Oberlin Blogs

learning, unlearning

June 21, 2020

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

In light of recent events surrounding police brutality and violence against Black people in this country, and in an effort to do my part to dismantle systems of harm and to give back (literally) to those who need and deserve it, ALL OF THE MONEY RAISED FROM THIS BLOG POST AND 50% OF THE MONEY RAISED FROM THE POSTS I WRITE DURING THE REST OF THIS SUMMER WILL BE DONATED TO ORGANIZATIONS SERVING BLACK PEOPLE. I will be focusing on organizations that support mental health care, the LGBT+ population, and bailout funds/orgs working against mass incarceration. I have included the names of the organizations I intend to donate to below, with links to their websites, so you can learn more about them (and donate too!). 

The Loveland Foundation: This organization was founded by Rachel Cargle and provides funds to Black women and girls to make therapy more financially accessible. 

National Bail Out (#freeblackmamas): A Black-led org that raises funds to post bail for Black mothers in prison and works towards prison abolition and an end to mass incarceration. 

Marsha P. Johnson Institute: Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who played a pivotal role in the Stonewall Riots. This organization is named for her and does work to protect the rights of the Black transgender community. 


Content warning: This post discusses racism, anti-blackness, and Black death.

Silence is a tricky thing. Even though it is, by definition, the absence of speech, it can still say a lot. It’s tricky because silence depends to some degree on the reason you’re being silent. Is it to listen to other people and learn from them? Is it because you don’t know what to say? Is it because you feel like you shouldn’t say anything? 

The events of the past few weeks have been challenging. It’s clear that things need to change in our society in a major way, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which I, as a White person, have benefitted from an enormous amount of privilege as a result of the systemic structures in the US. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a White student at Oberlin. And I’ve been thinking about how to write about all of this in a way that does not decenter voices that matter more than mine. The first attempt at this post did a pretty bad job, for a lot of reasons, and I felt embarrassed, because I’d like to believe I’m already a “good” ally, a role I’ve come to learn is a lifelong commitment and process. I don’t think being silent is the right thing in this moment, even if this means that what I write isn’t 100% right. Of course, this is a fear I need to get over, because I will inevitably mess up over, and over, and over again. 

I had some conversations with a friend about what I’m trying to do with this post, and although they were helpful, I’ve been procrastinating writing it, because I want to do it right and I don’t know if I can, but this is my best attempt. But to my readers, if I say something that doesn’t sit well with you, or if I cause harm in some way, I hope you tell me. Because I want to be open to learning: learning and unlearning. 

One of Oberlin’s mottos is: “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” I never really liked this motto (side note—a few years ago Obies wrote a series of posts responding to this motto, which I’ve linked here and here. It’s an interesting series and I recommend taking a look). I don’t like this motto because it’s simplistic, and as much as I wish I could change the world as an individual, I don’t think I can. Or, if I’m optimistic and believe that I am capable of important change, not every problem is mine to solve, a thought which sometimes upsets me. 

While I don’t believe in Oberlin’s motto, I do believe in the value and power of collective action, which I’ve seen over the past few weeks in various ways. On a national scale, collective action has resulted in substantial and meaningful changes, such as the disbanding of the police department in Minnesota and the passing of “Breonna’s Law” in Kentucky banning no-knock warrants, as well as reform efforts in other cities around the country as well, including in my own hometown. But I’ve also seen collective action on a smaller scale. After George Floyd was killed and stories of his death began to circulate widely on the internet, many of my fellow Obies flocked to social media to share countless resources in an effort to educate themselves and others about issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, imagining alternative models of law enforcement and community care, prison abolition, the importance of reparations, and how Black and other POC communities have been affected disproportionately by COVID-19 (please read the pages I’ve hyperlinked in the sentence above: they do a much better job of explaining these issues than I can, issues which are beyond the scope of this small post). I’ve seen list upon list of anti-racist and abolitionist books, podcasts, and documentaries and TV series lists. I’ve seen educational threads and posts, slides of Black owned business, templates for writing to local representatives, petition links, and more. It is heartening to see that many of the young people I go to school with are so engaged in the things that are happening in our society. The best thing is, it hasn’t stopped. 

