Oberlin Students and Alumni Reflect on Activism at the College

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Last week, I asked Oberlin insiders to help explain a protest at the Ohio liberal-arts college. A small group of students there complained that the dining hall was engaging in offensive appropriation by serving poorly prepared sushi and inauthentic “bánh mì” sandwiches. Were they co-opting the language of social justice to get better food? Or did they really believe a cultural injustice was being perpetrated?
Numerous Oberlin students and alumni were generous enough to offer their perspectives. Many shared more general thoughts about activism at the college too. Some think it is unfairly maligned. Others find it hugely frustrating and counterproductive, but feel that they will be ostracized if they say so. In presenting their correspondence I’ve lightly edited emails to enhance conciseness and cut repeat arguments. We begin with an alum who argues that students are earnestly engaged in an effort to address real cultural shortcomings at the college:

I have some thoughts in defense of Oberlin students. Let me make clear that I am a foodie and a white person who enjoys cooking ethnic cuisines. While at Oberlin, I remember CDS served something called the “Indian Platter,” which consisted of feta cheese, pita, raw spinach, and hummus. The feta cheese was listed as “paneer” and the pita as “naan.” The previous day, CDS served exactly the same dish but called it “Mediterranean Platter.” CDS was known for casually using ethnic buzzwords to remarket old dishes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact same Banh Mi sandwich depicted in your article was served the day before, but listed as “pulled pork sandwich.” I understand how it seems extreme to accuse CDS of cultural appropriation for these minor transgressions, but I also think there is some background you must understand.

Oberlin advertises itself as the first racially integrated college in the country. From my understanding, a very low percentage of Oberlin's students of color make it to graduation, and many students feel this results from a lack of institutional support. There are few professors of color. At least once a year, racial slurs and threats are posted on some public forum. Many students are in the process of learning about the racial inequality of our criminal-justice system and are rightly angry about it. Campus officers are not immune from racism. I have heard stories about officers assaulting students of color. And financial aid is almost non-existent. A lot of students of color feel like they don’t matter to the college.

In that climate, it is easier to understand how minor transgressions like inauthentic food can offend students of color. They feel their school doesn't care about them. Inauthentic food is just one more aggravating factor that brings them over the edge. Food is embedded in culture. It’s nothing new for offense to be taken when someone misuses the name of a dish.

As a foodie from New York who, growing up, could easily find a great Banh Mi sandwich for $10, I was never satisfied with Oberlin’s cafeteria food. I am a picky snob. But the people fighting to change CDS are not picky snobs from New York. They are people of color from many walks of life who feel like their college doesn't care about them. They are trying to improve their living conditions. That is a noble cause, and I hope I have shed some light on why students think it is important.

A 2010 graduate agrees that the “food appropriation” controversy should be viewed in a larger context, but thinks that context reflects poorly on today’s students:

When I read the reports coming out of Oberlin I’m ashamed and embarrassed, but I also find myself thinking: It didn't used to be this way. Among the activist-minded students there were always a few who were shrill, intolerant, allergic to critique, and bent on subsuming the whole of reality within their preferred ideological framework. They didn't care about persuasion ... they knew they were right and didn’t give a damn if they alienated everyone to whom they were ostensibly preaching.

But their approach to advancing their agendas on campus was different. Before, student activists generally viewed a direct and immediate appeal to institutional authority as a double-edged sword (one that could bring your goals to fruition, but not without the cost of some degree of democratic credibility). Today, student activists have become acutely aware that the decision-making authority at Oberlin is the college administrators, and they're increasingly willing to take even the most minute problems straight to the top to be institutionally rectified.

Ideas that thrived in a space of open exchange, a space that the administration stayed out of, are now seen as needing institutional validation, codification, and, indeed, enforcement. The various conceptual iterations of "privilege," for instance, were current and widely discussed, as were “whiteness,” “safe spaces,” and the many different “-isms.” But such concepts were not then what they have since become--cudgels. They had not yet hardened into a rigid system of moral norms, enforced by a self-appointed activist vanguard with the backing of cowed administrators, norms that to transgress would invite public shaming, harassment, or social ostracizing, to say nothing of official disciplinary action.

