Responses to the University of Oklahoma (OU) fraternity singing a racist chant were immediate and intense. The national headquarters of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity decided that the “chapter needed to be closed immediately.” The University of Oklahoma President, David Boren, “severed” its relationship with the fraternity.
The chant is offensive, and the public has affirmed the responses by OU and SAE. However, an important question remains: what happens after the men are removed from the campus? Will the men learn about their racist attitudes? These White male students will likely go on to become businessmen, police officers, educators, and realtors, who may possess authority to make decisions that affect people of Color (POC).
President Boren indicated, “Moments like these should be teaching moments.” Indeed, these moments present learning opportunities for leaders of predominantly White institutions (PWIs), including universities and fraternities. White administrators might consider the following strategies for addressing racist events.
Reflect on your own feelings. Racism is shocking to all people. White individuals, in particular, observing racism may experience a range of responses including anxiety, helplessness, guilt, anger, sadness, denial, disbelief, and paralysis. Create a network of anti-racist White allies with whom you can speak openly about your reactions instead of avoiding or denying your feelings.
Consult with POC to understand how the racist event may be related to a legacy of racism in your institution and to identify the current impact on POC. However, do not expect or encourage POC to take the lead in addressing racism on behalf of the institution. Afford POC space to heal their individual and group-related wounds without the burden of saving or shielding White people from racism.
Imagine that the students were your sons or nephews, and consider how you would want someone to advise or care for them. Do not “sever” ties with them, and be aware of attempts to distance yourselves from them. Distancing occurs when White people “other” the offenders (e.g., “We are not like them,” “Real Sooners are not racist.”) “Othering” decreases empathy, reduces the students to one-dimensional characters engaging in racist behavior, and denies the students’ humanity, including the capacity to make egregious, offensive mistakes. Furthermore, “othering” negates the possibility that you could also commit a similar act. Saying, “We are not like them,” inherently declares, “I would never make that mistake.”
Devise an anti-racism response to (a) acknowledge the racist event, (b) articulate your personal response to the racist incident, (c) validate the humanity of the offenders, (d) identify and empathize with the potential harm to all community members, including POC and White individuals, and (e) suggest a plan for healing the community afflicted by the racial trauma.
Propose an anti-racism action plan to (a) cease the offending organization’s activities, (b) hold students accountable for their racist actions, (b) create a detailed strategy for educating and reinstating contrite offenders, (c) identify a team of White anti-racism educators to serve as resources for the offenders, and (d) provide resources for the traumatized community members of all racial backgrounds.
Racial healing requires that White individuals act among other White people to increase understanding of how race affects individuals and organizations. Leaders of PWIs must model for White students how to have difficult conversations about race. PWIs should embrace those who commit racist acts, because the offenders present us with opportunities to planfully implement strategies for racial healing.