October 22, 2014

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Oberlin College students come together to protest bigotry on campus

OBERLIN — The students at Oberlin College chanted “This is what community looks like” as they protested bigotry on the campus Monday.

The students’ sometimes expletive-laced chants rang out through a packed Finney Chapel on Monday afternoon and emotions ran high as at least 1,000 students rallied for the institution to stand up against a recent round of hate-filled fliers and graffiti on campus.

The “Day of Solidarity” came after a student reported seeing a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood near the college’s Afrikan Heritage House early Monday. Campus security was unable to locate that person.

Students in costume marched to the beat of a percussion group. Others held signs reading, “Act in solidarity” and “One day is not enough.”

“It was escalating. This was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said second-year student Ruby Dienstag.

The college, which was one of the first in the nation to integrate black and white students, canceled its classes for the day. An email to all students was sent out Monday asking them to participate in events designed to address the issues at the college.

Students filled the Afrikan Heritage House to capacity during the day’s first event, with many standing outside for a teach-in session designed to address the derogatory statements. Afterward, students marched to Wilder Bowl, carrying signs.

Student Eliza Diop urged fellow students to reach out to one another. Diop, who is black, said the racial slurs affected her specifically because of her family’s history.

“All day, I feel like I’ve been standing on top of my tears, and that’s what keeps me going,” she said to the crowd. “The tears of my parents, the tears of my grandparents — that’s what keeps me going.”

Rabbi Shimon Brand also addressed the crowd, noting that there also were attacks on the Jewish faith. A number of swastikas were drawn on posters throughout campus, police reported.

“We are little people on the shoulders of justice,” he said. “… You have a chance not to be the victim or the victimizer, but you have the opportunity to be a healer.”

Some students took an accusatory tone to the administration during the convocation at Finney Chapel, asking what they would do to prevent hate crimes on campus, and some alleged that the administration has been too lax in the past.

“Will this have to escalate further? Will they have to be carrying a flaming cross for us to have this meeting?” one student asked during a question-and-answer session.

Although college officials declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, which they said is under way, they denied that the incident hasn’t been taken seriously.

“Whatever the motivation of the perpetrators, such acts are not acceptable and will not be tolerated,” said Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. “Please know, students, that our faculty and staff and board are fully engaged and committed. We stand to work together.”

Krislov, who once prosecuted white supremacists while working for the U.S. Department of Justice, said although he is no stranger to such racially motivated crimes, he never expected to find racism and prejudice at Oberlin College. He asked students to “stay strong” and stand together.

“It’s not acceptable for it to have gotten to this point … I can tell you that it is not something we have been taking lightly,” he said.

Some of the students attending Monday’s events had been awake since 2 a.m., when student leaders were notified that a person seen in a KKK outfit was reported on campus. The students spent the early morning hours thinking of ways to address hate and racism at the Afrikan Heritage House on campus.

Students proposed mandatory staff training in cultural diversity and creating classroom requirements to address diversity. Students also suggested documenting Oberlin College’s history.

Oberlin College alumni from across the nation weighed in on the day’s events online.

“Hey Obies, remember the beautiful, inclusive and downright revolutionary history of the place you call home. Protect each other,” Lena Dunham, the Oberlin grad behind the HBO show “Girls,” tweeted.

Although the event brought students together, it also addressed some issues in the classroom environment.

Harlee Ludwig and Emma Charno spoke about their membership in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association.

The group, which provides at-cost housing and dining to hundreds of students, is required to attend training through the Committee on Privilege and Oppression, but according to Ludwig and Charno, those rules haven’t been enforced.

Miguel Amaguana, voice and Latin American Studies major, said he feels discriminated against at Oberlin College, especially in its Conservatory of Music, where he said the majority of students and teachers are white, and the syllabus caters to Caucasian students.

Amaguana, a Latino whose parents have roots in Honduras and Ecuador, told a crowd of students who cheered him on that the Conservatory is “steeped in white supremacy.”

“Why am I learning music by a white man? Why am I learning to sing like a white man?” he asked. “… The jazz department needs to be a little more supportive of their students of color.”

Amaguana and Michelle Ellison, chair of the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild, asked faculty to consider teaching music other than the traditional “westernized classical music.” They asked that the college employ a diverse faculty and expand an African-American music session that has traditionally been studied once every two years.

David Stull, dean of the Conservatory of Music, told students he was unaware that students felt the program was discriminatory, and he vowed to change it.

“We have not gone as far as we could go. … It breaks my heart to hear that a student feels like that today,” he said. “I’m sad that something like this had to happen for me to hear about it.”

Amaguana said he appreciated Stull’s vow to take steps to provide a more culturally diverse program but wasn’t fully convinced.

“I remain skeptical,” he said. “This hasn’t been addressed, and this has been going on for years and years.”

Alison Williams, director of the Multicultural Resource Center and associate dean of academic diversity, said the involvement of so many students Monday was a good sign.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” she said. “I think it speaks to the city of Oberlin.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.