There were plenty of people who vocally proclaimed their categorical dismissal of the very existence of forms of oppression that today no one would dare question. Did I myself agree with such people? Not at all. I almost always came down on the side of the anti-oppression crowd when I felt their positions were staked out in good faith, were intellectually sound, were practically applicable, and weren't fueled by that uniquely liberal-arts-college brand of narcissism and self-indulgence. I enjoyed learning about their work and being challenged by their ideas, and I tended to regard the majority of complaints about PCism as short-sighted, because I never felt like I couldn’t disagree with anyone. For the most part, people with seriously divergent views could air them without risking any kind of official infraction. There simply was not a precedent for reporting someone to the authorities because their very opinions made you feel, to use the watchword of today's activists, “unsafe.”

In short, beyond a certain point, people with opposing views simply left each other alone, and even in as small a place as Oberlin there was room enough for everyone. There was a tradition of grudging inclusiveness toward different views--and genuine inclusiveness need not be anything more than grudging. Yet everything I see from Oberlin now suggests that this tradition has given way to something very different. There is now an atmosphere of close-mindedness, intellectual submission, conformity, and fear. Anti-oppression activism, something inherently noble, has become an extensive apparatus for suffocating freedom of expression and crushing dissent, and an increasingly illiberal left devotes its energies to denouncing, pillorying, and silencing anyone who doesn't march in lockstep with its latest orthodoxies.

Whoever can most cunningly, loudly, and shamelessly cloak themselves in the flag of social justice is empowered to effectively disregard everyone's speech other than their own. Administrators, terrified of being accused of this or that ism, are unwilling to push back in any way against activist bully tactics and have allowed them not only to dictate the course of campus life but to have effective veto power over curricula as well. And who do the victims mostly end up being? Who are the harassed or dis-invited speakers? The professors who can't teach what they want? Liberals and other leftists whose crime has been to presume that they are in some sense on the activist side but who have failed to meet their limitless criteria. This is not social justice at work.

The business about culturally insensitive dining-hall fare is attention-grabbing for its ludicrousness, but it's hardly the prime example of what has taken hold. A better example would be the the list of demands issued by the Black Student Union. Beyond the stunning extent of these demands, which include firing certain faculty and staff... they reflect a truly perverse view of education as the forcing of a worldview down the student's throat.

An ability for nuance, for a recognition of degrees, subtle differences, finer essences, and other aspects of abstract thought in which the liberal arts are supposed to train one, seems to escape these students. It's not enough to point out contradictions and inconsistencies in enlightenment universalism, with its tendency to take a certain dominant group's narrative as applicable to all people, and attempt to rectify them. No. All of Western culture is tainted by white supremacy, and thus Western higher education as we know it should itself be dismantled.  

Student activism in this country is only possible because generations of Americans on and off college campuses have forged a tradition and a culture of freedom of speech, in tandem with a jurisprudence of expansive legal protections for speech and expression. Yet, not only are today's activists turning on the very tradition that has allowed them to be activists: they may also be unwittingly engaged in long-term self-sabotage in the event that the various speech restrictions they demand are one day used against them. Conservative Christian safe spaces, anyone?

My sincere hope for the future of Oberlin and for student activism is that it turns off from its present course, toward one that honors principled disagreement, self-critique, and individual conscience. As it stands now, all of those values are endangered. I am, of course, interested to hear what current Oberlin students have to say about all this (including the ones who would disagree with me), so I hope you'll receive some responses from them and compile them in another article.

This next correspondent agrees that Oberlin activists contribute to an intellectually “oppressive” climate, but defends their good intentions and primary goals:

Oberlin is not, sometimes, a “safe space” for those who express skepticism about safe spaces. This call for less cultural appropriation in the dining halls comes amidst giant upheaval in other areas: there was the petition calling for better food to be served at the African Heritage House, for it to contain less cream, since African-Americans are often lactose intolerant; and there was the petition from the Black Student Union which was quickly picked up by conservative blogs (like here) which demanded fairly outrageous structural changes to the institution, including paying activists for their work on an hourly basis, developing a prison to college pipeline, firing specific administrators, and tenuring certain professors.

That said, these complaints and demands arise from one of the most liberal wings of fairly liberal colleges at a time when the plight, struggle, and disadvantage of people of color in this country is finally coming to light in vicious and often incomprehensible ways: black people are being killed with impunity, and, it now dawns on us, always have been, but the general public didn’t notice, as individuals chose to look the other way.

There is a sense at Oberlin that something should be done about this, especially at an institution that prides itself as a beacon of progress and enlightenment, a bulwark against backwardness and ignorant conservatism. Oberlin students want what other college students are asking for, whether they phrase it this way or not: better control of the college’s money. It’s time, I think, to revoke some of the power that the boards of trustees have—the undue sway of the moneyed few—in favor of the consciences of the paying and physically attending students. So for us, I think, legitimate complaints have gotten mixed up with more questionable ones.

