What does it Mean to be a White Academic @OU Watching #SAEHatesMe, While Being Inspired by @OU_Unheard
During my drive down to Oklahoma back in August of this year, took me right through Ferguson, MS post the Michael Brown murder. While I am a white academic now, racism and race issues are not new to me. I grew up in predominantly black communities, attended a diverse school, lived in the largest Arab community in the world, outside the middle east, and organized in Mississippi and Virginia around racial justice, but at the end of the day, I am a white guy with privilege, and I am part of the problem and solution at the same time.
I took students down to Ferguson in October of this year to pitch in in days before the grand jury verdict, and soon after, I watched @OU_Unheard get underway in response to racism and race related issues on campus. I have been privileged to have met these amazing young activists, participated in events, and engaged in dialogue with them via social media. This year has also seen the public outrage and racial divisions over the death of Eric Garner, Syracuse University students social media and organizing campaign around diversity and racial justice, and more recently the sit-in undertaken by students of a racist professor at the University of Cal. Berkley. During all of these events, I have been outspoken, blogged, and shared anger and resentment for the unjust systems that perpetuate racism and oppression in America. During the past week, I watched with horror with everyone else across the country at white OU students engaging in a racial chant via a recorded video that went viral on Sunday evening. The next morning I was with many of my students and colleagues walking in peaceful assembly against racism at OU. During the days since, I have struggled with expressing myself, unsure of my role as an ally, very aware of my own race and position, and equally aware that this is incident is probably much more of the rule than an isolated event than many would like to admit. When I taught immediately after the racist video was released, I realized even more how in trouble we were as a society. I am not angry with my students, many of whom expressed anger and disgust with the video, and more than anything, I appreciated their open honesty. You see back home in Michigan, students in the classroom would have hid their true feelings, covered them, because they understood the repercussions for expressing them, but here in OK, people are more forthright, for better and for worse.
One of the things that students brought up was whether or not there would be the same reaction if black students made a similar video, and many stated that it would not be nearly as big of a deal. My first reaction was that I could not believe that social work students would even begin to raise this question in the immediate wake of what was an extremely traumatic event for many black students on campus; essentially, sometimes you just need to learn to keep your mouth shut. My second reaction was that I could not understand how educated white social work students who had taken mandated courses on diversity and oppression just missed the huge flaw in their assumption. Now, I am regularly taken to task on this issue, but I do not believe that most white people in the U.S. are victims of racism. I say this based on sociological principles of race, the idea that for racism to manifest, one needs to have the presence of prejudice, privilege, power, and history all working for the benefit of one group against the welfare of another. In the OU case and in most cases in the U.S., black people may have prejudice at the same rates as whites, but they do not have white privilege for certain, depending on the context, they might have immediate power, but they do not have systemic power in the same way as whites, and surely do not have the historical legacy of oppression and violence working for them in the same way as whites. A simple example that I gave my students is that a black person could come up to me and call me a ‘poor white trash cracker’, and it would have little impact on me, beyond pissing me off the same as any name calling might. The ‘N’ word has history behind it, power behind it, hurt behind it, and when delivered by individuals who still have majority power in this country, community, university, etc. there just simply is no comparison nor can one make the case that racism is occurring in both instances.
The second thought that I had during classroom conversations was how focused students were on the video, whether or not students were going to be expelled simply by being present during the video, and whether the video was even accurate. I do challenge my students to think critically, to try and see the other side, and be skeptical of knowledge for good reason; however, this discussion seemed much more about finding some way to turn the issue of racism at OU into an isolated incident or to find a way out of accepting accountability for it. Yes, as white people living in a culture of racism and oppression in a nation built upon the backs and from the blood of slaves, native americans, and many immigrant communities, we are all responsible for it. The fact that many students could not make the link between the racism video at OU and incidents in Ferguson, New York, etc., or link it to the Tulsa Race riots, the destruction of Black Wall street, the sundown communities that existed formally until the 70s or possibly later, the refusal to teach critical history in the schools in OK, the lack of diversity on campus or in faculty ranks, the lack of a diversity administrative position, not to mention the regular microagressions experienced by students of color everyday, really made me scratch my head. Never have I wanted to scream in a classroom more than on this day, yet I knew that this would not change anything or help student learning.
