Happy Friday! I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy to see bare pavement and grass in my life- spring is finally here and in less than 10 days I’ll be in beautiful New Orleans attending NASPA’s 2015 Annual Conference. I’ve been in a really good mood lately. Or, at least I WAS… until I was made aware of this hot mess on Sunday night:
I have to say, in my 25+ years on this earth (you thought I was going to give you the actual number? Please…) that I’ve never seen something this blatantly stupid, obnoxious and disgusting ON TAPE. I’ve only watched it once, and I have no plans to watch it again because it was that ridiculous. If you’ve been off the grid for the week or refuse to watch the video like I did until midday on Wednesday, the video above is of a group of men from Sigma Alpha Epsilon (or SAE) at the University of Oklahoma engaging in a racist chant set to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It” that features casual use of the atom bomb of racial epithets, the N-word, and references our nation’s painful history of lynching. This foolishness was engaged in while the men (and allegedly some sorority women) were on the way to an event. The video emerged late on Sunday after a group called Unheard posted it to the Internet as a means of opening eyes to events happening on the OU campus. I’ll admit that I saw some of this pop up on the internet on Sunday- but given that people acting a fool and making foolish comments related to race come and go in our technology-infused society, most recently Giuliana Rancic’s conflating dreadlocks with weed and a lack of hygiene, and that in many cases things tend to move slowly when academia is involved I decided to hold off on making judgments until a few days passed. I figured it would take a while before something actually materialized at OU.
Well, it’s certainly not the first time in life that I was wrong. And boy, was I wrong.
Within hours, SAE’s national headquarters closed their house down and cut ties with the chapter and the story spread like wildfire. Within a day, the University of Oklahoma president cut all ties to the fraternity, made forceful public statements criticizing the students on the bus and promised swift action. Within the workweek, two students have been identified as being the ringleaders and expelled, African Americans withdrew their support from OU in droves (from entertainers to alums of SAE), even more video footage of SAE affiliated people being idiots came out, and yet again our country had to revisit the idea that racism is not dead, even among the youngest and seemingly most enlightened of us. Clearly, much has to be said for OU’s administrative response to this issue, and the students who are standing up on the campus and speaking out are to be commended. Beyond that, there are a few points and articles that have been really helpful for me in thinking about this issue that I’ll share below:
- First, there are a number of people involved in this situation that deserve our attention- OU President David Boren, the students who are the face of SAE’s Kappa chapter (Parker Rice and Levi Pettit) and the ringleaders of the video, the house mother who got caught in another video (Beauton Gilbow- more on her later)- but I personally felt most interested in what came out of the mouths of the Black folks involved with SAE at OU, most notably alumnus William James. James wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about his status as the last Black member of SAE that was revealing for more than a few reasons. For one, the fact that he was only the SECOND Black man inducted into the chapter- and that he was brought in well over a decade ago- speaks to how insular the organization was; I was also struck by the way he seemed to want to redeem the group while criticizing what they’ve done. I get being tied to your fraternity, but this was surprising for me- if I had been the second Black person in a predominantly White space in decades with the history the chapter had and that the organization in general had, I doubt I’d be coming out with ANY shows of support. I can’t imagine what he’s going through, but at times I wonder about individuals like James who come out to speak on behalf of Whites who make questionable choices. Granted, in the end he strongly criticizes the group, noting he hopes to never see another Black SAE, but trying to humanize these young men is not needed right now.
- Speaking of questionable shows of support and of Beauton Gilbow, the now infamous house mom whose Vine video put her in the national spotlight: I never thought I’d see the day that a 79-year-old granny would be doing it for the Vine and doing it all wrong. The video which has since been taken down shows six seconds of Gilbow reportedly singing along to the chorus of Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” but seemingly forgetting all of the other lyrics to the song except for the N-word (despite the song playing in the background… hmmm…last time I checked singing along to a song required singing ALL the lyrics), giggling and smiling while sprawled out on a couch. This video popped up after Gilbow spoke out on the young men’s behalf saying that she never heard their chant. Both videos for me show that despite the conversations that parents, teachers, and other authority figures have with students about not showing one’s proverbial you-know-what on camera and plugging into social media that the message isn’t sinking in. Gilbow was clearly more than half in the bag when she was filmed, but even she didn’t resist- which shows that the adults in the house have just as terrible judgment and even more distressing that they felt comfortable enough to do this and not be worried about being discovered. This speaks volumes about the house culture and possibly even about the school’s culture- time will tell if this is truly the case as more and more comes out. Of course Parker Rice’s parents think he’s a “good kid”, and of course Beauton initially came out in support of them- why would they question the students if they have the same views?
- On the school’s response: I can’t applaud David Boren enough for his willingness to be blunt about his frustration and disgust for SAE’s actions- he didn’t play it safe and send out a stock letter, email or press release- he went IN on SAE and their actions, called them out for being racist, and squarely defined their behavior as unacceptable and incongruent with the school’s values both on Twitter and officially in a press conference. As a Black man and as a proponent of social justice, I was thrilled to see him take aggressive action and to expel students; as a student affairs professional I was shocked to see two students expelled for speech by the president instead of an SAPro and without due process. Don’t get me wrong- I’m glad to see them go. However, it will hurt me deep in my soul if the decision gets overturned because of the way it was made- and with the ACLU noting that the decision may have been unconstitutional and the students seemingly being wealthy enough to fight, that might happen. I know I have student conduct folks who read my stuff and who are in my circle- would love to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the discussion.
- Finally, I’m hearing a lot more talk about what I like to call the “nuclear option”- banning all fraternities and sororities on campuses- after this and other incidents that have happened nationwide involving hate speech, alcohol issues, sexual assault, hazing and other forms of student misconduct that have been recently related to Greek life. I’ll be honest- I didn’t even think that people were willing to engage in this level of conversation until I went to NASPA Region I and saw a presentation on it (didn’t get to attend it, sadly) but since November I’ve seen more people go in that direction in conversation. Granted, Greek life has been a part of the college experience for many students for many, many decades- but more schools now than ever are choosing to eliminate that part of the experience or severely limit these groups. NBC News put out a piece on this recently that was particularly interesting; I’m predicting that we’ll be hearing more and more about this in the coming months.
SAE’s troubles aren’t going away anytime soon- with investigations into similar chants and other racist behavior in chapters in Texas and Louisiana among other places, they will likely be in the spotlight for the rest of the semester. Nor are people who generally make stupid racially motivated comments in public- hell,we have two more that happened yesterday alone. However, I’m hopeful that while we critique SAE and their behavior, we also think about the folks that are affected by these negative behaviors- namely people of color- the systems that we use that perpetuate further negative consequences, and above all the dark shadow of privilege that will likely help the young men on that bus out long after their presence is no longer felt at OU. One tweet about the situation as a whole spoke louder than anything else I’ve read on the subject:
I’ll be back next week with a couple of pieces before I head to NOLA- including one featuring this lovely lady below (three guesses why and the first two don’t count):
Enjoy your weekend and see you soon!