Oberlin Dining Hall-Gate Gives Media Another Excuse to Mock and Misunderstand Student Activists

Have you heard about the scandal du jour emerging from a notoriously “coddled” American college campus? Well! The “safe spaces” the kids at the famously lefty Oberlin are demanding are their very own dining halls — where the “global” cuisine being dished out recently has ranged from genuinely offensive to merely inauthentic and gross.

Kids at Oberlin protested what they identified as “cultural appropriation” in their dining halls, manifested in items that were labeled sushi, tandoori beef, General Tso’s chicken, and banh mi sandwiches but which they claim fell short. Serving beef in honor of Diwali is about as respectful as handing out ham sandwiches on Rosh Hashanah (which is to say: pretty obnoxious), while making a poor version of General Tso’s chicken, a culturally hybrid dish already, seems more offensive to the palate than to anyone’s particular heritage. Students have written letters to the editors, and now that offending menu is being reconsidered.

Imagine wanting the place where you eat most of your meals to be pleasant and not offensive — the sheer nerve of it! Never mind that the school seems to be making an effort to improve its offerings and most students appear to have moved on to studying for exams; the mainstream media’s grown-up scolds have already jumped on the opportunity to add this incident to their litany of examples of kids today being little censorious “PC” fascists-in-training. Everyone jumped on the “mock Oberlin” bandwagon, but some were deadly serious about their critique.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic wrote hundreds of words surmising that the students were insidiously using PC norms in a cynical ploy to get better food — a theory he developed without speaking to a single Oberlin activist or even any alumni. It’s like he was writing about strange animals and trying to figure out their habits. Meanwhile, the New York Times published a somewhat sneering piece entitled “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall,” which makes a few letters to the editor and some huffy quotes sound like students think the future of abortion or gay marriage is on the line rather than mass-produced Kung Pao.

It’s easy to chuckle at the students’ demands; admittedly, some of them sound a bit like a Portlandia sketch. But demonizing the activists is foolish too. Friedersdorf’s conviction that the students are wickedly exploiting a hot-button topic to agitate for improved meals ignores the fact that bad food has a history of getting college students involved in bigger fights. This looks more like an example of starter activism, the kind of small, localized campaign that helps generate support for student activists and their issues. Ask any student politician and they will likely tell you the way to votes is through campaign promises about improving the dining hall, which is the heart of campus social life.

And for that reason, dining halls have also been longtime targets of student activism. In fact, some of the protesters from Oberlin’s Black Student Union were agitating for a result that campus activists have sought for decades: the dismissal of a mega-corporate food provider. As an Oberlin Review article from a few weeks ago notes, “While food quality and preparation were major concerns, students also called for better treatment of CDS staff, saying that they wanted ‘a guaranteed 40 hour work week, benefits for part-time workers, personal days, funding for job training and increased wages.'”

The story continues:

The students also want to maintain the house’s orientation toward the community and promote greater benevolence and humanity for CDS workers. “Bon Appétit is owned by Compass Group, which is a huge international organization that has received food violations in numerous countries,” Farrakhan wrote to the Review. “Until you’ve worked [ for] CDS, you don’t realize how rude, condescending and overbearing the managers are. And you don’t realize how much food gets thrown away. I would like to see Bon Appétit fired and replaced by something other than an international corporation.”

When I heard about the students organizing about appropriative food, I smiled and sighed, but I also immediately thought about these other concerns — labor practices and the corporate outsourcing of campus services . And I rightly assumed those other issues were also on the table, so to speak. That’s because corporate outsourcing of food services and janitorial services on campuses is a common cost-cutting measure that hurts both students (providers are less directly accountable) and workers (they tend to cut wages and benefits). Dining halls are a natural locus of student-worker coalition building, and it certainly seems as though some of the more focused Oberlin student organizers understand this.

I’ll keep typing it until my wrists fall off: these protests and petitions are a learning experience for students, much like their essays and tryouts for campus theater. Student protests have always had a variety of targets and tactics that range from self-parodic to incredibly serious and effective — because that is indeed how experience is forged.

Yesterday’s campus agitators are today’s scholars, politicians, and instrumental organizers in movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. If those folks had been laughed at by the writers and readers of national media outlets every time they opened their mouths, perhaps they would have shied away from a life of public service.

Meanwhile, administrators chide low-income students for requesting an admission-fee waiver, and the same pundit class that is eager to slam “privileged” students has very little to say.