After a series of increasingly dramatic racial occurrences, someone in klu klux klan regalia was seen outside of a predominately racial minority area in Oberlin College.
That is what I got two phone calls about in the dead of last night. That was why Oberlin College had no classes today. That was news today. Because, somehow, that costume was prevalent enough for the New York Times.
First came fear, which is natural, and I called and texted who I could in the moment to make sure they were safe. Then came anger, and I spent half the night looking at my ceiling and remembering all the pained nothingness there is one can to in the face of certain situations. And then everything just left. I woke up the next morning and nothing had changed. A racist thing had happened, and I still had a shower to take and a breakfast to eat and a job interview to get to. A racist thing had happened, and, in all honesty, for all the coverage it has received internationally, in a world where a woman is sexually assaulted ever 45 seconds, someone in a costume was probably among the most mild occurrences of last night.
My grandmother came out of the Jim Crow South. My father, at age six, watched his neighbors get shot in the head during the race riots of New Jersey. I couldn’t play outside for a while because the klan was recruiting in my neighborhood. I had to watch men spit at my White mother’s feet as she clutched me while walking through a county fair. I had to see my sister cry walking up the driveway from school because someone asked her if the “White” part of her was hidden under her clothes. And each of those was an improvement to what every generation that came before me had to go through. And you are scared of a fucking costume? You called a 4am emergency meeting and cancelled classes because of a fucking costume because you feel entitled to safety in a world where you are already safer than anyone has been and most people will ever get to be.
What the fuck is wrong with you, you spoiled fucking idealists?
I am not saying that there are not varied racial and racist experiences. I’m not saying that everyone need be so weary of the basis human shit that occurs as often as anything else. The college should have canceled class, because if only one student is scared for their life, then that is enough. And the college had to cancel class, if for nothing else than to save face among the slew of accusations it faces from the minority community that is never satisfied, and has made the presence of hatred into the responsibility of a faculty. As if a faculty has any means by which to end hatred. As if you’ve set realistic goals for educators by even remotely requesting that of them. As if you are entitled to a racist-free couple of blocks because you pay an annual tuition. Because apparently the world stops for your community. You’re special. After all, you read all those books that one time.
I get it. Racism is a sad, bad, bully of a thing. But it’s also never going away. I fully believe it will never go away. And you can fight for it. You should fight for it. But the fight should be, “How do we work to facilitate change,” not, “IF WE YELL AT IT LOUD ENOUGH MAYBE IT WILL GO AWAY.” You pick your battles, and a kid in a robe is not a battle. The generalized presence of racism and hate is not a battle. You graduating college and bettering the world is a battle. So maybe just grow up, because Oberlin, as a community, has handled this situation with less understanding than a child.
I had the opportunity to teach a class of children ranging from the 4th to 5th grade level this summer. The children in program were Black, and they lived in a Black neighborhood known for its poverty; and while not everyone in the course faced the burden of poverty, it was a prevalent issue for many of the students. It was a difficult experience, because children who need help finding lunch are less inclined to be interested in a math equation than a child who knows when each meal is coming. One Monday, a group of students approached several of the tutors, myself included, about a racial issue that had happened the Sunday before. A car pulled in and called children, my children, “niggers” and “coons” and chased them around the park while throwing trash and pamphlets for the klu klux klan at them. They ran home. In there own community, a place they were already arguably banished in a racist town simply for being poor and Black beyond their control, they were forced to run home. And the next morning, I had to look at a scared, nine-year-old boy who couldn’t figure out what had happened.
The Black tutors were called on to talk to the children. Not just those who had experienced it, but everyone in the program. They were called into the gym, and they sat there, and they waited for what we had to say. And the five of us there, including grown men well into their thirties, each took turns shrugging and saying, “Get used to it. At least you’re still alive.”
I hate that we live in a world where that is a valid statement. I would have loved to look at those kids and tell them that it gets better. But it doesn’t. At best, it evolves into a situation where you don’t have to run anymore. But it’s nothing that ever gets resolved.
We did what we could. The kids had memorized the make and model of the car, and we kept a look out for it for the rest of the summer. Beyond that, what was there to do? Call the cops and say, “Hey, some non-descript White people in this mostly White county just threatened some kids?” Stop class and say, “Hey, instead of teaching you the essential knowledge of the American school system, we’re going to make flyers and march around all day. Because nothing scares racists like flyers and marching?”
No. We said what was true, and we taught those kids how to use a comma. Because they didn’t know how to use a comma yet, but I have no doubt they could make-believe the world into a better place just as well as any Liberal Arts Student; and helping those who would otherwise go untaught does more for the Black community than telling a group of children that, if they believe hard enough, the world will join hands and sing “It’s A Small World” in unison one day.
I’m not saying that racism is okay. I’m not saying that it is something to be understood or condoned or appreciated. But I am saying that it’s a damn shame a group of ten-year-olds handled a worse situation with the same tact a group of twenty-somethings handled a costume. I’m saying it’s a damn shame that seeing some kid in an outfit put fear in the eyes of legal adults the same way being chased around and called a “nigger” by strangers did to a nine-year-old boy.