As someone who lives in the Oberlin environment, I can speak to the enormous outrage about—and the difficulty of expressing—the gross narcissism involved in some of the students’ rhetoric. Considering the privilege most of us have––which most of us have to have in order to even stumble on a place like Oberlin––it’s sickening to hear certain complaints, not about the quality of the food, which of course is pretty terrible (situation normal, all fucked up) but the language-mantle of colonialism. This group of largely white students is also young and fairly privileged, and it makes sense that they can be blind to the circumstances of many whose lived existence they use as an excuse for leverage and social cache, ignorant of the hypocrisy of campaigning for even greater privileges for themselves by using the experience of the benighted poor as justification. That experience of the American poor, a population they’ve been separated and insulated from, is not necessarily your experience, and to appropriate it can be as scandalous as bad sushi.

My classmates are bright and articulate people—often. In many senses they are the future: the future of government, the future of NGOs, of non-profits, the vanguard of green-energy policy, et al. And their progressivism is often to the good.

Yet we (Oberlin students as well as onlookers) must not fail to recognize that the most seemingly progressive of people are not the most goodly people by default; rather, like others with extreme views, they are fully susceptible to blanketing over inconvenient truths and signing away liberties (particularly involving free speech) in the name of more and more rules that “protect” us. This is not something we are inclined to support when it comes to the NSA, and we should be very careful when considering enforced codes appended to documents meant to “keep people safe.”

There is no safety from ideas, merely ignorance, and to argue that “some things just aren’t up for discussion,”—rather than to posit that by arguing something one feels cheapened, or sacrifices a part of one’s morality—but to insist that things simply can’t be talked about, is more conservative and narrow than I think my classmates realize. Many Oberlin students reading this would argue, I think, that it mischaracterizes honest efforts to change an unjust institution within a damnably unjust world. I hope I can honor and join in the efforts of my classmates to change our many situations for the better while reserving the right to point out creeping egotism where it erupts—but the atmosphere for doing that work of semi-judicious skepticism is just a little tough right now.

This correspondent believes the media’s focus on the “food appropriation” story is misplaced:

As a current 4th year at Oberlin College, I would like to take you up on your offer and provide one (of many) insider’s perspective ... This was not a unified issue on campus: I saw many Asian-American students who were unconvinced that this constituted a cultural appropriation… while the complaints were circulated, this did not receive nearly as much publicity as MANY other issues on campus.  The amount of attention that this issue has achieved in the media is COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTATIVE ...

Just last week a petition was circulated detailing various institutional demands which generated around 700 signatures within a day.  However, the petition was defaced with INCREDIBLY RACIST, ANTI-SEMITIC, AND VIOLENT words and symbols (which I have attached below).  This issue was FAR MORE RELEVANT, IMPACTFUL, PUBLICIZED, and IMPORTANT than any of these food complaints, yet NOTHING in the media has covered this.  In truth, what the general public believes to have been the “focus” of student activists this semester is a fabrication by the media and not remotely representative. I do appreciate the fairness and depth to which you wrote your article (compared with any other news source I have seen).  But now I am urging you:  please share this racist incident and encourage all others in the media to do the same.  If you truly want to hear what is going on at Oberlin: this is it!  While calling out cultural appropriation in food is valid, this is how you can report what truly are relevant and important issues not only at Oberlin but facing marginalized communities as a whole!

This next alum started to mistrust the earnestness of fellow Obies after observing the social incentives to laud and defer to members of groups that are perceived as victims:

At Oberlin, anyone seen as vulnerable is given the benefit of the doubt: there is no room for understanding, there is a victim speaking their mind and there is the oppressor. This mode of thought impacts all issues (race, gender, sex politics, etc.). In order to be hip, one should identify or sympathize with whatever group is being oppressed. Most of it is for show.

I would be happy to take a bet that the Vietnamese freshman was not offended as much as they were excited to see an opportunity to be the victim... I guarantee they got 10+ emails congratulating them on their courage... If you'd like another outrageous story, I urge you to find ABUSA's petition which made waves within the Oberlin community and demanded (basically) a hostile takeover of the college by black students and students of color (my last name is _____, mind you. Not all POC Oberlin people feel this way). This included the hiring and firing of professors, inclusion of incarcerated folks in the college community, and boycotting Israel.

