It should not be our responsibility to teach our academic institutions how not to oppress us by recognizing their own privilege.
We, a coalition of Oberlin College students dedicated to fighting for institutional transformation on this campus, stand in solidarity with the students at Dartmouth College who occupied President Phil Hanlon’s office this past week. Here at Oberlin, students who are of color, low-income, queer, trans*, and/or differently-abled are viewed and treated by the college (as well as a disturbingly sizeable portion of the student body) as expendable to the institution. People are repeatedly disrespected, pushed out of spaces, and reminded that these establishments are not created for them to succeed. We recognize the actions of our fellow students at Dartmouth as courageous, necessary steps that must be taken if institutions such as ours—ones that advertise themselves on falsified notions of diversity, inclusivity, and dignity—continue to treat “dialogue” as a synonym for structural violence. Whenever we have tried to apply what we have learned in the classroom to our daily lives at Oberlin we have been met with indignation from the administration and Board of Trustees. This includes our efforts to demand greater transparency from the Board, institutional support for Asian American Studies (a struggle that has been ongoing for the past 40 years), divestment from six corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation, and the creation of a scholarship fund for undocumented students. We are writing this open letter in recognition that our struggle is shared with the students at Dartmouth. Let the actions of these Dartmouth students be an inspiration to those of us who wish to put into practice the theory we have been privileged to have access to.
Right now we are experiencing a nationwide surge of consciousness in higher educational institutions around the oppressive nature of the systems we live in. We as students understand that our freedom and our future is tied to the liberation of all peoples in and outside of higher education. We strive to make our educational pursuits catalysts for changing the system we have inherited. We acknowledge that both the Dartmouth coalition’s, as well as our own list of student demands, mark only the beginning of a series of indispensable actions that must be taken in order to confront needed changes in admission policies, workers’ rights issues and the vastly unequal distribution of wealth between our institutions and the greater communities they occupy, among myriad other issues, in order to reveal and change the true nature of the United States higher education industrial complex. It is an apparatus that by nature operates to control—not transform—society, and we will no longer be silent and unquestioning. We wholeheartedly support all that confronts, and disrupts, the system.
From Tuesday, April 1st through Thursday, April 3rd, a group of thirty students occupied the Dartmouth president’s office in response to continued institutional neglect and violence towards the school’s historically marginalized communities. On February 24th, students submitted a document called the Freedom Budget to President Hanlon, consisting of demands pertaining to undergraduate admissions, curriculum, faculty diversity, financial aid, and much more. The demands our coalition delivered to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees on October 10, 2013 are reflected almost word for word in the demands outlined by the Freedom Budget. In turn, the president offered an anodyne response the day before finals, which made it impossible for the student body to respond. Students at Dartmouth, CUNY, Mills, Harvard, NYU, UCLA, Earlham College, University of Michigan, Mount Holyoke College, and Oberlin, as well as students at many other colleges and universities, have resisted and organized in the face of institutional racism and microaggressions over the past year. These conditions are not unique to our campuses and are a reflection of the structural inequalities that exist in the U.S. education system and nation as a whole.
Last month, fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama won the institutional right to reject applicants based on their race. It comes as no surprise that this policy arose after a sorority turned away two Black women. These policies harken back to the backwardness of American society in the 1960s, as if Dr. King and all of his brothers and sisters in the movement had never existed. We are in solidarity with the People of Color at the University of Alabama—indeed, with all underrepresented students defying the university’s bland and homogenous demographic—and encourage them to take action to disempower these oppressive and embarrassing facets of their community.
Political statements and social movements have transformed the fabric of American institutions, shaping a culture and creating policies that truly reflect the desperate need for those in power to address the myriad injustices within our society. This past Friday (April 4th) marked our 46th year without Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., someone who we have come to regard as a pioneer, a martyr, a visionary and even as a hero; five years prior to his assassination, he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, after having been arrested for civil disobedience during his campaign to end segregation. We cannot deny our history of labeling those brave enough to combat oppression as terrorists only to later refer to them as revolutionaries.
