An Open Letter to My Fellow Oberliners
March 4, 2013
Ida Hoequist ’14
Dear Oberlin peers,
Like many of you, I found out about the person walking around south campus last night wearing KKK robes when I woke up this morning and checked my email. Like many of you (I think), my immediate reaction was disgust and a good dose of anger. I come from the Deep South, and I am not surprised when I go home and see confederate flags flying, but I didn't expect to encounter anything that blatant in Oberlin. It was an ugly feeling. Almost as soon as I had felt that twinned disgust and anger, though, I started asking myself why I waited this long to get this mad - I know about the slurs that have popped up around campus in the past, for as long as I've been at Oberlin really, and those are just as fundamentally unacceptable. For that matter, I know that (higher) education in America is not structured in a way that validates the experiences and lives of POC, and that's a whole other level of unacceptable.
(Spoilers: I got to put off the disgust and anger until now because, like many of you, I have the privilege of being able to choose whether or not I want to struggle with racism at any given point in time. One of the perks of being white.)
Again like many of you, I went to the teach-in at the Afrikan Heritage House today. I stood in a packed room that was the overflow space for the overflow space, and I could see the mass of people sardine-ing away into the next room and outside, filling up the entire patio. I can't remember the last time I felt good while being surrounded by that many human bodies in close quarters, but "good" is an understatement in this case. It felt beautiful, in a remarkably solid way. We could only hear what was being broadcast via speakers to the first overflow room if we, collectively, held perfectly still - and during that hour, I could think of nothing more valuable that I could have been doing with my time than holding my breath in a roomful of likeminded people, giving the voices of POC the space, respect, and consideration they deserve.
I went to that teach-in because I wanted to listen; I came away from it wanting to make visible my support for places and times like that, where POC are lifted up, where those with white privilege recognize that this fight is also theirs because every fight for human rights belongs to every human, and, further, that our place as white people is, for once, not in the spotlight. This one is not about us.
But since I am privileged enough to have been afforded this space to make my voice heard, I will tell you this: I kept going to the events that were organized in response to what happened last night. I marched around Tappan (but really I danced, because that impromptu jazz marching band was mad good). I went to the convocation. I sat in the Finney balcony, clapping in time to the chants (WE ARE O-BER-LIN and TELL ME WHAT COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE/THIS IS WHAT COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE and WE ARE FUCKING ANGRY), wondering why the last time I saw Finney that packed was during my freshman orientation, wondering why we students didn't unite like this far more often. I felt togetherness. I felt that solidity again.
And then, after all the panelists at the convocation had said their piece, a friend of mine kicked off the Q&A section with, "What is solidarity? What does it mean to you?" and that has stuck with me. I think what I've been describing as a solid feeling is solidarity, but there's more to it - solidarity walks out of Finney when all the people do, and then what does it look like?
It seems to me that there are two sides of that coin: the solidarity that the targeted group of people needs to have to feel safe, respected, and welcome, and the solidarity that each individual ally is best suited to give. For example: there was a girl at the teach-in offering hugs to everyone. I can't do that, but I know that there were people who had yet to sleep or eat that day who probably needed a lot of hugs right then. Hugs are small band-aids on a big wound, of course, but my point is, we all must give the way that we can give best to help others carry on when they bear the burden of marginalization. That has to look different for each of us, but - and this is important - it must also have a common goal. That is why organizing and communicating is so key to these fights. If we all try to help the same way, it will be impossible and therefore ineffective, but if we all splinter off into our own little fights, that will be ineffective, too.
So I have this crazy hope for a world in which people who are currently oppressed will be able to feel safe no matter where they are or what they are saying. Who knows when that will happen, or exactly how. But I know where I stand: I stand with those who are incensed right now.
I am also incensed.
I stand with those who are scared.
I am also scared.
I am cisgender and white and pass for straight, but also I am a queer woman and that means I almost never feel both safe and accepted at the same time. I know that where there is oppression of any group, there can easily, easily be violence done to me as well. I know that where there is oppression of a group in my community, there is, in fact, violence done to the social fabric that I am embedded in. So, not least because I am tied to what has happened, I want to make my voice heard in solidarity with Oberlin's marginalized groups. And in order to not cheapen this gesture, I will heed what my peers have said today as best I can. I hear you, my peers who have waited too long for results they can point to and say "That is good work, that helped lift me up." I heard you at the convocation when you asked, "What is the administration doing, concretely? Not what have you done or would like to do, but what are you doing about this right now?" which is a question comes from a place of fear and pain and is another way of saying, "You have not done anything with strong enough effects that I have been able to notice it in my sphere of experience." I heard you ask questions that were really feelings, like "Where does it end?" (and saw administrators courageously try to address that feeling with a concise verbal answer, which is obviously a doomed undertaking). I heard your need for more than rhetoric.