Besides the social media presence, groups at Oberlin such as the Student Senate, Abusua (Oberlin’s Black Student Union) and President Ambar herself have issued statements and expressed actionable plans to make things on Oberlin’s campus better for its Black students. A recent Oberlin grad helped make a documentary about how Black students at Oberlin experienced the shut-down of the college and life during the pandemic, which has nearly 600 views on YouTube (but should have more—it’s really well done and was important for me to watch). From planned educational initiatives, to Zoom teach-ins and proposed privilege and oppression trainings for incoming first-year students, the efforts I’ve seen from many of my peers and professors over the past few weeks are a needed reminder of the ways I’ve learned from my peers during college. I’ve also been away from Oberlin for a long time, and being isolated from the campus and its communities is reminding me even more about the important ways I engage in learning at Oberlin. 

I don’t want to in any way diminish the learning I’ve done in classrooms at Oberlin. I’ve learned an incredible amount through my Oberlin coursework. I haven’t just learned information, but I’ve learned how to learn. And while I have learned a lot in my official Oberlin coursework, a large portion of my learning has also come from engaging with my peers in more casual settings: at co-op meals, reading something someone posted on social media, going to concerts, plays, poetry slams, and other performances, participating in Excos and community service organizations, and, above all, listening. At Oberlin, learning does not end when class is dismissed. This kind of environment fosters good critical thinking skills and discussions that don’t always happen inside the classroom but that are nonetheless important, especially in moments of cultural and societal transition like the ones we are seeing now. 

I do want to issue the caveat that peer-based learning at Oberlin doesn’t always happen on the same scale and within the same communities. Not all my friends at Oberlin are being vocal on social media about racism, structural inequality, and violence right now; I also don’t think they have to be, because not everyone is active on social media, and a lot of the most important work happens behind the scenes anyway. Although Oberlin is touted as a social justice-oriented institution, I do want to be critical of some of its students here, and this includes myself. Holding one another accountable, something Obies do routinely (but not always), can sometimes be lacking, especially within the White student population on campus, a situation in which I have too many times been silent and culpable, mostly due to conflict aversion. A lot of times in Oberlin, students, especially White ones, stay silent because of the cancel culture, a culture in which individuals who offend or cause harm are ostracized, often publicly and socially, by others, rather than being called into a dialogue to foster growth and learning (a culture which the college is working to address in its first-year peer-advising program). This culture can lead to students not speaking out for fear of saying the wrong thing. But if ever there were a time to move on from cancel culture and conflict aversion, it’s now. The fact that I can even choose to be silent right now is indicative of my privilege here. Another one of Oberlin’s mottos is “Learning and Labor,” the Latin phrase which adorns the school’s official seal. I can say with confidence that Oberlin is set on the learning part. But learning—and unlearning—in a substantial way and being changemakers takes labor, too. Many of Oberlin’s students are very privileged and White, and during this moment I hope that my fellow Obies, myself included, will be doing the necessary work to understand their places in the systems we’ve grown up in and benefitted from, while uplifting other voices and thinking about how we can use our myriad privileges to make things better for others who don’t have those same privileges. 

Something else I’ve remembered about learning during this time is that it isn’t that hard, or rather, it doesn’t have to be. Social media and the internet especially have revolutionized the accessibility of educational resources and the ways in which learning can occur. Learning isn’t inherently difficult, and neither is caring about other people. It’s just that the institutions and structures we grow up in can make learning and caring hard because these systems only survive when no one challenges them. Luckily, the environment at Oberlin is one of discussion, excitement about learning, and educating one another, thus challenging the status quo that only works when it limits the learning that can work against it. If Obies continue to foster and actively nurture a culture of learning and unlearning, collective action has the potential to continue to lead to change. And even if I don’t believe one person can change the world, maybe many can. 

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