Teachable moments about racism: Who are they for?

Teachable moments are for us all

I attended the University of Oklahoma for undergrad as well as law school back when big shoulder pads were exceeded only by the bigness of your hair. I pledged Kappa Alpha Theta (Theta) as a freshman at OU and thwarted all predictions when I became an officer (social director twice & V.P. in charge of Pledges my senior year) in that organization. I was also a member of the select Theta Standards committee, which is the internal member behavior disciplinary panel. The Theta sorority house shares an alley with the now infamous OU Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity house in Norman, Oklahoma. I was also a Little Sister at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and an honorary Little Sister of the Lambda Chi Omega frat when they had such things.

I was always conflicted about my participation in the OU Greek system because of my “GDI” tendencies (God Damn Independent). Regardless, I formed meaningful friendships with girls I otherwise would probably not have, many of which endure to this day. We encouraged each other to make good grades, wall danced at mixers, traded enormous sweatshirts and dated each other’s discarded boyfriends. I was bothered even then about the lack of diversity in the Greek system, which was downright antebellum. Not only was the OU Greek system completely segregated by race and sometimes religion (I recall a Jewish fraternity?), it was also known for the wealth of the student’s parents. Regardless, despite the fact I was in a position to at least broach the topic of diversity as an officer, it never dawned on me that I could or even should try to precipitate change. It seemed too daunting at the age of 18, too remote, to the extent I thought about it at all. I consider it an opportunity lost, and I’m making up for lost time now.

I have heard some lament that this teachable moment was lost by the swift action of President David Boren to close the SAE house following racist chants by SAE’s over the weekend. How is the teachable moment lost? It continues regardless of whether the fraternity house is closed or the boys who memorized and publicly sang a racist song about lynching were expelled. The boys don’t cease to learn a lesson by a change of location or status, nor does the student body. Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned are when I screwed up &/or was judged harshly and at times unfairly. Their lives are not over. They’re white and privileged. They aren’t going to work minimum wage jobs because of this incident. It must really suck to be judged by one characteristic, or worse yet, one immutable trait with which you were born, such as the color of your skin.

Only the individual can change what is in their heart, but we can conform societal behavior by declaring loudly and boldly that obscene, racist behavior has no place. These boys were exposed for what they said (advocating the murder of black people) and did (singing about it). Bashing hate speech is not in vogue right now simply because of the climate of injustice highlighted by the killing of Michael Brown, who was about the same age as these boys. It’s all the rage because it’s wrong, and it will always be wrong.

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The teachable moment is for the Tri-Delt who pushed back and videotaped something she knew to be wrong and risk being vilified by the SAE house and her peers. When you know something is wrong, you have to call it out or you are part of the problem. I wish the story was more about her than the racist boys she exposed. Her action should be the norm, not the exception. It’s scary to take a stand, but often so worth it.

The teachable moment expands to the students on the bus, who may have been horrified but helped create an atmosphere in which the boys in question felt safe enough to chant racist sentiments without fear of reprisal. The boys are NOT the victims here.

The teachable moment is for the SAE fraternity who has been complicit in allowing racism to flourish unchecked within its house. Boren’s decision to board the whole fraternity up reflects this reality and is line with how the world works. A few bad apples can, and do, spoil the barrel.

The teachable moment is also for the student body at large to be put on notice that any racist speech will not be tolerated. It can only exist in the shadows. When you put hate speech in the light, it loses its power to harm. We are all Sooners together, and that means something.

The teachable moment is for black college students who feel a little uplifted by the outpouring of outrage that their lives matter. BlackLivesMatter. That the black community can forgive but not tolerate any more injustice.

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The teachable moment is for the leadership in Oklahoma government who continually pass laws that discriminate against its most vulnerable citizens. Your actions become less tolerable every single day, inch by inch.

I reject the notion that the lesson is limited to the perpetrators of hate speech. A lot of us will show up to counter-protest the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK because they are egregious to virtually everyone but themselves. There’s nothing heroic about that. Overt racism is clearly under siege. Where we have the most work to do is in the casual racism endemic to the circles in which we all travel. I’m tired of waiting for people to catch up. My life is now. The lives of my children are now. The lives of my friends are now. I don’t want to live one more second in a racist society. That is what I’ve learned.

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