I shouldn’t be writing this today (many other pressing deadlines), but I have some thoughts I just need to get out in response to the racist SAE chant at the University of Oklahoma. They’re still raw and quick, but they’re in my head and need to be articulated. (Disclosure: I’m an OU alum & was born and raised and still live in Dallas, the hometown of the expelled students. As such, this hits really close to home for me.)
What has prompted me to write a response, is that I wasn’t at all surprised when I found out one of the expelled students was from Highland Park – a wealthy and predominantly white neighborhood in Dallas. Only .5% of the population is black (yea, less than 1%) and the average cost of a home is $1.2 million (compared to $220,000 for surrounding neighborhoods). It is the wealthiest neighborhood in Dallas and least diverse (it is 94.5% white; the racial makeup of Dallas is 50% white or 29% non-Hispanic white depending how people are categorized). Point being, Highland Park is white and wealthy. The Highland Park ISD has been making news recently for banning books – including Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America, as well as other books about and by people of color. In a community so desperately lacking diversity, it is appalling that books about and by people of color are being banned.
Regarding the OU incident, I’ve seen a lot of people commenting that “you aren’t born a racist” and implicating the parents in this as well. I have no idea the hearts and minds of their parents. However, I do know that racism is systematically reproduced. When people are completely surrounded by people who think and look and act like them (such as these students), they have no empathy or understanding of what it means to be any other way. I should add only 5% of OU’s student body are black. In other words, it’s quite possible these students have had little (to no!) interactions with people of color. As Dr. Maria Dixon wrote in response to this incident,
A child doesn’t have to have a parent that shouts racial slurs from the top of their lungs daily to learn to hate. No, rather than the explicit messages of racism like ‘coon’ ‘boy’ or ‘monkey’— children learn from what their parents don’t say. White children learn the lessons of bigotry when their parents isolate them from “those people” by sending them to private schools instead of the public schools in their neighborhoods. Their arteries become clogged with prejudice when the only people of color they encounter are those who serve their meals, clean their rooms, or carry their bags. Clots of intolerance form when they are sheltered behind exclusive enclaves that protect a lily-white existence—never allowing them to experience the diversity of humanity..
Sadly, it’s possible the students didn’t truly understand the historical context of what they were saying. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it wasn’t really taught at their all-white school; I know the racial history of this country wasn’t taught in my predominantly white private school in Dallas. We barely covered the Civil Rights movement (or anything after WWII for that matter). When it was addressed, I remember it being framed as “Hey look how bad things used to be (way back when). But it’s ok now because America fought against injustice *insert MLK “I have a dream speech”* People rallied to change bad things, so we can pat ourselves on the back for fixing the wrongs.” There was no mention of HOW and WHY we needed to fight against social injustices in the first place or how our country had become so divided and racist. We weren’t taught about Jim Crow. We weren’t taught about the lynchings and the evils of racism.
It wasn’t until I got to college (at OU) that I took Dr. Norbert Kanak’s Prejudice and Civil Rights course and truly understood the deep and ugly and systematic problems of this country (of all the courses I took, it is one that has meant the most to me and stuck with me the past decade). Until that point, it was just presented as slavery (bad), then Civil War (good), then Civil Rights (fixed some lingering bad). There was no real understanding of what happened between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement and importantly, what role whites played in that. Even when we read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, (my favorite book) they were framed through a nostalgic lens of “the way things used to be” (and of course present an honorable white man trying to right the wrongs). It wasn’t taught as an education about our country’s history, but rather was presented as, “see, not all whites were bad and let’s just not talk about the ones who passed laws that allowed all this to legally transpire” (I’m being overly simplistic here, but you get the point, we weren’t taught actual history that led to discrimination in the first place). I don’t know what or how any of this was taught at Highland Park, but I can guess it probably wasn’t all that different from how things were taught at my privileged white Dallas-area high school.
In no way am I saying all this to excuse the racist behaviors of the fraternity. Instead, incidents like this just further iterate why diversity and education are so important. Why history, all of it, and especially the really ugly parts, absolutely must be taught and discussed in schools (and long before college, which is of course a privilege in itself). It’s why it’s so infuriating that Highland Park ISD bans books about people of color. These students NEED exposure to people who are not like them (and they sure aren’t getting it from actual life). I’m afraid a generation is growing up without an understanding of America’s ugly past that was systematically and deliberately rooted in racism. I’m often surprised by the attitudes of the college students in my own classroom (which is actually quite diverse). I’ve been caught off guard when they don’t know what Jim Crow was or what happened in Selma or understand that it was only 61 years ago that the first black student (Tennyson Miller, a doctoral student) was allowed to enroll at our university (It took a lawsuit and 2 more years before a black undergrad was allowed to enroll). This ignorance is not across the board and I want to avoid broad generalizations, but I’ve seen it with white, black, and Hispanic college students over and over again. It’s sad and alarming that today’s young people (and I include myself in that) don’t know what has happened – and is happening – in our country.
While not excusable, I wonder if the SAE students understood the power and history and emotion and hatred associated with what they were saying. I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought it was just harmless tradition (as we see with other racist chants and mascots in colleges across the country). This is how racism is reproduced. I say all this to say that while the chant and any other subsequent racist behaviors are inexcusable and reprehensible (and I stand by Boren’s decision to quickly remove the fraternity from campus), it speaks to systematic racism that is symptomatic of systematic ignorance and a white-washing of history. Schools and neighborhoods and parents and churches need to address racism in all its forms. Moments like the SAE chant are easy to condone, they are overt and explicit. But I doubt those students just woke up that morning and thought, “Yea, here’s what I’ll sing today.” I have no doubt if you asked them if they were racist or hated black people, they’d say no, and they’d believe that.
But racism isn’t just about hate and it certainly isn’t just about overt and explicit moments like this. Moments like this render it visible, but are indicative of deeper, uglier, insidious, systematic, and often more subtle problems, attitudes, and beliefs. Such problems can at least begin to be addressed through education and moving out of insular worlds that reinforce an understanding that “everyone is like me,” or worse yet, “people like me are better than people who are different from me.” It should be obvious, but you don’t have to hate to be a racist, you just have to intentionally or even unintentionally act and think that “those people” aren’t quite as good as you. Such beliefs are nurtured over time and through our environments, and they are dangerous. So yea, Highland Park ISD, I hope you recognize this student was a product of your school and you likely played a role in this ignorant and reprehensible moment.