Re: re: working-class at Oberlin College
by Saffron Forsberg
In September 2019, I was commencing my first semester at Oberlin College. I wince now, as anyone might, remembering how naive I was. I had just graduated from my Southeast Texas high school, in a town smack-dab between Houston and Galveston, where I grew up. There, I had spent the summer following graduation in a red polyester vest, teaching small children toilet-paper-roll, googly-eye crafts at my craft-store job. My girlfriend-at-the-time worked across the street and would pick me up in their coughing black Mustang – that which promptly, theatrically, died the last week of summer break – everyday so we could escape the oppressive swamp heat together. They drove us to a nearby beach town where we swam in the Gulf, exchanged pulls from a weed pen, and listened to punk rock. Where I grew up, just about all there was to do was work 7.25-minimum-wage and sit stoned in someone's shuddering car. Much of Texas is composed of these sprawling, working-class suburban wastelands: those realms which manufacture boredom and recalcitrance. In such places, Oberlin – and places like Oberlin – seem not to exist; it is almost impossible to not be naive when one is moving away to a place that feels mythological.
In September 2019, I stumbled into my first Grape meeting, and subsequently contributed my first article for publication, “Working Class on Campus: An Ode to the Connectionless”. In it, I detail the classism, elitism, and general alienation I felt constantly at Oberlin, as a working-class person from the South. Reading the piece now, in 2023, as I apply for post-grad jobs in a handful of big cities and toil away at an English capstone, I’m surprised by its insight. How had I understood, with less than a month of college under my belt, the complexities of class at Oberlin? Had it hit me that fast? Had I already encountered those archetypes which still populate, which may perhaps always populate, Oberlin: “trust fund punk-rockers, upper-middle-class anarchists, and the socialist offspring of ivy league professionals” as I put it at eighteen?
Well, sort of. But I certainly had more to experience. My first article – though still, surprisingly, quite truthful – really only grazes the surface of Oberlin’s socio-economic landscape. Now, as a senior who has become quite acquainted with both the campus and the town, I admit that there is more to the story…and there will still be far more to the story than what I am able to communicate in this article.
First of all, I must assert that Oberlin did not “radicalize me”, whatever that means; my working-class family did. Both because I come from a politically-aware, Leftist family, and because I grew up low-income, I’ve understood that I am working-class since before I can remember. Where I grew up, it was completely normal to belong to the working class, to struggle financially. And it is completely normal. It is the experience of a very large swath of the American population…just perhaps not here, not on this campus.
I won’t be the first to suggest Oberlin’s unnerving talent for maintaining a bubble of upper-class, elite urbanity in the middle of pseudo-rural Ohio. Many have spoken of it, written of it, suffered over it. Just a couple of issues ago, The Grape staff writer Skye Jalal wrote of the phenomenon in her own article, aptly titled: “If you hate living in Ohio, maybe you should think about why”. Because of the culture alive on our campus, and those New Yorkers and Los Angeles-ites who traverse it, Oberlin is not representative of most small, Northern Ohio towns. Still, though, we attend college here. And how Obies love to giggle about that fact! How quaint and provincial it is that they, of all people, are in Ohio, among….well…the poor! The “uncultured”! The trade-schooled! But not really. Not among, but rather within-the-bounds-of. Temporarily. They, we, will eagerly flee again soon – to NYC, to LA, to Chicago or DC or Philly or wherever.
The anti-Ohio sentiment alive in Oberlin is strange to me because, when I arrived here, I was unaccustomed to it. I was excited to move to Ohio as a teenager. I never understood it as a bad place to live. This might be because my own hometown is significantly less attractive and more culturally desolate than Oberlin, or because the South and the Midwest are, in some ways, quite similar insofar as values. But the main reason is probably that, living in the South, I seldom heard much about Ohio other than from my mother. As I detail in another early Grape article, my mother also, coincidentally, lived in Northern Ohio when she was around my age – but just to live, to have her first baby (my older brother), and not to go to college. She lived in Akron and then Wooster, loving her time in both. Thus, the word “Ohio”, from her mouth, was almost musical. In Ohio, the trees are gorgeously orange in the fall! In the winter, snow covers everything like powdered sugar! There are small, Christmas-village towns full of 100-year-old clapboards! Apple cider abounds! And real maple syrup siphoned from the trunks of very old trees! What magic.
