Trouble Afoot

I will take a moment to weigh in here about the hot topic among African American students and alumni.  I don’t yet feel that I have enough info to sign the letter the alums have drafted, and I don’t want to do anything in haste — as I have been wont to do all my life.

Let me say this: as someone who lives in Oberlin as a “townie” and no longer as a student, I see things I was blind to when I was locked in my own world in the Oberlin Ivory Tower (my words, no one else’s).  Yes, there is racism here.  I say that from my personal experience and not just as something I have witnessed.  No one I know of has called me a nigger, either out loud or on the web, but there are assumptions that are made, comments that come up, and a whole host of little things that white people just never have to deal with.  I had a woman ask me, out of the blue, if I was Puerto Rican.  I understand why.  Because of my racially diverse and rich background, I don’t look like someone white folks think of as “black” — I don’t fit their image or stereotype of “blackness”.  Still, though I hope I handled the answer to the question with grace, I was pissed!  What white person do I know that has to endure a question like that?  Why are blacks constantly asked to explain themselves in ways that whites don’t even know are offensive?  Do I assume that all the white folks I know grew up in rich suburbs?  No.  Then why do they assume that I didn’t grow up in the ghetto (which I did, by the way) because I don’t look, act, speak, or otherwise carry myself like someone who came from the ghetto?

I am a black woman.  Both of my parents are black, though one of them had a white father.  I know who I am and where I came from.  I am not decended from kings and royalty in this country or in Europe, but I am not ashamed of anything in my heritage.  My hair, my facial features, my body, and my mind are shaped and formed by genetics — my character is shaped by the dents and scars that life has left on me.  I stand as one with my sisters and brothers of all colors who want to be heard for what they have to say, and not have their words invalidated, twisted, filtered, or dismissed.  My experience is the black experience, just as the experience of my brothers and sisters is the black experience.  We have a voice and it must be heard equal to all others.  We fight until it is.

Then, there are those who will say, “Aren’t you married to a white guy?”

Yes, I married a white man.  We have two children.  Our daughter is easily mistaken for a white girl — until she turns around and you see her very obviously African posterior.  Our son is my olive complexion and looks exactly like me.  I fell in love with a man, not a skin color.  Yes, there are things I have had to explain to him, just as there have been things he had to explain to me.  This tall, handsome white man is my lover, my friend, my rock, and my support.  He is my life partner and we have weathered many storms together.  The house and family we’ve built are strong because they’ve been tested and tried.  There is racism and bigotry in both our families (and we’ve experienced it within the last year — we’ve been married for 20 next month), and it could easily have driven a wedge between us.  Members of our families have tried to use our children to divide us, but we will not be divided.  My husband is not black, but he has never tried to make me “white”.  He has had to separate himself from members of his family who refused to accept me or our kids, and he has done so without hesitation.  He knew what he was choosing when he chose me, and he continues to make that choice happily.  He is not black, but I have never known a white person who loved and understood black people like my husband.  My husband is often more comfortable around my family than I am, and he has been accepted by the vast majority of them with open arms and without condition.  Our difference in skin color is not irrelevant, but is not the focus of everything we are and do.

So, how do I feel about the goings on here on the campus I love so much?  I’m not shocked, but I am sorely saddened.  The sign from Afrikan Heritage House that was defaced was one representing the 7th principle of Kwanzaa, Imani.  Imani means “faith” in Swahili, which is still spoken as a trade language in parts of east Africa.  Imani is also the name my husband and I gave to our first born, our beautiful daughter.  When I heard that that particular sign had been defaced, my heart was broken.  My faith in God was so strong, and my love for my African heritage was so strong, that I gave that name to my daughter — I felt as though her name had literally been dragged through the mud.  Defacing that sign was a cowardly act by someone who either understands what “Imani” means and doesn’t care, or by someone who is truly ignorant and just wants to lash out at what he/she is too small minded to understand.  To me, that and the phallic grafitti on the House’s artwork are the acts of a mind full of hate, prone to being influenced by stereotypes, and of someone who does not deserve a place on Oberlin’s campus.   If these are acts perpetrated by a student, that student needs to leave this campus and never be allowed back.  Obviously this person does not subscribe to the Oberlin ideals of tolerance and understanding, so why should Oberlin waste time trying to educate someone who doesn’t want its ideals and philosophies as their own?