The call for togetherness was fine. The initial fear was fine. We live in a world where the news reports the racial murder of a teenager and there is no arrest for days to follow. Fear makes sense to me in the moment. An emergency meeting makes sense to me in the moment. He could have had a gun (though, costume or not, anyone on the street could have a gun, so that argument is more paranoid than valid). That is not a safe situation, and it is something that requires immediate attention by anyone with any power to do anything about it. But what the fuck is wrong with you? No, you shouldn’t have to deal with danger. You shouldn’t have to be afraid or insulted or belittled. But you will be. You will be, and this was mild compared to what most people have already seen and what you yourselves will experience in the future. And that is not right, and that is not fair, and I hope by some unforeseeable miracle you fix it. But you don’t stop it by being afraid and holding a poster.
And the problem does not stop at the racial matter. Today there was a call for response. There was a call for programming and faculty change and safety measures and widely scoped, generalized ideas of nice things it would be pleasant to have in a world where equality is more than just a pretty word. And it’s fine that a bunch of school boys and school girls and school non-gender-conforming people want to protect the bubble they have yet to give thanks for so much as having, but money does not grow on trees. There is not a mystical lever you can pull somewhere in the Dean’s office that opens up a hidden temple full of understanding and untapped funds for brand-new programs. Your speeches today were lovely, Oberlin Students. They mimicked the greats in all the way I’m sure you were giddy and hopeful they would. But they did not come with a plan. They came with a vague demand that a handful of people end racism on a campus in a town in a state in a world where people have better things to do than to work towards providing you with the impossible.
Until we live in that magical, fairy-tale world you can only get a glimpse of through pipe-dreams, then you are your responsibility. I am sorry that racist things happen. I am sorry that racism has soaked itself so deeply into the root of our culture that most people can’t even see that it’s there. I hate that a friend called me with his voice shaking in fear and that I felt the need to text as many people as I could to make sure they were alright. But, having said that, welcome to the world. Know it’s not your fault. Know it’s not anything you did wrong. But know that it’s your problem, and it’s never going away. Because greater men than a handful of college teens with smarmy, hand-drawn posters have fought and died just to bring you into a world where a klan costume is the most you have to worry about; and for you to have the audacity to think that a lecture and a self-righteous Q&A session work to assemble so much as a semblance of change is disgusting. For you to think that raising awareness in a town that already spends most of its time agreeing with itself and claps together with the harmonious chimes of “But I came to this special event, so I’m not a racist” is self-righteous bullshit. Because if that made a difference, if you made a difference, then you wouldn’t have had to stage a walk or a vigil or a referendum or a meeting every year for the last three years.
Some things you don’t solve. Not because you don’t want to or haven’t tried, but because you can’t. Because if they were solvable, they’d be gone by now. I am not saying you should buckle down and deal with it, and I am in no way saying that things are fine as they are. Things are not fine. Things are oppressive and disheartening. Things are dangerous. But those things of danger do not include a prankster with a bad joke and white robe. It is not something you validate by having an article written about. If your piece of mind has been taken from you, then take it back. But in the face of all that is wrong with the world, this should not be what steals your piece of mind.
You have the privilege of being scared at the sight of a costume. So count your blessings, and thank your lucky stars. And then go back to class and get your degree. Because yeah, your college needs to keep you safe. That is part of why you pay them. But it’s also supposed to prepare you for the real world. And the real world could give a fuck how scared a costume makes you. The real world could give a fuck that a son got shot in the street for wearing a hoodie. The world could give a fuck that you can’t legally marry. The world has spoken on the matter. And times are slowly changing, but even in these changing times, a costume is a non-issue. The next time you are so bold as to make a demand from the president of a historic institution, remember how much he has provided to you and how little you have done save for try and prove something to yourself in front of your little friends.
You are not making a difference. You are not raising awareness. You are not enacting change or helping. You are being there for each other, and that’s fair. That’s great. I sincerely wish the best for you. Oberlin is a place I love full of people I care about. Be there for each other in this troublesome time of need. Be loving and kind and helpful. Pull your fellow students through this moment. But don’t for a moment allow yourself to think you’re doing any more than that. You spent today proving the suspicions of every liberal arts stereotype right by staging a movement over a moment of brief shittiness representative of something everyone everywhere already has to deal with. You cried and shouted and raised your voices to challenge authority with idealistic propositions over what is, for most of you, a flavor-of-the-month cause more than half of you will live the rest of your lives never knowing the true dangers of. You’re some cute kids facing half a problem with the benefit of people who are paid to care about you. Enjoy those luxuries while you can, and try to act like a grown-up the next time this happens and those luxuries are gone. Because if this is what draws tears from your eyes and puts fear in your hearts, then not only will you never survive the world as it is, but you’ll never be strong enough to change it.