The mythical narrative that Ohio was a place I should think myself too good for was introduced to me by the wealthy, major-city-natives I came to know in my first year at Oberlin. To them, everything about Ohio was tongue-in-cheek, and they were certainly quite brave and progressive for roughing it out here. To me, to my whole family, Oberlin was a vacation destination. I sent my family pictures, informing them of my daily escapades, and they were enchanted. I was never allowed, truly, to complain about Oberlin to my family – because I was here, in Oberlin. Attending a place like Oberlin was not only my dream, but my mother’s dream for me. Even on my worst days, everything was miraculous: a gift. It was like I was having an entirely different experience than that of my wealthy friends, though we stood right beside one another.
Indeed, the class differences between me and my friends caused great friction in our relationships, and later, looming resentment. Over the years, I found myself losing friends to these socioeconomic rifts – which grew the angrier I became and the guiltier, the more out-of-touch, they seemed. See, I was raised by Leftist, working-class, largely-self-educated grassroots organizers. Class justice is integral to my identity. I think about income disparity every single day – not just when I have to write a paper about it. My working-class, Southern background is something loud within me, begging to be spoken of and written about; I’ve never been able to hide it or tamp it down to comfort others. And yet, at Oberlin, I found myself pressured to do so. Raised on an endless well of just anger, I was taught to be hyper-critical of the wealthy, and yet here I was, at this institution which perpetually boasted its commitment to social justice, befriending their delicate, unemployed offspring. My mental health understandably suffered. I felt tugged between two classes and belonging to neither.
It was during the spring of my third year at Oberlin – a particularly rough one: I was working long hours at a fast food job and had just lost several close friends – that I got the little stick-and-poke cat illustration which dwells on my inner arm. To most people, this particular tattoo is just a weary little cat, and that’s fine by me. In my eyes, though, the illustration is Scat, the feline hero from a class-oriented childrens’ book I adored growing up: Bernard Waber’s 1963 Rich Cat, Poor Cat. It’s a hippie-kid staple meant to instill the reader with empathy for poor stray cat Scat, and all the other cats in his orbit, who, though belonging to different class identities and ways of life, are all deserving of happiness, comfort, and respect. Scat teaches children about class but he also lives a happy, tomcat lifestyle. He is unashamed of who he is. I carry him on my skin as both a fragment of my goofy, Leftie childhood, and as a talisman that reminds me: you belong here. It’s OK that you are here.
Though I am not a stray cat, I’ve felt at times like little old Scat. Many well-meaning, wealthy Obies have told me that I “have taught [them] so much” and that merely being around me has made them think about class much more than they ever have. Which is mostly a great thing; many people in the U.S., especially those who have never felt financially uncomfortable or discriminated-against, do not possess a rich enough class consciousness. I’m glad that I have been able to teach others my perspective just as I am glad when my friends have been able to teach me theirs. That being said, I do not attend Oberlin to teach rich people about poor people – I attend Oberlin to be a student. A friend. A very young person.
So, while Oberlin did not “radicalize me”, it did teach me about wealth and how it works. And I can tell you now, as a senior coaxing myself through one final, miraculous semester at Oberlin, that the socioeconomic alienation I felt my entire time here was a rude though invaluable awakening. There are many things I wish I could tell my eighteen-year-old self. If you’re reading this and you’re also an Obie who identities with being working-class, low-income, or first-gen, perhaps I can lend some wisdom:
1. Your mere presence is radical. It might sound corny, but the fact that you are here, taking up space, is important. Remind yourself of that as often as you can.
2. There are more of us than you think. For a long time, because of who I surrounded myself with, I didn’t know many other Obies from backgrounds similar to mine. But they, we, exist. Put effort into finding people who share your experiences. I promise they’re here – and they’re not wearing “bluecollar cosplay”.
3. “Hard work” is subjective. If you’re low-income at Oberlin, you probably work a lot, on top of all your schoolwork. You may find that wealthier Obies do not. Take this into account when you yield to the (natural, human) inclination to compare yourself to your peers. Not everyone’s idea of “hard work”, a “busy schedule”, and a “long shift” is the same. Recognize this and show yourself compassion.
4. Take advantage of Oberlin’s resources while realizing its limitations. It took me years to recognize which parts of Oberlin benefitted me and which ones did not. Checking out books from the libraries, rather than buying them or finding them online, has been hugely helpful, for instance. Mudd isn’t just a study spot! Take advantage of its robust catalog and fill your room with books. On the other hand, dining co-ops, while very beneficial to some students, didn’t work for me; I didn’t have the time or energy, after work and school, for cook shifts. And that’s ok!
5. Your anger makes sense. Put it to use. Realize the inherent value of your perspective and let it be known – whether that's through talking in class, writing an op-ed, or joining a political org. You’re allowed to be angry. In fact, you should be. Doing something with it can make you feel a little less heavy.