At Oberlin, generations of frustrated, ignored, and underrepresented students have fought for the liberties we are accustomed to today. It is our responsibility to ourselves, to our peers, and to our fellow students at colleges around the country to take direct action to address the needs of the students of Oberlin College. We stand, sit, stomp and shout in solidarity with our peers at Dartmouth whose voices continue to be drowned out by a cacophony of superficial replies created by the administration in response to the Freedom Budget. As Dr. King wrote from his jail cell: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is crucial that we continue to demand attention and solutions to the violences that are ignored and invisibilized by administration, staff, and our peers on a daily basis. We will not tolerate accusations of (in)civil discourse as presented by an administration that characterizes students as inarticulate due to passion, and lacking in their ability to listen, engage in productive dialogue, or exercise mutual respect. This tactic obscures the series of events and injustices that have triggered us to respond with legitimate urgency. It also affirms students who are vehemently opposed to such expression and puts us in danger by fueling hostility towards people who challenge the status quo. Why is it that when students of color speak with conviction about issues that affect them, they are continually portrayed as irrational and overly emotional, as if emotion and logic do not work in unison? We have spoken with patience for far too long without any significant results. How can we enter into a productive negotiation when we are framed as a threat, and our ideas are watered down from the beginning? If we accept these grounds for negotiation then we are forfeiting before it even begins.
We are disgusted, but unsurprised, by the reaction of President Hanlon. As someone who has unapologetically admitted to a group of students that he is unable to define white supremacy, such vapidity should be predictable. However, even at Oberlin, whose motto asks us to consider what structural transformation looks like, the relationship between these Dartmouth students and the school’s president emulates our own relationship to the Oberlin administration. Evidently creating the change we want to see in the world involves engaging in liberal sloganeering, not radical praxis.
Both of these administrations’ efforts to maintain a progressive image prove that they do not truly understand us and the places we come from. Nor do they care for our survival, much less our flourishment. President Hanlon’s inability to define “white supremacy,” as a white male who has positioned himself as a leader of the higher education industrial complex, is prime evidence of this. It should not be our responsibility to teach our academic institutions (that we are entering to learn from and making ourselves financially indebted to) how not to oppress us by recognizing their own privilege. We demand that the members of our campus communities who come from privileged, dominant backgrounds, especially students a nd administrators in leadership positions, educate themselves before claiming to be in solidarity with us. If we are to truly support marginalized groups, the institution’s response tactics cannot fit within the capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist framework that both President Hanlon and President Krislov have directed students to utilize. In fact, both our coalition and the Dartmouth students who occupied President Hanlon’s office have attempted to work through institutional channels for change (by sitting on committees, working with organizations, etc.); yet we have found that these channels are both ineffective and ultimately detrimental to our personal well being. Our demands and tactics are the result of many years of institutional silencing.
The students’ brave actions at Dartmouth remind us that movements are kinetic; we cannot afford to remain stagnant. We believe in and support the rights of students to demand change from within their institutions that have long failed to serve them. We believe that education has multiple capacities—we as students must decide whether we will allow our education to serve as a vector for continued oppression and marginalization or as a liberational tool. We believe colleges and universities should create spaces for the exchange of knowledge—a knowledge that supports and furthers the political, intellectual, and emotional empowerment of all students. We believe that administrators have a responsibility to actually act in support of students when making claims of inclusivity and diversity. Although the corporate media and the people it represents often avert their eyes from situations like these and the lived experiences of students all over the nation, we know what we have lived. This is not the first time that students have stood up to systems of exclusion and it will not be the last. We remain in firm support of the students of Dartmouth in their occupation of President Hanlon’s office.
Someday soon, the day will come when the collective outcry generated by students who have reached their boiling points will be so loud that it can no longer be ignored, casually skirted over, or decried. Our schools and administrations will have to give our student bodies—the bodies that are scarred, harassed, ostracized and abused—the responses we have requested, the responses we deserve. Those in power at our institutions cannot afford to vilify students any longer; if our situations worsen or do not improve, and if our needs are not being met, then the movement will continue to gain momentum and push back.
The Oberlin Coalition