The third think that I noticed was how disinterested many students seemed to be with the issue. Perhaps this was simply discomfort coming across, but I have social work students who simply did not attend the rally, really seemed annoyed that we were taking up class time to talk about it, and couldn’t wait to just leave and go about their lives. At the same time, I am watching faculty colleagues who have never expressed any interest in racism or racial justice in our school, on our campus, or nationally come out in a public display of support for students of color, and while I hope that they meant it, I just can’t help but remember how little support I got when I took students to Ferguson, how only one colleague came to an event at the school with members of OU_Unheard, and how now when OU is under the microscope and essentially all of us as white faculty are as well, here we all are walking, marching, and talking, just the way that white men have since the beginning of our beloved country. Why would students be any different? If this is the culture, and the adults around them model behaviors that convey that being an ally, whether for persons of color or LGBTQ, is merely about attending a brief training, putting a sticker on your door, and assigning an occasional reading by bell hooks, than how can we blame our students if they don’t quite understand racism, privilege, or what being an ally is to another group takes?
What bothers me the most is that the students at OU who were on the infamous video took the fall for what we as white people have accountability in; the institutional perpetuation of racism, myself included. How many times have I listened to a racial or off color joke and didn’t interject to stop it or call the person out? Sure it isn’t something that I am proud of or that I can even remember doing recently, but I know for certain that I have done it, and most white people have at some point in their lives, and I suspect strongly, that many have done far worse than that. The point is, I cannot pretend to be perfect, I am as flawed as the next white person. I have never been more ashamed of being white however, than over the past 8 months. I have thought about every single direct thing that I have ever done that could or did perpetuate racism or oppression. I also realize that playing the victim helps no one nor does calling out other people without a purpose or way to call them back in, because let’s face it; we need everyone working together, especially privileged whites, if we are ever going to truly address racism and oppression at OU or in the larger society. While I understand expelling the students involved in the incident, I am not certain that anything was gained through the action, and mostly it felt like more of a public relations gesture and way to calm down black students than anything in regard to addressing racism. The students and the video are simply illustrations and symptoms of much bigger problems in our society. Why not have the students involved face black students and see the impact of their words and actions? Did we even consult with students and leaders about what the community wanted or thought needed to be done or did we assume that we already knew, something white people do far too often. Moving forward, we as a school must continue to work on drafting our first antiracism issue statement. Our school must invite back Unheard student activists, and maybe this time, students and faculty will make it a point to come out and learn something. My colleagues and I, must push the university to continue to work on hiring more faculty of color, hiring a diversity administrator, and finding ways to improve upon our dismal percentage of black students on campus. We must continue advocating in the state for a more equitable criminal justice system that doesn’t simply use police, courts, and prisons as a legal form of racism. We must push the state to begin teaching about the dark side of our state and national history, the one that whites have covered up and kept away for far too long. If OU is rule committed to antiracism, it must give up the #Boomersooner call, mascot, and culture as it simply reflects white privilege and ignorance about the genocide and gentrification of native peoples, which this culture simply reinforces. Additionally, whites must stop simply trying to act reactively whenever an issue of racism becomes unmasked or public and stop trying to just react to make it go away. Racism and the pain caused by it will never go away, there is no reconciliation that whites can do that will clean away 150+ years of oppression and trauma to blacks, native americans, and other groups. We must begin to be comfortable with our own discomfort in order to begin being proactive in addressing racism and oppression. Finally, we have to speak truth to hold ourselves and our systems accountable.
Throughout all the negative that has happened over the past week here at OU and across the nation, I am also inspired by seeing the next generation of organizers and activists standing up and speaking out. I have been fortunate to be able to watch @OU_Unheard grow from a few students into a campus and regional movement. More and more black students are standing up and demanding their rights across college campuses, which has a feel to it that I have heard from older activists, feels similar to the start of unrest and action in the 1960s, only more digital. While some students that I spoke to inside and out of the classroom struggled with grasping the basic elements of white privilege and oppression, others did get it, and many came out for the rally and are finding other ways to be change agents, which makes me smile inside. I am not sure even as I complete this post if any of it is coherent nor am I any closer to gathering my thoughts about what I am feeling or experiencing at the moment, but I do know that there is work to be done, and the time for action is now.