Stunned by a Video, U. of Oklahoma Struggles to Talk About Race

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

In a display of unity against racism, students at the U. of Oklahoma place messages — “I am listening,” said one, “because my people have talked long enough” — on a campus lawn.
March 19, 2015

The text message arrived on Latrecia Breath’s phone while she was grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon.

"Please watch this," her friend urged.

Ms. Breath, a sophomore majoring in broadcasting and electronic media at the University of Oklahoma, waited until she was in the parking lot before she clicked on the link. There, in her prune-colored Saturn, she watched the video that was rapidly engulfing the 27,000-student campus. Her university had become a flash point in the national conversation about race.

The hand-held video showed members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity aboard a bus. A white student, in a bow tie, was leading the passengers in a song. To the tune of "If You’re Happy and You Know It," they vowed to never have black students in their fraternity, using a racist slur and invoking imagery of lynching.

Ms. Breath’s emotions swirled. She was disappointed and confused, wondering how things like that still happened in 2015. Sure, she’d had to deal with indignities before as a black student attending a mostly white high school in rural Oklahoma. Here at Norman, she’d experienced white students’ touching her braids without asking and then darting to their friends to chirp about it. She’d been told she spoke very well — for a black woman.

The video distilled an underlying sense of discomfort that she and others had felt but hadn’t widely discussed. Now it was impossible to ignore. The problem wasn’t just the fraternity brothers leading the chant. It was also the passengers clapping along, singing enthusiastically. They seemed to have sung it before.

The video also had a salutary effect: It started tugging at the veil of reticence that often shrouded frank discussions about race. Such conversations can carry risks as well, as many students in Norman quickly learned. At least for now, though, they were happening.

College campuses are growing increasingly diverse, typically because of rising numbers of Hispanic students. Black students continue to be a clear minority. At Oklahoma, 5 percent of the students are black, as are 2 percent of the full-time faculty, librarians, and deans. Despite their small numbers, black students remain frequent targets of racist incidents.

At the University of Mississippi, a noose and a Confederate flag were draped on a statue of James Meredith, who was the first black student to enroll there. A black student at San Jose State University had a bicycle lock cinched around his neck by his white suitemates, who took to calling him "three-fifth."

Beyond college campuses, the recent killings of black men, including Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, in New York City, have ignited racial tensions and fostered unease among many black students.

The Oklahoma video became public at a poignant moment: It was the day after President Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the march in Selma, Ala., that set the stage for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As the nation grapples with questions of equity, of how far society has come and how far it has yet to go, campuses, too, are struggling. How can they respond effectively to the incidents of racism on their campuses that can now be so easily, quickly, and widely shared? More fundamentally, how can they keep those incidents from happening in the first place? How well prepared are they to foster inclusion and facilitate candid and constructive dialogue when their own cultures often need to change?

Soon after Ms. Breath arrived back at her apartment, her roommates — who are black, white, Hispanic, and Native American — began trickling in. The video was on everyone’s mind.

Shawntal Brown, who is black, had watched it at the library while studying for an anthropology exam. A sophomore majoring in psychology, she spent an hour futilely trying to regain focus before calling it quits. Another roommate, who is white and Native American, came in, upset but not surprised. After all, she’d seen campus announcements for cowboy-and-Indian-themed parties. A third roommate’s boyfriend, a white graduate student who had rushed SAE as an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, felt deep disappointment.

They talked for an hour and a half, trying to making sense of the video and what it said about the fraternity and sorority system and the campus's racial climate. It was the first time, Ms. Breath said, that she and her roommates had truly talked about race.

As she and Ms. Brown made signs for a rally the next morning, Ms. Breath kept tabs on Twitter. She came across a tweet from her white suitemate from freshman year, who had joined a sorority and was worried that the entire Greek system would be labeled racist.

"The pointing fingers needs to stop," the former suitemate wrote. "Everyone needs to make a change together and not blame each other for what has transpired."

Ms. Breath felt that they had enjoyed a friendly relationship when they lived together. They’d never really talked about race or the Greek system, but they had found common ground as students in Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"Not all people within this system are bad," Ms. Breath wrote. But something was clearly wrong within the Greek system. "Who is to say this doesn’t happen in all fraternities?"

"‘The system’ in place does a good job of inclusion for OU," her former suitemate wrote. "How, though, do you think the system needs to change to end this type of racism?"

They needed to be more diverse, with difference conceived of in broad terms, not just race and ethnicity, Ms. Breath wrote. "This change also needs to happen within the university too."

The university’s response to the video came the next day. David L. Boren, the president, spoke bluntly, intending to send a message to the campus and the country.

