Author: Martin Pittman
“There will never be a n*gg*r in SAE. There will never be a n*gg*r in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a n*gg*r in SAE,” Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Delta Delta Delta at the University of Oklahoma (OU) sang in a video posted to YouTube March 13.
Since the YouTube video went viral, conversations of racism in traditionally white Greek life have sky-rocketed both nationally and at Occidental. While members of SAE at Occidental have sent letters via the root saying they are open to conversations about race and how to make the organization better, SAE has not shown any concrete steps towards change. A Greek diversity retreat and a few conversations over the course of a few months will not solve hundreds of years of institutional racism that sit at the core of traditionally white organizations.
While SAE’s national headquarters and its members suggest that the racist chant shown in the video is an isolated incident, we need only look to the history of SAE and other traditionally white Greek organizations to see how this exhibition of racism is not an anomaly. Rather, this video serves as evidence of the racism many students often feel but cannot necessarily pinpoint because of the covert form racism often takes in our society.
SAE’s roots are steeped in hatred and bigotry. The fraternity was founded in the South and was initially supported by a plethora of Confederates who fought to keep slavery alive.
Many might say these Confederate founders were just a product of their time, but their actions and beliefs were only the beginning of a string of racist practices in SAE’s history.
In 1982 at the University of Cincinnati, the Ohio Epsilon chapter was suspended after its members planned a racist party around Martin Luther King’s birthday. According to an article in the New York Times, fliers sent to other organizations suggested party goers bring “your father if you know who he is,” extra large radios and rejected welfare checks. The chapter received a two year suspension because of the incident and was instructed to create an awareness plan.
In 1992, at Texas A&M University, the Texas Tau chapter hosted a “jungle fever” party featuring “black face, grass skirts and ‘slave hunts.’”
In 2002, a member of the Syracuse University chapter of SAE wore black face out to local bars.
The list goes on. In 2013, the Missouri Beta chapter at Washington University in St. Louis was suspended after some of its pledges were instructed to use rap lyrics to direct racial slurs at black students passing by the house. Last year, 15 members of the Arizona Alpha chapter at the University of Arizona were accused of breaking into a historically Jewish fraternity, physically attacking the members and slinging derogatory remarks at them.
While all of these acts are disturbing, even more disturbing is that all chapters mentioned are still active except the Missouri Beta chapter.
The most recent debacle at the University of Oklahoma is additional proof that these racist incidents are not isolated but part of the historical practice of the organization that dates back to the 1800s.
And, while Occidental’s illustrious California Epsilon chapter would like support in “denouncing the ignorant statements of the OU students,” they will not find support because a mere apology is not enough.
SAE at Occidental, like at other chapters across the country, has perpetuated both misogyny and racism on campus. A 1981 Occidental yearbook photo shows the members outside of the SAE house with what appears to be a noose hanging in the corner. More recently, SAE alums visiting the college in 2010 were heard catcalling Professor La Mont Terry’s wife and friends in a manner that constituted both racial and sexual harassment.
“One evening my wife was entertaining three to four guests at our home while there was some sort of gathering at the SAE house,” Terry said. “As my wife and her friends wrapped up their time together, she escorted them outside to their cars to say goodbye. As they exited our residence, my wife and our friends (all African American women) began hearing ‘catcalls’ from the SAE balcony saying something like, ‘Hey gurl, what yo name is?’ Eventually, I was contacted by the house president, Nathan Weinstein. He apologized profusely and indicated that the person responsible was an Occidental alum and was present that day as a guest of a resident of the house.”
Terry further shared that the weak response from the organization and deflection of responsibility reinforced his beliefs that there was an increasing lack of commitment to diversity.
This incident shows that issues of racism within Greek life, specifically in SAE, are much closer in time and place to Occidental than some would like to admit. Furthermore, weak responses from the administration and other traditionally white organizations allow these problematic behaviors to continue and fester unchecked.
I do not want to suggest that there is no hope for change within this organization, however its recent surface level efforts suggest that real change is not likely in the foreseeable future. SAE, both at Occidental and nationally, needs to do a lot more work than just having a conversation or two if they intend to counter their racist image, which has been cultivated for over 150 years. Conversations about racism have occurred for years but have had little effect.
The most recent subpar attempt to end racism came in the form of a Greek diversity retreat, which was set up by members of Greek Council, the Greek adviser Diego Silva and various other members of Occidental’ s administration. Rather than addressing the institution of white Greek life as a problem, the facilitator brought the conversation to the personal level. While this may be a powerful tool, it is far past time for personal changes. Institutional change is what is necessary and can only come from an institutional approach.
The facilitator, Gamal Palmer, noted that his goals were to “start the conversation,” but the conversation was started long ago, before the civil rights movement. Moreover, participants were encouraged to acknowledge and accept different people’s consciousness or lack there of about racial issues. In essence he called for an acceptance of ignorance. This is a highly apologetic approach to take because, again, it asks people who are more knowledgable about racial issues to drop to the level of those who are ignorant rather than pushing the ignorant to rise to the level of those who are more aware of racial issues.
Professors do not accept ignorance when it comes time for a test, and Occidental does not accept ignorance of people’s intoxication levels in deliberating cases on sexual assault. Why is ignorance acceptable around racial issues?
Rather than continuing to accept this ignorance, we need to push individuals to understand racial dynamics and hold them accountable for their ignorance. An apology or surface-level-conversation will not, and has never, solved racial issues. There needs to be concrete change, and if that change will not come from the organization itself, then it needs to come from the administration. And if the administration will not take more productive, concrete action in restructuring Greek life, then I believe students will push for harsher sanctions like the disbanding of specific organizations or Greek life as a whole. While some may think this move is drastic, I believe it may be necessary, because I am one of many students who are tired of “having conversations” and accepting ignorance when no concrete changes are in sight.
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