Oberlin and Social Justice ("Warriors")
January 7, 2016
Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17
About a month ago, when I was caught up in the lead-up to finals, and wondering when it would finally snow (spoiler alert: it didn't), I was beginning to write this post like I would any other. Brendan and I wanted to talk about the intersections between what we were studying--he in China and me in Oberlin--and social justice. For various reasons, neither of us was able to find time to write for a while, and I postponed the completion of this post over and over again. I'm glad I did, because this topic became more salient than ever during the last week of the semester back in Oberlin.
About a week before Oberlin students left for break, ABUSUA, Oberlin's Black Student Union, circulated a petition with a list of demands that called upon the College and Conservatory to immediately take action to better serve the Black community on our campus. Hundreds of students signed the petition, but, as a result of the petition being shared widely on social media, some people in a dark corner of the internet got a hold of the Google doc where people were signing, and replaced the names with violent, racist words and images. There were also egregious threats of violence made against Black students on our campus. This understandably led many students of color on Oberlin's campus to fear for their safety that week. The College responded to these incidents by increasing its security presence until the end of the semester, but it hasn't addressed any of the individual demands yet, as far as I know. Many students responded by participating in a protest to show solidarity with Black students, by organizing food deliveries to folks who didn't feel safe leaving their dorms, and offering to drive or escort students who felt unsafe around town.
As Kameron demonstrated, not all members of our community responded in supportive or compassionate ways. In fact, there were many racist, even threatening, statements made on social media following the vandalism of the petition, especially on Yik Yak. Some of the commenters attempted to shift the blame for the racist threats onto Black students, attempting to make the argument that because they thought some of their demands were "inappropriate" or "unrealistic," the entire Black community on our campus was somehow rightfully subject to violence.
What I found most infuriating about these statements was the presumption that Black people cannot adequately designate their needs and use a channel like a petition to advocate for them. If someone is reducing these demands that Black student leaders spent weeks crafting and evaluating to being "unrealistic," that person can't call themselves an "ally" (which has become a somewhat meaningless word, but that's a different conversation altogether). The "I'm not racist, but [insert an excuse for why it would be too expensive to rename a campus building after a Black person here]" maneuver will not fly. If you spend your entire life talking yourself up as an "ally," and a group of Black students literally hands you a way to stand in solidarity with them, and you choose not to, then you are not actually working against white supremacy at all. The presence of this kind of thinking on Oberlin's campus should be a call to action for White students to do better. We need to be better at calling each other in when these things are being said. We need to be better at quickly responding to students of color when they are able to give us ways to help them in their struggle. We need to be better at recognizing our internal biases that have been ingrained in us through systems of white supremacy, and we need to work on shutting them down.
Black students continued to show monumental resilience, despite these threats from outside our community, and the ignorance permeating on our campus. I can't imagine what it must have been like to have to finish finals while feeling so unsafe, or needing to organize while the campus culture insists that the most important thing to focus on that week was getting good grades. I won't ever understand what it is like to have your right to exist be threatened simply because you are fighting back against an institution that is not allowing you to thrive.
Despite these traumatic events taking place during our finals week, they were completely ignored by outside media in favor of another story. The mainstream media latched onto an issue that was being discussed between Asian students and the company that runs Oberlin's dining services. In a November article in the Oberlin Review, Clover Linh Tran described how Asian students had taken issue with ways that the dining halls had been preparing and serving traditional Asian dishes in ways that were culturally appropriative. Eager to find a way to further exploit the stereotype of a whiny, overprivileged Millennial lacking "perspective," publications such as the New York Times manipulated the content of this article and portrayed Oberlin students using this trope as a way to accumulate page views, shares, and likes.
The timing and content of this media attention not only delegitimized Asian students' activism, but also framed Black students' struggle in this patronizing light. By belittling this particular controversy, the media is intentionally disparaging student activism. In "An Open Letter from Asian Students on Cultural Preservation and Dissent at Oberlin College," a group of Asian students explained, "To selectively pay attention to students' relationships with food when there have been egregious threats made towards Black students is indicative of the fact that most [media outlets] do not care about Black lives or dismantling systems of oppression, but are more concerned with perpetuating and profiting from the rhetoric of 'rich, politically correct college students.'" Since students have historically been on the forefront of progressive change, holding student activists back is in the best interest of the systems of power they wish to upset. By silencing student activists of color, racist institutions are able to continue on as usual--for the time being.