"There is zero tolerance for this kind of racist and bigoted behavior," he said at a news conference. "These people don’t deserve to be called Sooners." He shut down the fraternity and soon expelled the two ringleaders of the chant.

Sitting in the audience, Ms. Breath and Ms. Brown liked what they heard. But they didn’t want the expulsions to be the end of it. The campus climate still needed improving. It had been desegregated in 1949, although its first black student was forced to sit cordoned off from her white peers, in a chair marked "colored."

With the fraternity video’s notoriety, calls for change in Oklahoma fell into categories that would strike many observers as familiar. Symbolic efforts, like a silent march and candlelight vigil, came first.

Before the video surfaced, a group of black students, called OU Unheard, was already pursuing a broad strategy, issuing a list of demands in January that included hiring more black faculty members. The students also wanted more money allocated to organizations serving black students and to retention efforts and scholarships; more diversity programs; and a larger role in planning homecoming.

They scored a quick victory when Mr. Boren announced, soon after the video went public, that he would hire a vice president for diversity.

The most common response was a call for dialogue. Speakers at town-hall meetings and rallies described the need for difficult conversations, as did students on Twitter and Facebook. Small flags, holding handwritten notes, were planted in the campus’s South Oval in a demonstration of unity, calling for candor and openness.

"I hope we can have the humility to truly listen," one read. "I am listening," read another, "because my people have talked long enough."

It can be easier, however, to call for such conversations than to actually start and engage in them. What needed to happen to help move the campus forward? How might faculty members facilitate difficult discussions for their students? Oklahoma’s faculty showed little appetite for discussing the subject, at least with a reporter.

The Faculty Senate met the day after the video surfaced. When asked to describe the conversation, its chair, Randall S. Hewes, referred the request to the administration, which forwarded the senate’s resolution. It was broad in nature and promised to make concrete recommendations.

"The Faculty Senate stands united against racial injustice," it began, declaring that the faculty supported Mr. Boren, affirmed a commitment to fostering an inclusive and respectful campus culture, and stood together with students and the administration. The university had no other comment.

Seleena D. Smith, an adjunct instructor of African and African-American studies, said her courses sparked difficult conversations even before the video came to light. Ms. Smith, who has a degree in counseling psychology, said in an email that, on the first day of class, she makes students sit near someone who doesn’t look like them. She also allows them to establish the ground rules for discussion, which "set the stage for my students to feel safe and a little more willing to take risks in my classes."

While several students said their professors mentioned the video in passing during the week, they also described a pattern of missed opportunities for deeper dialogues, both in the classroom and in day-to-day interactions.

Darion Mayhorn, a graduate student from Ferguson, Mo., said during a town-hall discussion that he lived with a white roommate who had never asked him about the events that shook his hometown or about the fraternity video.

"You live with a black guy that lived in Ferguson, and you haven’t asked him anything what he thought about it?" he said. "We need to challenge ourselves to remove that stigma of being scared of whatever it may be and open up our minds and hearts, and find out what that person may know that you don’t know."

Students said their peers sometimes held back in the classroom, too. Ms. Brown, who is Ms. Breath’s roommate, said discussions in her "Introduction to African-American Studies" course (not the one that Ms. Smith taught) sometimes came to a standstill. In a talk about the black family, she recalled, the professor asked the students to describe some common stereotypes. No one wanted to speak up. "It was like the elephant in the room," Ms. Brown said.

Guiding such conversations requires skills that often lie outside a professor’s experience, said Belinda Biscoe, Oklahoma’s associate vice president for university outreach. "We still have gaping wounds that fester because we don’t create safe environments" to talk, she said. A dialogue alone won’t solve larger conflicts, but "it’s the first step, the baby step."

Even baby steps risk deepening misunderstandings. Having an honest discussion about race sometimes means that white students will ask questions that, deliberately or not, end up inflaming their black peers. Such questions can be perceived as microaggressions, the small indignities that, intended or not, alienate black students from the campus mainstream.

The complicated dynamics that characterize discussions about race have led some professors elsewhere to question whether Mr. Boren’s forceful condemnation of SAE may have a perversely negative effect because it will make dialogue even more fraught. It’s relatively easy to call out individuals’ racist speech, especially when it is caught on video. It’s much harder to root out racism and subtler and more systematic forms of prejudice.

What’s more, evidence suggests that discussions about race can sometimes actually have a negative effect on black students. As they catalog microaggressions, they can acquire racial battle fatigue, a term coined by William A. Smith, an associate professor of education, culture, and society at the University of Utah, to describe race-related stress. Each incident feeds an internal narrative for many black students that they don’t belong on a campus or aren’t wanted there, he said. Many times, they withdraw emotionally or socially, or simply drop out.