It’s wild.

​Honestly, the social climate of that school is bullshit. Plain and simple. Very privileged kids trying to run away from their privilege by being part of the solution.

A 2014 graduate criticized the press, cautioned against dismissing the complaints of black students, and posited that Obies know they’re not exposed to enough dissent:

... While Oberlin students can be a bit overzealous in their social justice efforts (which I think is a good thing!), what is disturbing is not their activist excesses but how journalists frame them as ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky claims… The idea that students at "elite" campuses (where, by the way, many black students attend not from their parents' wealth but from Pell grants) are too privileged to be taken seriously is an old canard. When students claim their campus is racist, or culturally insensitive, we should listen ...

You end the article with these sentences, which I found striking: “From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice. Is that how it looks from the inside, too?”

Yes. That is exactly what it looks like from the inside. And students are very aware of this problem. Although the "radical left" students are the most vocal, many of us (and many of them) recognize that the lack of political diversity on campus is concerning. It makes our arguments weak and it prevents us from honing our claims against the grindstone of critical opposition.

I'm only one alumnus, and others may feel differently, but what I would emphasize is that there is a lively debate, both in and outside of Oberlin, about how to find the balance between idealism and pragmatism, zeal and diplomacy. When articles like yours appear online, we discuss them at length—and there is plenty of disagreement. I can only hope that journalists will take it seriously, and view it as a sign of deliberative democracy rather than the thoughtless churning out of liberal sentiment.

An Oberlin senior writes:

Really, this is about much more than food. It’s about the myth of multiculturality that our school likes to perpetuate, but fails to enact. Here's an example regarding the serving of beef in recognition of Diwali: on the surface, this looks like an attempt to make Hindu students feel welcome. However, by using beef, they served a dish that Hindu students could not eat. By doing this, our dining services showed that they are not concerned with serving authentic food to Indian students, but instead with branding our dining hall and institution as multicultural.

Its reflective of a tendency to value the foods of other cultures while rejecting the people of that culture.

That’s a problem.

Ignorance of Hindu dietary restrictions strikes me as a far more likely explanation for the misstep of dining hall workers than “rejecting” the culture of Hindu students. I don’t understand the impulse to frame matters in a way that presumes that others are acting in the most hostile way possible when odds are against that interpretation.
The senior continues:

In response to your quote from Freddie de Boer: No one is berating the underpaid workers. In fact better benefits for dining hall workers have been the subject of recent protests. You didn't include this in your article. Instead, complaints have been directed towards the management level.

I should have mentioned that some student activists have called for better treatment of dining hall workers. And de Boer did mention that in his commentary. However, I think the students who insist that they are targeting the corporation that runs the dining halls at Oberlin without affecting the workers preparing their food are naive about the likely effect of students complaining that they’re being served incompetently prepared fare that has been offensively named.
A 1970 graduate believes that the college should just stop trying to serve ethnic fare because it will only upset people when the cooks inevitably get various things wrong:

The dilemma of a college food service trying to be all things to all people seems a modern one.  My vague memory of Obie food back in the day was that it was decent American food.  There weren’t many attempts to be multi-cultural.  I knew some of the food service workers at the time.  The meals were prepared by cooks, not chefs.  The one constant is that college students always, always complain about the food.  My daughter’s a sophomore in college and she complains about the food.  Venturing too far afield from the cuisine food service cooks have mastered ... is an invitation to insult, and complaint.  Rather than cook Indian, or Thai, or Japanese food badly, I just wouldn’t go there.  

Another correspondent explains why people who go to Oberlin tend to pick fights over seemingly small matters––and defends that inclination as laudable and salutary:

I graduated from Oberlin with majors in English and Dance in 1997. I was inspired and emboldened by recruitment and admissions materials that were glossy black, with an image of earth in the center. The text above the satellite image read, “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.” Oberlin is a small campus.The student population hovers below 3,000. The insularity makes it such that potential injustices or oversights do both seem and become worth fighting for. This is inspiring. It can also mean that these issues can seem too big, too immediate, to be rational or appropriately reflective. But I would rather see students’ risk overreacting for the sake of what feels right, than dissipate their political awareness in humility—and I say that while NOT agreeing with all of Oberlin students’ missions, including the embrace of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel.