As for the Oberlin mythology — yeah, I said it! — the African American alumni of Oberlin know that there has always been a discrepency between the public Oberlin legacy and the private Oberlin’s struggles with race.  I myself saw a tremendous example of racism on this campus while I was a student, though it was, admittedly, an attack by citizens of a neighboring town (so we were told).  I was likely one of the first people to see the banner, words painted crudely on a white sheet, that said, simply, “Niggers Go Home!”  It hung like a plague over the front porch of Wilder early in the morning the week before fall break in 1987.  I was tired from studying and lack of sleep, but I know I saw it and I still shudder to think of it.  Now, 25 years later, it is appalling to me that students on this campus actually feel comfortable using the word nigger to describe their classmates, their professors, and even the President of our country.  That these are college students anywhere makes it appalling.  That they are Oberlin students makes it a tragedy.

What good is our legacy in educating black students if we cannot protect them, if we cannot keep them safe on a campus that is their home too?  I don’t give a damn if every single black kid on this campus pays a full ride or has it paid for them by someone else, this campus is everyone’s — black, white, and every other color of the damn rainbow!  Every student on this campus has a right to feel safe here and to feel that they are judged only by their grades and conduct.  There should be no divide on a campus this small, yet I know that there has always been something dividing us (I’m especially thinking of how I was shunned because I was a Con student living with College students who thought I didn’t belong).

President Krislov is a remarkable person and I respect him a great deal.  I hope that he makes every effort to tackle this problem and to, perhaps, be the president of Oberlin who finally can bring all facets of this campus together.  I know that the president during my time here was not the man for that job (no names…), but I believe that Marvin could be.  That is not in any way a challenge, but rather my opinion only.

To my alumni brothers and sisters, I understand the impulse to shut your purses and not give money to Oberlin until there is a “resolution” to this problem.  As long as there is racism in our world, there will never be a complete resolution to this problem on campus — at least not one that will fully satisfy any of us.  I think we should work toward progress, rather than resolution.  I would encourage us all to look at the problem this way: we as a group need to put our money where our concerns are and give to the areas of the College that are ready and able to address the problem.  We should unite and give as one to a specific cause.  We could earmark the money for the Multicultural Resource Center, for the benefit of the African American Studies program, or to the 1835 Fund.  Right now, the College does not necessarily see us as a united constituency of alumni givers.  What an impact we could make if they did!  Pointing a single finger will do nothing, but putting together all those fingers into a fist can strike a mighty blow.  We must take a step back and organize ourselves so that we can have the maximum impact on this problem.  The letter is a good first step, but I believe we need to know more of the whole picture before we react out of our emotion.  I’m enraged at what’s going on, but I want to channel that rage into a wave of truth and justice that cannot be denied or ignored.  I believe we can do that long term and effect real change here at Oberlin.

I know several of the black students on this campus.  Some have been to my home just to unwind and eat real food, and also to hear my stories of life here 20-odd years ago.  In telling my story to them, I realize that much has changed and that much has not.  I want to be an instrument of positive change for the alma mater I love and have supported as an alumna for 22 years.  I want young black girls from Harlem, Bed Stuy, Detroit, DC, Baltimore, the Bronx, Atlanta, my native North Philly, and anywhere else to come here if they want and can — and have peace in knowing that I have helped smooth a way for them to have better than I had when I was here.  We may not all have the same cards, but we should all be playing with the same number of cards…

I don’t know what my next step will be, but I know there will be one.  There has to be.  I’m an Obie — and I can’t just sit here and watch this go on.  None of us should.


Author: violamom2

I'm a musician, wife, mom of two amazing kids, teacher, writer, knitter, diversity advocate, and budding entrepreneur. Not bad for 52, huh?

