The faternity of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma, who were caught on video chanting that no “n—-” will ever “signed” to the fraternity, along with a reference to lynching, just demonstrated how “freedom of speech” (if that’s even what this was) does not mean freedom from consequence. Because already this morning, I’m seeing comments sections on news articles claiming that the OU chapter of SAE being shut down and OU’s ties to the fraternity being severed is too harsh, and impinges on freedom of speech.
So first of all, I think people don’t realize that not all types of speech are protected by law – so if you think that any and all speech is protected in the U.S., you might want to look that up. And while I’m reasonably certain that this example was not actually illegal, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be and shouldn’t be consequences. Because freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence.
As for the joke defense I’m seeing? (I.e., “They clearly weren’t condoning lynching, it was just a chant, they didn’t mean it to be taken seriously” etc.) Even if these young men were just “messing around,” it was an excessively poor choice on their part, and it should be taken seriously. I’m willing to buy the immaturity + peer group pack mentality explanation, because I’m not sure these guys understand the gravity of their words, but that doesn’t mean they should get off lightly.
You can always say after the fact that something was a joke to try to minimize the hurtfulness of your actions. When someone puts you down, then tells you it was just a joke and you need to chill, that’s actually a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship. And I think it’s fair to say that white people have, are, and will continue to be emotionally and physically abusive to black people. So when I hear “it was just a silly chant, it was bad but not that bad, people are just being to sensitive,” that fills me full of NOPE.
Fact is, if you’re not an insensitive racist asshole blinded by your own privilege and/or lacking the strength of character to not go along with peers who are, you’re probably not going to chant about rejecting black people using a racial slur with a reference to lynching to begin with.
The casual reference to lynching is what really disgusted me. If anyone doesn’t understand why it’s beyond disgusting and insensitive to make light of a very dark and cruel chapter of American history – well, congratulations, you’re part of the problem. Go read this New York Times article for some perspective on how pervasive and acceptable killing black people was – and still is, if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately. Black people are still being threatened with violence simply for being black. Black people’s lives are still considered of less value, and black people are more likely to be killed by police rather than facing justice – and when they do manage to make it to a courtroom, they’re more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive harsher sentences than white people.
Now tell me again how the lyching comment wasn’t serious and we all need to just chill?
For the record, my day job is in higher ed, and just last week, I was chatting with a coworker about some of the challenges of the traditional college age group when it comes to non-curricular education. We can offer them activities and opportunities to learn more about diversity and interact with people who are different from them, we can offer them volunteer work and study abroad programs and community engagement, but they have to want to pursue those opportunities. Making those sorts of things mandatory often doesn’t educate so much as it becomes a chore whose message they will reject, and we don’t want to do that, either. Incorporating values of equality and diversity in the classroom is good, but then we get student feedback telling us that we’re coming on too strong with our message, and when that happens, students become dismissive and cling to their social microcosms.
The point is, you can’t educate people who don’t want to be educated. Sometimes the best you can do is introduce and reinforce the notion that actions have consequences. While that doesn’t mean people will ultimately take accountability or truly question their attitudes, at the very least, at the very least, perhaps they’ll think twice before being so vocal about expressing their hatred of, rejection of, or gleeful willingness to see harm come to populations of individuals to whom they feel superior.
I think OU’s response has been good so far, and I’m glad that the SAE leaders shut the chapter down.
However, I’m not convinced that those young men really learned anything from this. My feeling from having worked on more than one majority-white college campus whose white students typically come from privileged families is that they’ll be so blinded by their privilege that they’ll never understand why that chant was so horrific or why shutting down the chapter was justified. Many will have parents who will positively reinforce their sons’ behavior by defending and rationalizing it, and they’ll have supporters who will do the same. And they will continue to be blind to how black people feel about the situation, and the issues and realities faced by people of color.
I hate to end on a note that’s not optimistic, but I feel like infusing this with a sense of “I hope someone learns from this” or “we can change the world” undermines the fact that shit like this happens constantly, that people of color deal with this sort of thing everyday, that this is not new and not an isolated situation. I’ve been reading responses to this situation by people of color, and while they’re varied, the one thing I did hear many of them stress is that this situation is not surprising, shocking, or new. I want to amplify that – that this is the sort of thing that happens and has always happened, that they deal with constantly, that just because it doesn’t explode into national news doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It is.