While the reactions may read to some as knee-jerk self indulgence, I gather they are a sincere response to approaching the cafeteria serving line, and––despite the names of the dishes being served––feeling on some level miscounted, anonymous, voided. Oberlin is not only the kind of place where this can be expressed, but where there is the latent promise that dialogue about how we understand and interact with one another is viable. While it may seem small, or entitled, it is also within the promise of the campus to consider that small things can resonate largely, because values systems translate from what is on the plate to more impactful levels of global discourse, outside of the dining hall.

A former Oberlin dining hall worker takes a dim view of today’s students and wants to give them a taste of their own medicine:

As a teenager, I worked in the food service area of the college.  The staff members were overwhelmingly black.  I doubt that’s changed.  How dare these privileged college snobs complain about food prepared by oppressed minorities? Administration should forced these students to attend sensitivity sessions until they learn to respect other cultures.  And hire another administrator to oversee the program. That's the way it's done at Oberlin.

A 1998 grad who worked in the dining hall isn’t quite so down on the student protestors, but is annoyed:

Students really do care about food, and they also really care about oppression. They're not insincere, but they can be annoying ... When I worked in the dining halls, employees were either students on work study or adults from the community. Most of these adults were low-income African Americans ...

There's something I find deeply irritating about mostly privileged students whining about how the dining hall staff isn't preparing the sushi with the same reverence as a Japanese chef. There also seems to be very little understanding of how much it costs to serve food on a large scale, and how the changes students are seeking will inevitably impact tuition. None of this means Oberlin can't make improvements. But students have to recognize that dining halls have limitations, and that sometimes bad sushi is just bad sushi.

The next correspondent feels that the college is in crisis:

I'm a current Oberlin student.

Sadly, academic merit, deep history, and dedicated faculty aside, it seems the only thing we’re known for these days is being the target of ridicule from The New York Post and others. First and foremost I wanted to thank you for writing an article that treated us like people, not children. But the story of Oberlin in 2015 is much more than the small, incredibly loud, socially conscious minority that drives mainstream opinion here.

Oberlin is a campus in crisis.

A week ago, a petition was posted by the Black Student Union that was rightfully criticized for being utterly ridiculous. It included such demands as the renaming of buildings, admissions quotas for black students, an increased number of exclusive safe spaces, and free classes for town residents, among others. They also demanded the alteration of several meals served in African Heritage House, which the New York Post included in their article. The administration responded to these demands by revoking Bill Cosby's honorary diploma. The (public) Google doc containing the signatures was unfortunately posted anonymously to 4chan and vandalized with racist language/imagery and a threat to the auditorium, although it was never specified which one. The next day there was an increased police presence on campus and a protest on one of our quads in which white students formed a barrier around black students. Students groaned on Facebook as to why the food incident was being reported on but this was not.

My greatest disappointment about the reality of Oberlin is its failure to recognize differing opinions. As upsetting as these online threats were, I and others understand that they were radical, extreme, anonymous threats with little reason to send the campus into the frenzy that they did.

Of course racists hate us, of course they want us killed, but I hold the belief that it’s only then that we need to be bigger than them and maybe not stoop to their level. Of course I never voiced this opinion outside of a small group of friends. It truly would have been social suicide and I would have been labeled the racist, cisgender, heterosexual white man that I am. The complaints about the food on the other hand were maybe valid on a certain level but were completely ill-intentioned and alarmist on behalf of those students. That's why as a proud Oberlin student I am completely split on where I stand on these issues.

It is enraging to see how we are depicted in The New York Post, but still there's truth to it. It still baffles me trying to come to terms with how we can be ranked so highly as an academic institution, with some of the best professors in the country and some of the most brilliant young minds, but also stoop so low as to engage in petty complaints about the ingredients in our campus food while a number of students scrub dishes in our kitchens to desperately try to alleviate some of the burden of debt.

Another alum blames consumerism for the food protests:

As a 2001 graduate of Oberlin, I have lately begun to cringe whenever my alma mater makes headlines. I guarantee you that the students are perfectly serious in their intent. Think about it: approximately $60,000 buys one year of classes, housing, and dining at Oberlin, placing the student in the highest tier of American educational consumers.

Given this, why should they not place demands—substantive, banal, and yes, even ridiculous—on the very system that so gleefully accepts their tuition checks? Look, I co-oped all four years at Oberlin. I ate my tofu, protested financial aid policies, and generally did all the usual things that one did at Oberlin. But you know what I didn’t do? I didn't dream that campus dining was ever trying to be authentic (even if they said they were) when serving Asian, Italian, or any other kind of food. You know what you’re getting with campus dining. To pretend otherwise is just stupid. And to appropriate the language of social justice as a tool with which to badger folks working in the service industry is just cruel.