6 thoughts on “Trouble Afoot”

  1. Hi Lisa, I’m an Obie alum who liked your blog also. I agree with Daria about white folks getting asked “what they are”. I get asked it often (most often whether I am Italian or Jewish in that order.) I have also asked others who are white what their ethnicity is because I’m curious. My daughters are also white skinned and are asked if they are hispanic, Indian, Italian, and yes, Puerto Rican. (Their father is Moroccan.) Just thought I’d throw that out there! Thanks.


  2. Lisa, I’m so sorry that your beloved campus was marred by hatred. I read your posts today, in order, and this one made me remember how much and why I love you, your wonderful spouse & your family.
    Now on a lighter note– about knowing (of) no white woman ever asked about her race, allow me to gently correct your assumption. I must confess that with my curly hair and sallow tones, I have been asked that very question (“so are you Puerto Rican, or Cuban?”)– or even more irritating (to me), I just get “Spanished” — my term for what happens when someone assumes I’m Hispanic & talks away at me in a language I don’t understand. My response to that is PURE nasty-assed Russian — I jabber back in Russian! It may not always put the assumer in his or her place, but it makes me feel better at the moment….
    And it’s about the context. Truth to be told, Lisa, I first met you in an Orthodox Church. Your beautiful smile and knowledge of the service & music made me think you were Coptic or maybe Arabic….which I hope does not insult you. You are you and you are beautiful.
    That’s what I took from the politics of the 70’s….unfortunately, the rest of the world’s still hung up on labels….labels about skin color, sex, sexual preference, learning-challenged vs.neuro-typical, everything to separate humanity instead of all of us loving one-another….
    Your post today is another brick in building unity. It’s wonderful. Keep writing!


  3. Lisa — Thanks so much for sharing you thoughts! A wonderful breath of fresh air to read read your thought process. Keep up the blogging 🙂


  4. Inspired writing. Just another reason why I miss you guys. There’s a feeling of peace and decency in my life that dissipates when people like you and John and your children leave my life and people unlike you come along and fill the empty spaces. They may not get as close, but they fill the spaces just the same. That dissipation may not be noticable often as life diverts my attention from it more often than not, but when it is noticed… whoa, boy!


  5. Lisa,
    Having difficulty deciding if I want to comment ‘objectively’ as one more person following your blog to what is (at the very least) an insightful, eloquent and thoughtful essay, or respond as your classmate who also has his unique perspective on the ‘Oberlin mythology’, as one of the few people (I think) who has the privilege of being able to call you ‘my sister’, the privilege of knowing a great deal of your personal story you now generously and powerfully share.

    (Okay, I’m not going to recreate the equivalent of the ‘2 hr plus’ dialogues you know we can get into when it comes to our Alma mater!) But I do want to say that, as one of the alums taking a leadership role in getting as many signatures ( including mine) onto the aforementioned letter,I completely understand your impulse to hold on/ hold back till you have more information. In fact there are quite a few other obies who feel the same way, and took the same stance. We all should respond from our impulses, mine was to go in the other direction.

    I just thought that, whatever dialogue, actions, and resolutions are to be shaped by the multiple elements of the Oberlin community that will step forward to address this pervasive and distasteful problem, it was imperative that the Oberlin Alumni element step forward and declare as quickly as possible “we support you,we are part of the community, we will partake in this dialogue, we won’t waver or hesitate on this.” I felt I had enough information to take that stance, which might come across as ‘idealistic’, except I’m one of those extremely active and involved alumni who puts a lot more emphasis on ‘action’ than rhetoric – but then again, so are you.

    I love everything you wrote – have the same belief in Marvin Krislov as you do. I’d strongly suggest you bring your opinions to the OA4 table. Think it would be fantastic if you could share this on the OA4 email list serve, it certainly needs the impact of your observations and opinions as we all try to get real honest, open dialogue that leads to (finally?) real change.


  6. Lisa, I am so saddened to read this about Oberlin. Oberlin has always loomed large in my mind as a place of great decency. As a Northwestern alum, I was always envious of that. Although this is not my town or my school, I am glad you’ve weighed in with such a thoughtful and well-written post.


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