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Oberlin Unchained: On the recent incidents of hate speech on campus

February 15, 2013

Simbarashe Runyowa ’15

Not too long ago, I went to watch Quentin Tarantino's latest project Django Unchained. I was deeply curious about it because before the film even came out, Spike Lee had sharply criticized it for being deeply racist. His main criticism of Django was that the film all too liberally and uncritically deployed the "N" word (it is repeated over 100 times in the film), and that, for this reason, the film was an assault on the history of black people in America.

I went to watch Django to make my own judgments. As expected of any film by Tarantino, Django was replete with egregious violence. In one particularly gruesome scene, Leonardo DiCaprio's character sets dogs on a slave as punishment for having failed to secure a convincing victory in a Mandingo fight. [The slave is mauled to death.] In another scene, a plantation owner unleashes violent lashes onto a slave woman's back for the trivial crime of breaking a couple of eggs. The N word is littered throughout the film; both whites and blacks dispatch it, slaves and their owners alike utter it. Tarantino obviously felt that artistic license gave him the legitimacy to throw around a word that is so wholly repulsive. It got me to thinking - why was Spike Lee so enraged with Tarantino? Is it ever permissible for these and other disempowering words to be circulated in society? And why does this word continue to be hurtful?

This past week the answers to my questions were illuminated right here at Oberlin. Right now, we are, as a community, currently processing a series of incidents involving hate speech on this campus. The majority of the hate speech was racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic.

I encountered the hate speech firsthand. Last Saturday night, my friends and I were coming from Wilder Main, the theatre space in the student union, where we had just watched a production of Salome. We were headed to North campus, and so were compelled to pass through the science center to momentarily escape the biting cold. As we walked past, we noticed that several posters, mostly referring to Black History Month, had been defaced. No, not defaced, but desecrated. The word nigger was boldly emblazoned on about 5 posters in black ink. Nigger Nigger Nigger, the word would not stop swirling around in my head.

I was stunned and disappointed. Nigger. Seriously?

The N word hurts. And so does any other word that degrades, caricatures and maligns. Outside of the cinematic experiments of films like Django, this word has no place. It dehumanizes and disempowers. It strips people of their dignity. It is simply not acceptable.

How could someone write a word so terrible and disrespect a legacy so laden with pain in a manner so callous? My friends and I were at a loss. Do we take the posters down? Do we call safety and security? Do we protest? What do we do? We eventually decided to take photos of the incident so we could have some record of what had transpired. Little did we know that this was only the tip of the iceberg.

The Saturday night incident was followed up by a series of similar incidents across campus. A disturbing poster carrying identical slurs was left in the office of the Multicultural Resource Centre. A fake twitter account, depicting Marvin Krislov (the president of the college), began operating, sending out the most breathtakingly racist tweets.

The thing about the N word is that when it is thrust in your face, it takes on a whole new significance. Unlike in Tarantino's Django, the perpetrators of the word are not far removed fictional characters in a 2-hour-long movie, but real people in the community in which you live. You realize, someone out there sees no value in diversity, no value in you or your existence, no value in your right to be in a place like Oberlin. Someone out there, someone among us, thinks it's okay to call people niggers. In 2013, not in 1960s Montgomery Alabama or Mississippi, but right here in Oberlin, Ohio, the very place we like to think of as the citadel of progressiveness and liberalism in the whole United States.

That is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this whole experience, the insistent feeling of a having been the subject of a cruel betrayal. The fact that this is Oberlin, and we should know better. We should be the last place in the whole United States to be mired in such an embarrassing scandal. It is the sense of disappointment, of trickery, of a promise unfulfilled, which cuts deeper than the word itself. Oberlin was supposed to exemplify the post racial, post discriminatory society we hope to converge to. Instead, we are served with piercing words that are so unspeakably prejudiced.

I must admit that I am naïve. I believed so resolutely that something like this could not occur in a place like Oberlin. [Although this is not the first such incident, there have been many that have preceded it.] I have learned quickly that prejudice is penetrating and inescapable. That is simply a law of nature--somewhere, everywhere, there are those among us who remain ensnared in their own cages of parochial thinking. But I am disappointed that it happens in our Oberlin community, which expressly exists to undercut these acts of prejudice in the world. We are supposed to be the diamond in the rough, a beacon, an example, fearless and all that. I would be lying if I didn't say I am disappointed.

As much as these events have been truly depressing, I have been encouraged by the proactive response of the student body. They [we] have not stood idly by. Students have mobilized themselves to send a strong message to oppose the bigotry and negativity we have witnessed. This past week, a march was organized to show solidarity. Hundreds of students showed up with signs and placards, hollering and singing and letting their voices be heard. There was a sit-in in the science center. There was a community forum. We were proactive, not merely reactive. We were assertive; we did not allow ourselves to be victimized. All this has made me hopeful that the love that has emerged from our community will ultimately override the dark spots of negative energy that are given out by a few among us who are remain caged in backwardness.

The administration responded with an e-mail. I haven't heard from them since. It's not their fault and no one is to blame [besides the bigots themselves obviously], but some greater indication of pragmatic steps being formulated or taken to stop these kinds of actions happening again would be extremely appreciated. Flowery emails are nice, but if they are empty of substantive action they become meaningless. In my conversations with some of my peers, there were certainly feelings of exasperation with the administration. But fixating on this would be to miss the broader point, which is that WE the students have resolved to take ACTIONS that cement our commitment to Oberlin's values and ethos. It is WE who are affected and it is WE who have responded most forcefully and passionately. I salute my fellow Obies. They make me sanguine, and they restore my faith in the goodness of human beings. Even though these instances betray the fundamental beliefs that hold our community together, and even though the very foundations of our institutional legacy are under threat, I am optimistic that we as a community are committed to the transformation of society into the open, accepting, and tolerant place that we all hope to see.

We are Oberlin. Aluta Continua. (The struggle continues.)

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