Can University of Oklahoma change its culture?

In the wake of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon closure and two members' expulsion, university students are taking the opportunity to have an open conversation about racism on and off campus. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP
University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in reaction to an incident in which members of a fraternity were caught on video chanting a racial slur, in Norman, Okla. Many colleges are clamping down on campus fraternities after their reputations are sullied by race-tainted incidents. Even with a school’s sometimes swift and hard action, episodes such as the racist chants by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma still surface.

After this past week, the campus culture at the University of Oklahoma will likely be forever changed.

The university swiftly closed its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter and expelled two members after a video featuring brothers singing a racist chant surfaced.

The university's decisiveness stands in contrast to its long history of letting incidents of racism slide. In the past, fraternity brothers have targeted Vietnamese and Native Americans by holding “Mekong Delta” themed parties and defacing tepees. After each show of racism, the fraternities would apologize and promise that it wouldn’t happen again, while the administration would punish those involved and seek to move on.

But this most recent – and highly publicized offense – resulted in more than just a routine apology. It has also given students and faculty opportunity to talk about how they have personally experienced racism.

A meeting about diversity hosted by the university’s business school and scheduled before the SAE incident turned into a discussion among faculty and students about the treatment of minorities on campus.

“This is very different,” Betty Harris, a professor of anthropology, who has taught for 30 years at OU told the LA Times. “There was a habit, or a tendency, to just move past those [other incidents]. But I see something different this time.”

At the meeting, students discussed what it was like to be surrounded by university-sanctioned artwork that upheld racist stereotypes of Native Americans  and never having professors of color. UO student Cheyenne Smith told of being called a racial epithet by a passerby the day the video came out, and Tracey Medina, a Mexican American, recalled her parents calling her after hearing about the video on the news and asking her to "come home, they hate you there," according to the LA Times.

The problem extends far beyond Oklahoma. College students across the country are frequently reported hosting parties with racial themes such as the “Compton Cookout” that mocked Black History Month at UC San Diego and “South of the Border” parties at University of Texas in Austin.

Stephanie Eyocko, a black student at University of Oklahoma, says racism such as this comes from individuals rather than a racist society or institution.

“Let’s not put it off on Greek-ness,” she said of the chant to the LA Times. “The Greek stuff needs to change and the culture needs to change, but individuals need to realize and question when they’re doing something that isn’t safe for black people.”

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