The next correspondent feels that the problem is that critics of Oberlin students just don’t understand the social justice concepts that would help them to see reality:

I’m emailing you just to explain some of the reasoning behind some of the complaints. Cultural appropriation is the “adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” At Oberlin people take cultural appropriation very seriously. For example, at a school sponsored event a few months ago students were outraged by the presence of henna tattoos. Giving people henna tattoos would be an example of cultural appropriation because it trivializes a traditional act by another culture. I think that people were trying to bring attention to the lack of appreciation for other culture’s foods when they’re reduced to just another thing on the dining hall’s menu. CDS in general has done a poor job of giving other cultures dishes the recognition they deserve. Bahn Mi and sushi are both traditional dishes from cultures that are not our own, so, if prepared at all, they should be prepared in a manner that gives the dish the respect it deserves. People don’t usually think about food as something that deserves respect, but food is reflective of the heart of different cultures. I identify as religiously and culturally Jewish and I would be offended if someone prepared a traditional Seder plate incorrectly at some time other than Passover. This would de-sanctify the religious meal of Passover and reduce it to just another quotidian meal.

Food plays a large part in people’s cultural background and I agree that it is wrong to prepare traditional foods incorrectly. Cooking a traditional dish with improper ingredients and using incorrect method demeans the culture of those who hold those dishes dear. I hope you read this and at least gain a bit of understanding about why students were upset about the quality and nature of food they were being served.

As best as I can tell, most critics of the Oberlin students are well aware of the rationale set forth in the email above, but reject many of its premises as wrongheaded.
An Oberlin freshman is shocked by the climate at the college:

I'm a freshman at Oberlin College. My first semester at Oberlin was interesting to say the least. I'm a liberal, politically active kid from [very liberal city].  I didn't expect the atmosphere at Oberlin to be much different from the one I've been used to for the past 18 years. I was mistaken.

Not everyone at Oberlin is a lunatic. Yet the most radical students are by far the loudest so it seems like Oberlin is way more radical than it actually is. I hadn't even heard about the food thing until I got home for break and saw Oberlin students sharing a Fox News article about food appropriation.  But there have been many heated discussions (via Yik Yak, an anonymous iPhone app for instance) regarding similar issues. For instance, a couple months ago, there was this big debate about whether Henna is cultural appropriation.  When these discussions come up, I, along with the other smart Oberlin kids, don't get involved.

The reason is that the radical vocal minority is quick to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them. This is why I would ask that if you would like to quote me on anything, you keep it anonymous. The far left radicals are as bad as equally radical right wingers. Although I agree politically on almost all issues, their inability to tolerate people with different views is absurd. They tend to not focus enough on reaching a goal but instead on having a strong reaction.  I feel frustrated when I think about my school because I know that if I were to do something like share the Fox News article and make fun of my school, I would get disparaged on Facebook.

Oberlin students responded to these articles by complaining that they detracted from the big issue now at Oberlin, the ABUSUA petition. This petition was created so that black students could demand certain changes to address issues at Oberlin. I agreed with many of these issues but I didn't sign the petition because some of it was completely unrealistic. And it demanded that certain teachers be fired without giving enough explicit info about their supposed wrongdoing. On Yik Yak, many people were against the petition but no one said anything against it in public.

This is because it became abundantly clear that to critique the petition would be racist.  Any dissenters are called racists by the vocal minority which completely shuts down conversation. This is a very long winded email but I hope to convey some of my uncertainties about my new school. I think these issues have become apparent in many liberal arts schools. If you have any specific questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. But again, I wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Finally, a reader who neither attended nor worked at Oberlin remarks from afar:

The most valuable thing I learned in college was that (aside from a few close friends and family members) nobody in the real world cares what happens to me. They don't care where I'm from, what my dreams are, if I'm happy, or even if I'm fed or clothed. It was a hard lesson, but a formative one. It's important to know that. The idea that a college administrator would care that I'm satisfied with, or at least not offended by food choices is an idea that I have literally never considered before.

My mind is blown.

I worked in a college cafeteria. The people who prepare the food are trying to get through their shift. They are assembling pre-packaged ingredients according to standard protocols. They are quite uninterested in who eats the food, or how they feel about it, or even if they like it. There is no scheme to appropriate culture. They are indifferent to culture. I don't doubt that the students are offended, and I don't mean to minimize their feelings. It's just hard for me to relate to their demands.