The video of University of Oklahoma chapter Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members singing racist lyrics is neither unbelievable, unreal, shocking nor isolated. Face it: The author(s) of that song were not passengers on that bus. That song has been around for quite some time and those young men have learned its lyrics and the sentiment of its lyrics well. That said, surely we ought respond to this egregious act but I’m compelled to respond to other words spoken by white students on college campuses: “I don’t know why Black people need Black student associations?” Viewing the video I immediately thought, “See it’s because of this kind of brutality!”
Yes, this behavior was racist but the responses to the video show an increasing effort to deny racism exists in the “hallowed halls of academia.”
Don’t tell me this is “shocking” because it’s not shocking if you live in America. White people hurling racial epithets and threatening lynching is not new behavior and is very believable. Change the talking points. Better to say it is “horrific and inexcusable behavior.” And say it in ways that count to eradicate such behavior. The quick action taken by University of Oklahoma is right and just but let us not forget some history: the history of segregated white fraternities and sororities.
The answer to why we still need Black fraternities and sororities is in that history, it is in this story about SAE and it is in the unwritten but lived stories Black students face in schools across our country.
As we speak about SAE I urge us to remember the very first fraternity founded in 1906 for Black men, Alpha Phi Alpha was established “as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell [University].” This nation’s oldest Black fraternities and sororities were established to address the very kind of behavior shown in the video of SAE members and the ongoing patterns of racism among its chapters at other schools!
Black fraternities and sororities were also designed to be spaces where Black students would be safe to express the discrimination they felt on campus, to encourage one another to strive for excellence and to complete their degree programs.
This need has not diminished and the video is no eye-opener for Black university students, alums, faculty and administrators. When a Black student receives a degree from many institutions of higher education across America they are receiving more than a degree; they have overcome years of institutionalized racism. “Getting that degree” is the attainment of the hopes of our ancestors and it is often the first example for other family members to be assured “that it can be done.” Unfortunately, it is also a bittersweet achievement. Black students very often must face the failure of schools to properly prepare them and their colleagues for a world that does not turn on white thought and scholarship; the burden of excessive student loan debt; few vocational networks and having spent 4 or more years with very little sense of “community” as advertised in the school’s glossy marketing material. And yes, there are exceptions to this critique but they are, proportionally speaking, few.
Diversity, statements about “zero tolerance” for bigotry, showing solidarity among the student body and working assiduously to ensure the campus is welcoming is great and we have good examples of this among some of our schools. However, as long as Black scholarship is not respected, as long as it is treated as an appendage to curriculum; as long as Black students’ voices are ignored in the classroom; as long as our experiences are deemed as having little to no epistemological value then what remains “unbelievable, unreal and shocking” to me is that more of these incidents aren’t revealed.
So here’s another work for our white allies in the protest movement: Time for you all to move from the malls and highways and turn your attention to predominately white fraternities and sororities. Use your white privilege to disrupt and say, “Get out of here!” to those damn Greek organizations housing the bigots that will become the lawyers, judges, politicians and police officers that oppress and refuse to believe that #BlackLivesMatter.
Shut. Them. Down.
This piece was originally posted at OneNabi.
serves as co-chair of the Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group of the American Academy of Religion. An Army veteran and mother whose son served in Iraq, Dr. Lightsey is active in social justice ministries but particularly those focusing on global peace, LGBTQ civil rights, eradicating racism and the engagement of viable reconciliation methodologies. RMN’s history and work is contiguous with her own experiences. She has worked with RMN and supported its several programs and is happy to offer her scholarship and ministry skills to the organization. Pamela hopes to help RMN especially to understand and further support the unique challenges of being a queer person of color.
Latest posts by Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey (see all)
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