What Happened At Oberlin? Maybe Nothing

Hateful graffiti at Oberlin College have drawn national attention (NY Times, CNN) and caused turmoil on campus. The graffiti, which included nasty words for blacks and gays, swastikas and “whites only” scrawled on a water fountain, prompted a big anti-hate rally, outpourings of emotion and a one-day cancellation of all classes.

Though written slurs can appear anywhere, it is unusual for several minorities to be targeted in one campaign, particularly at one of the most liberal colleges in the nation. Why would a college student, afflicted by so much hate, sign up for Oberlin and wait until mid-winter to express what he or she really feels? It could be a member of the town community, but this too is unlikely. An outside culprit would have to cross the campus many times over a month and post many offensive messages inside and outside buildings. This is risky business at any liberal citadel but especially at Oberlin, which, we are now told, has maintained a list of arrest-on-sight outsiders since the 1970s.

There’s also the possibility that students or faculty posted the messages to call attention to the racism of others. This sort of hoax has happened on many campuses, including Oberlin itself. In 1993, the huge campus memorial to Christian missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1903 was defaced with anti-Asian slurs, including “The Only good Chink is a dead Chink.” The campus erupted in anger. Ethnic enclaves shut themselves off from the rest of the campus. Fistfights occurred, and the campus turmoil persisted for weeks.

Then the perpetrator confessed. An Asian-American Oberlin student said she had written the slurs to expose the bias she thought was latent in the memorial–that Chinese lives taken during the Boxer incident were implicitly less valuable than those of the slain missionaries.

Fake rapes and fake attacks on minorities are no longer unusual on campuses. One reason is the post-modern theory that there is no truth, only voices and narratives. If the narrative is all-important, why bother with facts? Why not sell the narrative directly? At a Princeton Take Back the Night Rally, one student made the mistake of a naming an administrator as her rapist. He fought back and was cleared. At Columbia Teachers College a black member of the faculty reported a noose–an obvious symbol for lynching–outside her door, the day before a meticulous report on her plagiarism was due. Much turmoil ensued, and she was later fired.

The report this week that a white-robed figure, possible in Klan garb, was spotted on the Oberlin campus, raised the anger and lamentation level to a peak. But police doubt the story because a man with a blanket over his shoulders had been seen in the area. The mysterious and likely fictional white-robed figure recalls an incident several years ago at Swarthmore, another of the nation’s most liberal colleges. Feces and vomit were reported on the floor of the Intercultural Center, setting off an uproar and campus-wide chants of “Respect, safety, unity.” At the inevitable anti-hate rally, emotional students wept and talked of the long and painful time needed to cope.

Then someone checked the evidence–the vomit was real, but the feces was a piece of chocolate cake that apparently provoked the vomit, likely after an evening of major drinking. No hate to be found. As Gilda Radner used to say, “Never mind.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

3 thoughts on “What Happened At Oberlin? Maybe Nothing

  1. The liberal academics who populate most of our campuses need to have events such as these to justify their view that the world is a racist, sexist, homophobic place that only they, riding their steeds called social justice, can fix. So they have to find evidence of these evils at every turn, even if it means blowing minor events out of proportion or even manufacturing them.

  2. What’s the mystery? It seems very likely that this is the work of someone who just cannot resist watching an exciting Pavlovian response to stimulus. Until the country gets taken over by university administrators, writing naughty words on walls is less likely to get you sent to the camps than phoning in a bomb threat, but it certainly livens up the day in the waste lands that pass for colleges in these times.

  3. Yet another totally manufactured non-event..? It also reminds me somewhat ( although it didn’t happen on a college campus) of the Tawana Brawley debacle a while back…..

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