An Open Letter to My Fellow Oberliners
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,