This strategy is totally working; it's why I've been confronted by sneering middle-aged people who are eager to scoff at the "crazy rich kids" at my school who "can't handle bad sushi" at every holiday gathering I've attended. It's why I've been shut down in one way or another by every one of those people who I've interrupted, trying to tell them about the racist threats against my fellow students that happened just a couple of weeks ago. It's why students who have been resisting oppressive institutions at University of Missouri, Yale, Oberlin, and all over the country continually have to prove that they are worthy of being listened to with respect, and that their demands are essential for their survival.
Yes, I have learned a lot about social justice and the problems our world is facing from my classes. Yet it has become apparent that my primary form of education on the relationship between students and social justice will be through my observations of my brilliant fellow students taking a stand against institutions that seek to bind them, and the ways in which these institutions will fight with everything they've got to maintain their power. I have no doubt that it will not be for long.
This holiday season, it seems like there isn't a lot to be thankful for. While my life is great, the plethora of problems in society at large, from racism on college campuses, to natural disasters, to terrorism, make me feel almost guilty about my personal happiness.
However, one thing that I am truly grateful for is that I am receiving an education that is preparing me to combat societal problems like these. Oberlin is famous (or infamous...?) for its students' commitment to social justice, and I have certainly received a great education on social justice issues at Oberlin, both from my professors and from my peers.
Going abroad, I was a little worried that my classes wouldn't be "relevant" enough. While I love learning Chinese, I sometimes worry that if I don't play my cards right, the Chinese ability that I've worked so hard to gain won't be of any use to anyone but myself. Luckily, my classes have been very relevant to issues that I am passionate about, and have even given me interest in some new societal issues for me to be angry about.
Surprise! This is a classic "classes post" in disguise. Here's a list of my classes and a tangent/rant about how they're relevant to my interests in social change:
Here, the classes are divided into "语言课" (language classes) and "内容课" (content classes). This is my only "language class" (don't be deceived: all my classes are in Chinese. The other ones are classes in other subjects like anthropology or environmental studies, but still conducted in Chinese. It's just that this is the only one that's primary focus is on language acquisition), so I was caught off-guard by the content of some of our lessons. While some of our units are somewhat frivolous (food, 普洱茶 [a famous kind of tea], or the infamous unit about stereotypes of people in Kunming), others have taught me a lot about contemporary social issues in Kunming. One unit taught us about 师大附小 , the most prestigious elementary school in Kunming. I learned a lot about the Chinese education system--did you know that at this elementary school you need a 90% to pass? A 93% is a bad grade. I doubt that most students in the U.S. could handle this kind of environment. We spent a lot of time talking about the advantages and disadvantages to Chinese and American education systems, which I think is important. Education is the foundation of a society.
We also had a unit on Kunming's 流动人口 ("floating population" of migrant workers). I really did not know that this issue even existed before I came to China, but it is a pretty severe problem. Many workers move from rural areas to big cities (like Kunming) in order to work, but pretty much the only jobs they can get are picking trash off the ground or cleaning public restrooms. There's also a huge problem with AIDS among migrant workers. Also, because their household registration is in a rural area, their children often can't attend public schools (which are better than private schools in China) in Kunming, so they have to try to scrape together the money for their children to get a subpar education at a private school. We had the opportunity to volunteer at an after-school center for elementary school kids who were the children of migrant workers, and it was very fun, but also pretty sad. We found out that one girl that we had a lot of fun with often slept at the after-school center because she's afraid to go home.
We've also learned about a ton of other societal issues, including corrupt officials, NGOs, and the drug trade. This course has really made me realize that despite all the time I've spent studying Chinese, there is a ton that I don't know about Chinese society. I'm fairly certain my future career will have something to do with China, so it is important that I know about these kinds of issues so that I can help alleviate them.
中国的环境与发展 (China's Environment and Development)
This class is one of the reasons I came to Kunming. At Oberlin, as far as I know, there are no classes that count for both the East Asian Studies and Environmental Studies majors. Therefore, this class gave me an opportunity that I could never have at Oberlin: an opportunity to take a class that combines my interests from both of my majors.
I have to admit that before I came to China I didn't really know anything about most of China's environmental problems. If you live in the U.S., you know that the U.S. media really likes to push the whole "CHINA'S AIR POLLUTION IS SO BAD!!!!" point. This can be really frustrating because a) not all of China has air pollution problems--for example, the air quality in Kunming has been better than most U.S. cities for the entire time I've been here, and I have certainly not had any problems because of air pollution, despite having asthma, and b) there are so many other environmental problems in China (and the entire world, obviously) but we never hear about them! This course has taught me about a lot of environmental issues and solutions in China that I had never heard about. For example, one of our units focused on the Chinese plastic bag policy. In order to solve their plastic pollution problem (called 白色污染, or "white pollution" in Chinese), the Chinese government implemented a policy called 限塑令 (Xian Su Ling), which restricted which kinds of plastic bags could be sold, and put taxes on plastic bags in order to decrease the amount of them in the environment.
