This weekend, video footage of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma chanting a racist tune vent viral. When I saw it, I felt a tightness in my chest… and went into what I can only describe as a panic attack. I felt anger. I stayed in that emotion for a long time. I wanted other people to hurt, like I hurt. I wanted people to hurt like I know that other people of color hurt. I need to be honest about that emotion- because I have spent a great deal of personal work on myself working on navigating through the anger. The anger will always be with me- but I also forced myself to look beyond the pain, because I can’t lead from that place. When I look beyond the pain, here is how I feel.
Since the release of that footage, the president of OU issued a bold statement in response to the actions of the students on that bus. I have seen an equally viral response to this message. To date, it is one of the boldest messages I have ever seen from a college president. And yet- I am unsettled.
Shunning the men is the easiest, most convenient thing that anyone can do in this situation. Our collective work as educators is not, nor should it be easy. I do believe the men (and all of the students on that bus) should be held accountable for their actions… and still I have a few observations…
1. These men were not born overnight. The way they were chanting this song definitely did not look or sound like the first time they uttered the N word. How are we going to hold accountable and address the system that raised these young men and women? We are all accountable- administrators, parents, legal system, K-12 system… We all contribute in some way to creating the environment that led to this behavior.
2. The president of OU showed bold leadership. I admire that. It was needed. And it was also reactive. I would like to challenge ALL of us as educators to think about the distinction between reactive leadership vs. visionary leadership. Visionary leadership would mean infusion of social justice education into the curriculum. Visionary leadership would intervene and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for men of color, specifically Black men. Visionary leadership would mean difficult dialogues at orientation, leadership trainings, and not just limited to the student population- and would include the staff and faculty in schools and colleges.
3. To my white colleagues- it is very convenient for you to show your outrage right now. My question for you is how will you stay in it, and show your courage and compassion? As an educator in the college setting, I tracked that the bulk of my colleagues who were quick to shun the young men of Sigma Alpa Epsilon, and applaud the president of OU, are predominantly white. To my white colleagues I ask that you take the space and time to discuss this incident with each other. This is not the time to judge these young men, and distance your whiteness from their whiteness. This incident is a cumulative and generational impact of not addressing microaggressions, inherited bias, and at how white privilege impacts people of color. Now is the time for white people to reach out to other white people- and talk about ways to challenge internalized white dominance, and to unpack the knapsack. Distancing yourself from these white students perpetuates the myth that these are isolated incidents, and not systemic racist issues. Distancing yourself from these white students lets you off the hook from the difficult conversations and reflections about times when you have acted in ways that are rooted in racism, but have chosen not to deconstruct it- every time you may not have hired a person of color because of ‘fit,’; every moment you track a young black male into special education; every time you have gotten defensive when a person of color asks you to think about your privilege, and you label them as angry or noncooperative… every time. Those decisions are along the continuum of consciousness that directly lead to this chant on this bus.
I use the analogy of the measles outbreak we have seen in our country. In that scenario, most reasonable people have critiqued individuals who are anti-vaccination, offering perspective that those individuals compromise the common good, and compromise public health in a way that is life threatening. Even if we work to contain an outbreak, that is reactive leadership, and the casualties/fatalities could have been minimized with vaccinations. With forward thinking and planning, we articulate clear vision of eradicating measles.
I challenge us to think of this behavior as a racism outbreak… and we have seen many outbreaks this year. And truly there have been many fatalities. At what point will we lead with the clear vision and plan to eradicate the outbreak of racism? For the public good, at what point will we engage in visionary leadership to vaccinate our consciousness? And at what point will we start with ourselves?