Why Was Someone Wearing a KKK Robe at Oberlin? The Theories So Far

Oberlin College, in northern Ohio, cancelled classes today a few hours after someone (it's unclear who) was spotted wearing KKK garb on campus. Here's a guide to what we know so far.

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Oberlin College, in northern Ohio, cancelled classes today a few hours after someone (it's unclear who) was spotted wearing KKK garb on campus. As the latest chapter in a string of hate-filled incidents at the famously liberal alma mater of Lena Dunham, Michelle Malkin, and Adam Moss, it spurred several media outlets — including Gawker, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post — to look for answers, just as campus outlets like The Oberlin Review (which documented the recent spate of homophobic and racist graffiti) and Oberlin Microaggressions, a group Tumblr that broke the news of the KKK sighting, have been doing for the past month. Here's a guide to what we know — and don't know — so far.

Theory No. 1: An Oberlin Staff Member Did It

Shortly after Gawker published an Oberlin-wide email reporting the incident and announcing that classes had been cancelled, a bunch of Oberlin students flooded the site's news editor, Max Read, with rumors that a staff member at Oberlin's Multicultural Resource Center was somehow connected to the KKK regalia incident. (Apparently the basis of this theory is that the MRC was lacking for school-wide funds and sought to invent a reason to ask for more.)

After Read updated Gawker's post, however, Oberlin Microaggressions published Read's email address and called his updated post "slanted, misguided, and full of misinformation." (On the Facebook page for today's events, an Oberlin student wrote "GAWKER IS MISINFORMED" above Read's email address.)  In response, Read again updated Gawker's version of the story, which now reads, in part:

So: to be exactingly clear. No one has officially been found responsible or reprimanded. A rumor circulating the faculty and administration holds that an MRC member is responsible. It is just that: a rumor.

Theory No. 2: An Oberlin Student (or Students) Did It

A dossier of recent incidents compiled by The Oberlin Review shows that racially-charged vandalism cropped up in a residential building, Burton Hall, which is accessible to "all students" (via key card) but not all staff members or faculty. It's unclear when, exactly, parts of the building were vandalized, but the fact that nobody was immediately caught suggests that whoever did it did so when no one was walking around or awake.

That narrows it down, it seems, to a student (or students) who woke up in the middle of the night and vandalized parts of the building with words like "whites only," "no niggers," and "nigger oven." It's impossible to tell, however, if those same students — who secretly defaced property with racial slurs — would be willing to don Ku Klux Klan garb and actually walk around campus.

Theory No. 3: A Townie Did It

Would a townie wear a KKK robe to intimidate students? Well, the relationship between Oberlin students and the majority-white town of Oberlin has never exactly been cozy. "Oberlin's town-gown relations have always been tense," the Oberlin Review wrote in 1997, documenting an odd procedure whereby the College effectively bans certain individuals from walking on campus, which is integrated with the rest of the town, if they are deemed sufficiently disruptive. (As Gawker points out, the list of banned individuals was recently made public by the Oberlin police.) And last year, an Oberlin professor was mugged by two teenagers in an academic building.

Most recently, an Oberlin student "was approached by an individual who made a derogatory remark about his perceived ethnicity and then physically knocked him to the ground" on the western edge of Oberlin's sprawling campus, about a block away from the nearest college building — which suggests that the perpetrator was not a student. (The Afrikan Heritage House, near which the person wearing KKK regalia was seen, is situated at the extreme southern edge of campus.)

Theory No. 4: Oberlin Has a Bigger Race Problem

This theory isn't mutually exclusive to any of those listed above; it's also the most difficult to prove.  It suggests that the climate on campus is so charged with misunderstanding about what is appropriate, or funny, that the string of recent incidents, including the person wearing KKK garb, is somehow inevitable. Reporters onscene at Oberlin today described a climate of frustration among students who discussed the recent incidents, so it's not like this theory is not being considered:

As The New York Times noted, what makes this string of incidents so bizarre is that Oberlin possesses a unique history in advancing the rights of racial minorities. Oberlin served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was the first American college to stop discriminating against African Americans. This history doesn't really explain how these incidents occurred, but it does explain how Oberlin's administration decided to react, by canceling classes and devoting a day to discussion about what happened. There's no way to tell, of course, if this will stop these incidents from happening again. Judging from the Facebook page for today's events, which is flooded with messages of solidarity from all over the country, students and alumni seem to think their college is on the right track.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.