云南少数民族的人类研究 (Yunnan's Ethnic Minorities Anthropology Research) [I'm not really how to translate that, to be honest]
Before I studied abroad, I sort of knew that Chinese ethnic minorities (少数民族 shaoshuminzu) existed, but I didn't know anything about them beyond that, except that Yunnan apparently has a lot of them. I decided to take this class sort of a whim. I figured that I should learn about something that I didn't know anything about and couldn't really learn about anywhere else. (That, plus my dad has always told me that I should take an anthropology class in college. After taking this class, I think that was good advice. Thanks, Dad!).
The best part of this class was the class discussions that we had. This class only had two students, including myself, so both of us had a lot of opportunities to talk (meaning that we had many chances to practice Chinese). More importantly, the topics that we talked about were very interesting. We covered a wide variety of topics, from family structure across different ethnic groups to the development of ethnic tourism in Yunnan. These topics spawned many interesting conversations, especially because we often used a cross-cultural perspective to analyze topics.
For example, when we talked about how the Chinese government adds points to certain ethnicities' 高考 (gaokao--the Chinese college entrance exam), we compared and contrasted it with affirmative action programs in the United States. I found these conversations very interesting. I think it's important to learn about other cultures, because they change the way that people look at their own cultures, and this class really cemented that belief for me. This course not only taught me about a lot of social issues in China that I had never heard of before, but also changed the way that I look at the culture that I live in. I think that's a big part of studying abroad, and I also think that it's an important topic to think about for anyone who wants to get involved in social justice activism.
一对一课：当代中国人对素食的看法 (One-on-One Class: Contemporary Chinese Views of Vegetarianism)
As part of my program, we all had to take a one-on-one class, meaning that there was one student and one professor. This class could be on any topic, but we had to come up with the topic ourselves and prepare an ideal plan of study. Since pretty much every paper I wrote last year was somehow related to veganism/vegetarianism, I decided to take this opportunity to write yet another paper about the same topic. Since my professor was also interested in this topic, this definitely seemed like a good topic to choose.
One of the problems I have with learning about all of the things that are wrong with the world is that sometimes it can get kind of overwhelming. During my last semester at Oberlin, I watched a documentary about rape survivors, and then went back to my room and had to decide if I wanted to work on my essay about rainforest deforestation or victims of the atomic bomb. Instead of working on either, I sort of just sat on my bed and worried that even though I was learning about all of these problems, I, as one person, wouldn't be able to do enough to actually fix any of them.
One of my favorite things about veganism is that it is something that I as an individual do every day in order to try to make the world a better place. Most of the time, when I think about all of the problems in the world, I either feel that they are caused by systems that one person alone cannot change, or that I need to wait until a time in the future when I am in the right position to enact change and have the skills to do so. My veganism stands in contrast to that. I use it to prove to myself that everything counts, I can take action now, and I can make a difference.
Therefore, it was very interesting to learn about another culture's view on a topic that is important to me. For example, a lot of Chinese people that I talked to seemed to focus on the health benefits of vegetarianism, and almost none of them seemed concerned about animals at all. At the same time, though, while non-vegans in the U.S. seem to try to bring up the topic of veganism so they can argue with me about it even though they really have no interest in the topic and don't care to learn more, people in China seemed genuinely interested in why I chose not to eat meat, and how my dietary decisions impacted my life.
Therefore, writing my paper was an great experience. Also, this experience helped me gain a lot of useful research skills--I distributed research surveys, talked to Chinese strangers, and (sort of) used my (poor) statistics skills to conduct analysis. As someone who is interested in possibly pursuing an academic career in the future, I was happy to have this opportunity to get some research experience--plus, I felt really cool for being able to do all of this in a foreign language. I'm pretty proud that I can now say that I've written a 13-page paper in Chinese. This was even better because my topic involved topics I care about (and that are relevant in a justice context)--not just vegetarianism, but also China, feminism, and environmental protection.
Overall, my classes this past semester were amazing. I learned a lot of Chinese, but more than that, I learned a lot about the world. There are so many issues that I had never thought about before, despite the amount of time I have spent studying Chinese. I'm excited to learn more about them, and hopefully make a difference someday.
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