That SAE Video, Racist College Culture & Black Student Survival at University
By Denene Millner
I don’t know why folks are acting all shocked by this SAE video madness, as if despicably racist, nigger-filled rants by groups of white college boys is somehow new, fresh, unexpected and unique. Any human who’s ever stepped foot on the campus of a predominately white college or university can tell you with relative ease that this kind of behavior, that kind of brazen foolishness, those kind of animals, are all par for the course on the soils of American institutions of higher learning.
It’s the same ol’ story: members of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity founded before the Civil War in the antebellum south, got busted singing this racist song about never letting Black people pledge. Though the SAE video doesn’t show the segregationist ditty in its entirety, the refrain repeated over and over again to the melody of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”—”there will never be a nigger in SAE”—is interspersed with a reminder of the frat members’ willingness to do what the good ol’ boys of the Jim Crow south used to do to terrorize Black folk into following their racist rules: “You can hang ‘em from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.” Of course, the entire bus is practically rocking as its passengers, clad in tuxedos, heading to an event at an exclusive golf club, sing the song with great gusto and glee. A separate Vine video shows the frat’s house mother, looking like a Paula Deen understudy, repeatedly and rapidly saying the word “nigger” while she giggles into the camera—like she’s really used to letting it just roll off her tongue.
In typical fashion, the fraternity’s national chapter issued an apology and put an ocean’s worth of distance between itself and its errant members, claiming in a statement that the song is not one it teaches SAE brothers and that it’s totes cool with the University of Oklahoma’s move to drop kick the local chapter off its campus. The statement went on to say that they’re suspending the U of O students from their fraternity, they’re working with African Americans to “build a partnership that will address the need for additional training, awareness and resources on cultural and diversity issues” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…
And right there is where it gets especially stupid. Because everyone pondering this thing—from the university to the fraternity to the members to the media and beyond—is acting like this is some isolated incident that goes away with a statement and an expulsion and a meeting with the Black Student Union.
Racism on American campuses is as ingrained and regular and damn-near non-eventful as rain is wet, grass is green and sugar is sweet. Because, duh, the campuses are filled with Americans—all-too-many white folk who were raised at the knee of parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins and friends who can’t stand Blacks (Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners and Indians and everyone else of color, too) and hold tight to stereotypes and privilege that makes them certain white folks are the shit and everyone else is nothing more than the soiled toilet tissue on the bottom of their shoes. This is not a white frat thing. This is not a southern university thing. This is not an isolated incident. This is America. This is fact.
I learned that much not more than half an hour into my college experience at my alma mater, Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. My parents couldn’t have been out of the parking lot after our teary good-byes before one of my two roommates, a girl from the butt-crack of Pennsylvania, informed me that she’d never seen “a Black girl in real life before.” This while the other roommate, from Chicago, ran her fingers across my toiletries and, settling on my jar of Dax hair greased, asked me what it was for before informing me that while she’d seen Black people before, she didn’t know any personally.
I wasn’t sure what to make of what they’d said, but I didn’t know anyone on campus yet, so, operating on the “you all I got” philosophy, I pushed their treating me like a Martian aside and agreed to go with Chicago to meet some of her friends in a neighboring dorm. Hey, I had to start somewhere, right? Well, that was a disaster. While I stood in a corner of her friend’s room, trying to figure out what I could say to fit in with these girls—all white—another girl came barging into the room, pissed. “That stupid nigger downstairs wouldn’t let me into the door because I don’t have my ID yet,” she seethed, completely unaware that I was there until her friends, frozen and wide-eyed, introduced her to me, the Black girl.
“I didn’t mean nigger in a bad way,” she insisted. “I meant nigger like, ignorant person. Not black.”
I wish I could tell you that I had a pithy comeback, or that I punched her in the face in solidarity with my people or that I called her on her racist crap. But honestly, she caught me off guard, y’all. I did not expect to hear the word a half an hour into my time out in the “real world.” I did not expect to have to confront the person who said it. I did not expect to be paired with roommates who’d never seen or talked to Black people before and had only stereotypes and yes, racist beliefs, to work with before they met special, naive, nervous, “can’t we all just get along” ol’ me.
The experience grew me up real quick, trust. And by the time I left Hofstra, I was real clear on the ways of racist white folk.
But when I went to that school, I wasn’t ready because no one prepared me for it. I’m the first and only one in my immediate family to go to and graduate college and so it makes sense that my parents wouldn’t know thing one about campus dynamics. But I’ll be damned if I let my girlpies tap one of their manicured toes on the campus greens without understanding that American colleges and universities are but a mere microcosm of America, with a faction of racists who are often too young, stupid and drunk to hide their sick, twisted thinking when it comes to race. They sit in classes as kind as you please during the daytime, but in the cover of night, they whoop and holler and piss all in the hallways and tear up furniture and fixtures and sexually assault young women and yell racist shit at Black folk with impunity, knowing nothing will happen to them because the campus system, like the American system, is set up to protect them. To let them act any ol’ kind of way because they’re white and they just can. Campus security is too busy policing Black students, professors, administrators and workers to care that the others are tearing the campus apart and attacking and abusing students of color.
What those boys were doing in the SAE video was not new. It happens every second of the day in the dorm rooms, in the locker rooms, in the bleachers of the sporting events, and yes, at alcohol-fueled frat parties of every non-HBCU college and university in the country. Don’t believe me? Consider all the racist Black face, anti-Black and -immigrant kegers these idiots host then splash onInstagram and Twitter, with an attitude that’s totally, “Like what? We’re just having fuuuuun!”
While the University of Oklahoma’s president should be applauded for his swift action to denounce the offending students, kick them out of school, ban the frat and shutter SAE’s campus house—real talk, those were boss moves—each of us has to stop acting as if this kind of behavior is rare and happens in a vacuum. (I’m looking at you, four-star recruit Jean Delance, who rescinded his commitment to play at U of O after the video surfaced and instead chose to go to the University of Alabama instead—as if this kind of behavior doesn’t rear it’s ugly head ever in Alabama.)
Racism on college campuses is systemic.
It is real.
It is pervasive.
Let’s start the conversation there.
And rather than call in the good BSU folk to help white students understand why it’s hurtful to sing “nigger” songs, how about we put that effort into giving Black students the tools and mettle they need to make it through the race gauntlet they’ll surely face on America’s college campuses. Indeed, in America, period.
Denene Millner is a NY Times best-selling author. She is the founder of MyBrownBaby. This post originally appeared on MyBrownBaby.
Photo: SAE protest/Screenshot