any person or persons who took up this filthy habit after their twenty-first birthdays? Do you know any adult who is glad they started smoking - who hasn't tried to quit more times than they can count? Are you smart enough to comprehend the implications of that - or did you farce your way into Oberlin?
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 7, October 31, 1997
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