Black students can also find themselves in an uncomfortable position with their white classmates during conversations about race. Instead of being able to focus on their courses, those students often spend time explaining to their white peers exactly how and why an event like the video at Oklahoma is harmful.

"They bear the burden of being professors of race relations," Mr. Smith said. "It’s like they’re the racial Atlas."

In Norman, many students argue that real change is likely only if they push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Ms. Smith’s classroom exercise — deliberately seating students from different racial or ethnic groups next to one another — was one example. But unexpected opportunities can present themselves, too.

One of those happened in November, on a long bus ride to a student-governance conference at Iowa State University. Most of the Oklahoma students were dressed in business casual. Alex Byron, the student-government vice president, noticed one black man, however, who was dressed to the nines. He wore a tailored suit and cufflinks. "You could tell everything had been planned head to toe," said Ms. Byron, who is white. "Nothing had been left unironed."

She thought to herself, "This is a very, very well-dressed black man." And then she caught herself. Why and how did his race figure into her observation? What were her assumptions? And why did he dress in a way that she thought would come off as ostentatious for a white man?

She turned to Chelsea Brown, a freshman and chair of projects and problems for the student government. Ms. Byron broached her question by mentioning Dear White People, a satirical movie about four black students at an Ivy League-like college. She knew that Ms. Brown, who is black, had also seen it. That gave them an opening to talk about how black people present themselves, which led to a conversation about how some black students sometimes feel they must work harder and dress better than their white peers to succeed.

The comments didn’t bother Ms. Brown. Growing up in North Texas in an almost exclusively white community, she had learned to differentiate the barbed comments from the naïve ones, or from those that were asked in all earnestness. It was often a matter of how the questioner behaved. Was the questioner playing to a group of friends? Or was it an honest approach?

Ms. Brown believes that change at Oklahoma should come from within the black community. She’s not sure that demands issued by groups like Unheard, such as hiring more black faculty members, are realistic or even necessary. She’s always felt comfortable asking a white professor for help, but she also realizes that she’s used to doing so because of where she grew up.

"I don’t think it’s as easy as ‘We need more black people’ " on the campus, she said. "Students need to bring issues to the table and be open."

George Henderson, a professor emeritus of human relations, education, and sociology, has seen the pushes for change and reconciliation in Norman ebb and flow for more than four decades. The third black professor ever hired at Oklahoma, in 1967, Mr. Henderson helped students in 1969 draft a "black declaration of independence," which articulated some of the same demands of campus administrators that are being issued today by Unheard.

While some important things have changed, Mr. Henderson said, many have not. "We’re desegregated. We’re not integrated," he said, describing how Asian, white, black, and Greek-group students often remain in clusters in the dining hall. "We share geography but not a common space called a university."

If students don’t so much as eat with one another, he said, how will they learn about one another?

Such polarization isn’t surprising, considering wider trends: Nearly one-quarter of freshmen nationwide grew up in neighborhoods that are either white exclusively or nonwhite.

Mr. Henderson’s arrival in and continued presence here reflect a combination of structural changes, a willingness to have difficult conversations, and a desire to push beyond the familiar.

He wrote in his memoir, Race and the University, that his mentor at Wayne State University warned him against moving to Oklahoma. "It’s a small redneck school in a backwater state," Mr. Henderson recalled being told. He went anyway.

Once he got here, the response was hostile. Brokers for three houses that he wanted to buy backed out of deals, telling him they were no longer available. They still were, he said. It was only when one real-estate agency co-operated that he was able to find a place to live.

Subsequently, he learned, longtime friends of those brokers said they would never speak to them again. Their listings fell off. Five years after they had sold to the Hendersons, their business closed.

Mr. Henderson frequently woke up to find trash strewn on his lawn and drivers hurling epithets as they drove past. But he also remembers people opening their arms to him, his wife, and their seven children.

While some in Norman considered the brokers traitors, "they were heroes to me," he wrote. "They were the real stars in this historic story, and history matters."

While ostensibly retired, Mr. Henderson still teaches. He’s heard white students ask questions that would incite controversy in less-capable hands. ("Why can’t I use the n-word?" one asked him once.) When he sees smirks and eye rolls from his black students in response, he stops them. His goal is for white students to become more attuned to the thoughts and beliefs of students of color, and for black students to become more sensitive to those of their white peers.

Mr. Henderson has thought deeply about how to create change in society. It's a matter of managing one's allies, and neutralizing bystanders and adversaries, he said. "No minority anywhere has been successful without the support of someone in the majority group," Mr. Henderson said. "That’s the reality of life."

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at