Radically Centered: OU’s SAE Racist Remarks Present Teaching Moment

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What happened at Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a disgrace, disgusting and demeaning, but it also creates a chance to eliminate of racism on campus and beyond.

by Justin Shimko

It took all of three seconds for me to go from curious to shocked to outraged when I received a link to a story from a fraternity brother about what happened at the University of Oklahoma, my alma mater. I clicked on the link late Sunday night and saw the words written out in the body of the article, sparing myself from having to actually hear the epithets chanted throughout the bus. As the story gained steam from a campus interest to a nationwide (and even international) story, the emotions ranged from disgust to embarrassment. Disgust at the content of the video, embarrassment that this kind of stuff actually happens in today’s society, at a my school, by a fraternal organization across the street from where I lived for three years.

OU - Sigma Alpha Epsilon ScandalWhat really surprised me, and many people I would think, is the multitude of minority men and women on campus saying they were not surprised by the video’s content. They lay claim to this happening, not overtly, throughout OU. And that is what hurts more than all.

It hurts because I was not aware of it when I was a student there. It hurts because it was not brought to light when speaking to minority students and teachers, leading me to question if what I said or did could have been taken in that light. It hurts because in 2015, we see something so vile and shocking that the masses quickly and vehemently condemn their actions while the minority groups like OU’s Unheard have been working, unknown to most of the university, to address these problems.

When I was a student reporter working for the Oklahoma Daily, I had the opportunity to interview one of the professors regarding the civil rights movement in Norman. The stories he told me, the heartache he experienced, the turmoil that swept through the campus, humbled me. I could not imagine what I would have done if I was a student at the university at that time. Would I stand up in favor of change or stay silent in the background? Would I even agree with the movement, content in my bubble that everything was okay? I told him as such. I cannot remember his exact words today, as much as I wish I recorded them, but I do remember the message. I remember the feeling of being excused of my fear and to use that fear to not do the same thing when confronted with a chance to change what is wrong.

Now, as my university is suffering from the embarrassment of realizing there is a problem and that the problem has long been there, I wonder what will occur. We have already seen the fraternity shut down, likely for years to come, and two of the students expelled for leading in the racist song. But what else will happen? Teachers, students and coaches protested in solidarity against the hateful words Sunday night on into Monday evening, calling for a change much larger than punishing Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

OU President David Boren revealed that he has been meeting with Unheard since January. He listened to their grievances and said he agrees with most of them. He knows there has to be a change in our society to end the problems that serve the foundation for this type of ignorance. And, as president, he is well aware that something has to be done quickly or the reputation of the university will suffer immensely. I’m not talking about in athletic recruiting, which has already seen the ill effects of this sad situation, but the overall reputation of the university as a place where Sooners, the nickname of the team and the students, are treated equally and fairly. Maybe it was all a farce and the university has been a hotbed for discrimination since at least the time I was a student there, but I don’t believe that to be the case.

I think the university is a microcosm of our society as a whole. OU is not like other universities where liberalism is accused to be running rampant. The College Republicans outnumbered the Young Democrats in membership for many years and may still do so. Instead, it is a campus filled with a variety of opinions, races, ethnicities, creeds, worldviews and whatever else you can imagine. The student body is majority white and Christian, but those numbers are changing much the same way, if not more so, as the rest of the nation is changing.

In other words, it is one of the best places to prove to the rest of the nation that society can overcome differences and truly see each other as equal humans with an opportunity to succeed given the right tools and possessing the ambition to do so. By and large, discrimination is built on fear of the other person. Fear of what we do not know.

Fear is a powerful weapon and can overcome anyone. We have seen that time and again. How we overcome that fear is what shapes us as humans. Do we embrace it and work to better ourselves by understanding why what we say and do hurts others or do we dismiss it without even giving those hurt a chance to air their grievances?

Today, as the university still examines the reality of what just happened, and what has been happening, punishment looks like the best answer for a bad situation. But those who are being punished likely regret being caught more than they regret ever believing that those words would be okay in any situation. Many of these men who no longer have a home may grow resentful of the ones caught and those who demanded their removal, unaware that they should be mad at themselves for ever fostering an environment where that would be allowed.

Instead of throwing the book at them, as many want to do, it may be better to throw compassion at them. Compassion to show them why this is wrong and how they can change their ways to be better members of society and to see how their actions are not only not tolerated in today’s world but wrong-minded.

Because if all we do is kick Sigma Alpha Epsilon off campus and expel those most responsible, then we have done nothing more than kick the can down the road, missing an incredible teaching opportunity.

Justin Shimko

Justin Shimko is an award-winning writer and political analyst. He began as a reporter in his college days at the University of Oklahoma, writing for The Oklahoma Daily (rated as one of the best collegiate newspapers in the nation) and The Oklahoman, the statewide newspaper, winning awards from the CSPA and the Society of Professional Journalists. He later moved on to research and writing work for a number of political campaigns. His email is [email protected]