I don't have much for you yet. I am a white girl who has been slow to turn her self-education into action. I prefer to engage with problems of sexual orientation and of womanhood, because those problems take less work for me to identify and seem more immediately relevant to my life. But I see you. I hear you. I want to see and hear you. What I can tell you that isn't just rhetoric is that I think I know where I can be a part of your fight: OSCA. I care deeply about what OSCA stands for and strives for, and I have been a part of many conversations about making OSCA not only accessible but welcoming to all. OSCA is a battle that I can choose, here, where I am, in this time. I can do my best to make you welcome in my co-ops - not the kind of 'best' where you barely pass a class and you're like, "Well I did my best and that's all that matters" but the kind of best where you sink your teeth into something and don't let go. Oberlin should be as much for you as it is for me; I will fight to make this part of Oberlin yours as much as it is mine.
This is where I am, in my privileged corner of the world. If I am not meeting you adequately where you are, you are welcome to call me out on it in the comments. I will gladly eat any of these words to be a better ally. You are warriors; I am humbled to attend this school with you.
In active solidarity,
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Responses to this Entry
Ida, thank you for writing this. You said a lot of things I have been thinking. I need to challenge myself to do more. Like you mentioned, I want to want to work to make groups I am a part of, including OSCA and the contra dance community, more accessible and welcoming. And I want to keep listening the experiences and needs of people who are being affected by what is happening on our campus in different and more direct ways that I am.
I admire and respect all my fellow Oberlin community members immensely, especially those working so hard to organize and resist. I hope all of us are finding ways to take care of ourselves and each other.
Posted by: Nora on March 5, 2013 10:09 AM
Good job Ida :)
Posted by: Anna '10 on March 5, 2013 4:48 PM
I think that this article says a lot that other people are feeling and support. I also think that there is a strong need for institutional/societal change, as privileged folks very easily can fall into a behavioral trap where they (perhaps unwillingly) follow a "script" of react to the negative discriminatory event, think/act about it, and then resume their normal routine. It is hard to place the onus solely on individual's willpower, and I'm not sure what will have the most persisting effect besides a complete norm change.
Regardless, while these events are salient I (and I am sure many others) will try to do more than just be a supportive force, but a pro-active force.
Ida - you are a wonderful human being!
Posted by: Aaron on March 6, 2013 2:24 PM
Proud to be an Obie because of people like you. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, there is evil in the world, and always will be. It hurts a lot more when it hits close to home, especially because Oberlin is supposed to be a safe space for a couple years (I'm glad I'm out of the bubble now, but for the 4 years I was there, it was special, and sometimes we need bubbles). No matter how bad it gets, though, if people like you use terrible things like this to make the world a better place, if our community is able to turn hatred into love, we will make the world a better place. The admissions motto when I applied was "think one person can make the world a better place? So do we." and that summed up my feelings about Oberlin perfectly, and you live up to that. You can't fix everything. You probably won't get rid of the scumbag(s) who are attacking the campus, but you're making the world a place by picking a fight you can win, by not backing down to those who want to hurt you or your classmates, and by being willing to improve yourself. If I've learned one thing in the real world, it's that you can't fix everything, but if you win the little battles you can, you end up achieving a ton, and making a bigger difference than you ever thought you could. It seems like you figured that out long before I did. Keep up the good work, and know there are plenty of people who you will never meet who support you in all that you're doing.
Danny Kane '07
Posted by: Danny '07 on March 6, 2013 9:16 PM
yes. this. thank you so much for this.
Posted by: Zo on March 8, 2013 11:10 AM
Thank you, friends, for the support - especially Danny; your thoughts are spot on, and I'm honored that you not only made it to my corner of the internet but then also took the time to contribute. Your comment carried me through the day.
I agree that Oberlin is a special place and can be a bit of a bubble from time to time, but I think it's far from an impermeable bubble, and I would actually love to see the bubble grow thicker - if by 'bubble' we mean something that will protect Oberliners from the hurt that we can't purge from the real world anytime soon, that is. I don't want us to be the kind of bubble that lets its denizens get to stick their (our) heads in the sand, but if our bubbleness serves to give us a brief respite from the evils Out There, why shouldn't we strive for that? Why shouldn't we be granted that respite, and why shouldn't we be able to use it to gear up so we can fight better when we do end up leaving the bubble? I do not at all think that creating a bubble is inherently undesirable, or makes our environment lesser or less real. (This isn't directly in response to your comment, Danny; the world 'bubble' has just been thrown around pejoratively a lot lately, and I want to make a distinction between helpful and crappy bubbles, because both are very possible and one seems terrifically desirable to me. But the good kind of bubble takes a massive amount of work to construct, of course, and we have by no means achieved it. Yet.)
I also agree with Aaron's comment that the 'scripted' thing is a serious danger (and is probably happening for a lot of people on this campus as I write this). I'm know that I'm having a hard time keeping my own momentum going and still staying on top of the end of this semester. But this is by no means something I'm done with! The MRC has continued to schedule allyship workshops for the rest of the term, bless them, and there are events within OSCA happening pretty much weekly, too, so the campus isn't done with this either. (Which is as it should be.) I don't know what to do besides relying on individual willpower, though. If you have suggestions, Aaron (or anyone, really), for structural changes that would help with this, I want to hear them. Because it's crucial that this is a work in continuous progress from now on. No one should be feeling any sort of closure here.
Posted by: Ida on April 4, 2013 6:18 PM
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