By Lester Asamoah
In the wake of the University of Oklahoma incident, numbers of students, faculty, and staff are asking the inevitable question: what are their individual roles in helping their campus become an inclusive community? Let’s go into detail about things that can be done every day by students, faculty, and staff to mitigate the marginalization of people of color.
What happened with SAE was an example of overt racism. Clearly, no rational person in America can deny the racism of that video. However, that video is a result of covert racism, or racism that you don’t see every day. What does this look like? It is institutional. At the University of Oklahoma (OU) there are no people of color [POC] in high administrative offices and in 2013-2014 there were only 1,006 black students in a population of 20,000 undergrads. It is also microaggressive. What is microaggression? It’s judging black people on what they wear. It’s asking black students to be the spokesperson of their entire race in history class. It’s staring at groups of black people in your cafeteria or the Student Union. It’s making rude comments or accosting white women who are with black men, or black men who are with white women. Or black women with white men. Or anyone of any color, gender, or race with anyone else they love. A lot goes into this, and it is scientifically proven. I suggest reading a scientific study or reputable publication for more into this. Institutions are still pretty marginalizing. And nobody is overtly racist anymore, but people may not know they are acting covertly racist.
Are your eyes and ears working?
People of color have expressed, through many avenues, how their experience is on their college campuses. OU Unheard movement, among many, many other groups have been expressing their experiences. LISTEN. Everything in this post is not new. At Washington State University, a black woman was kicked out of a fraternity party and called a “n—-r bitch.” At UCLA and Michigan (among other major and minor institutions), they faced issues with microaggressions mounting and people getting fed up. This isn’t new. This is far from new. The next time you see a person of color tweet, post to facebook, or say something in class about race, LISTEN, READ, THINK.
Far too often on social media and in classrooms, white people try to (I want to borrow from the recent feminist term “mansplain” or when a man puts his two cents where it isn’t necessary – something that should also stop) “whitesplain” something because they haven’t felt the same experience. And it whittles people of color down over time they’re being told that their experiences aren’t as valid. People of color on campus have every reason under the sun to not fully trust all white people, between the awful things said after Ferguson and the things SAE said. Keep that in mind. People of color have every right to be wary of white people. So LISTEN. And stop invalidating their experiences.
Think about your n-words
As an American (or at least living in America), you have the right to say what you want. Quite frankly, you can be racist if you want. But, I assume you’re not racist if you’re reading this. The big argument with the n-word is that “Well if rappers say the n-word, I can say it too!!!!!!!!!!!” Stop. First, “nigga” is a reappropriated term. It was transformed into a term of endearment among black people. Let’s repeat those last three words, AMONG BLACK PEOPLE. With that being said, I have absolutely zero confidence that people will stop saying the n-word. But at the very least, contemplate the implications of that word. Because one of the biggest issues on college campuses is how white people use the n-word among each other as if it’s in style. And they listen to loud rap, and love black comedians, but when the social justice hits the fan, people really like being white. At the very least, do the research behind the history of that word and how it got to be what it is today before you keep using it.
Oh, and if you call your black friend “nigga,” know that it is always awkward no matter what they say. We will never admit face-to-face the awkwardness that pierces our souls. But, at the bare minimum, think about why you’re saying the n-word if you say it amongst your friends and you’re not black. There are many other words of endearment like “bro, cus, homie, friend, pal, comrade, dude, bruh (not to be confused with bro), dog, dawg (not to be confused with dog), and, but not limited to, fam.” Also, always remember if you call your black friends “nigga,” they will feel awkward and probably not tell you.
Taking practical steps
If you’ve made it this far (or you skipped to this part), you want to know “what can I do?” Okay. Well, if you haven’t already, you should read and understand everything above because I explain various issues. But, actually do these things:
— Understand that you may not be overtly racist, but your words and actions can still be harmful over long periods of time. And understand that universities, fraternities, and the justice system were not made for black people. I repeat, the creation of universities, fraternities, and the justice system, historically, was not meant for the black person. Things are changing, but there are still issues. So be patient with people that are frustrated.
— Listen, don’t interrupt or argue, or say “I’m not racist because,” or say “my black friend….” Actually, go ahead and delete those phrases from your repertoire NOW. Listen first. Ask questions. Understand. Be slow to judge. Don’t “whitesplain.”
— Think about the use, or your friends’ use of the n-word. And know that if you think it’s cool to call your black friend the n-word, she or he will think it’s awkward, every single time.
— Remember black people are people too (shocking, right?). Not just your campus’s athletes, your favorite slam poets, or the girl that sits in your class. Say hi to black people on campus. Invite us to things. Ask us about our lives and what our hobbies are. Sit with us. If we are athletes, don’t just talk to us about our sport. Ask us about our lives.
— Don’t say “not all frats, or not all students”–that’s obvious. In fact, people saying that raises the question if it really is all fraternities or all students (because if you have to keep saying something isn’t something, well…). And it’s unhelpful. Focus on what you’re going to do to PROVE, REPEAT PROVE–YOU KNOW, THROUGH ACTION–that your frat or school is different. Because, as I said before, people of color have a right to be at least a little wary. Remember that.
— Don’t blanket any social movements. Marching with your black friends is fun, but understand systemic and cultural change is long and slow. And it starts with me and you. No, this is not about just Greek Life, how awesome your campus is, or anything positive when it comes to social movements. What happened at the University of Oklahoma and what continues to happen across campuses nationwide are extremely negative and we should not cover those negativities up with positives. That is actually doing the opposite of what people who care about change want.
Remember, civil rights marches used to be violent. People had to take BEATINGS. Civil rights were violent. We, as this generation of students, have the privilege of not expecting to be attacked, so don’t make rallies and marches your self-masturbatory events you put on Instagram. Also, don’t make your black friends or kids in African countries that either. Stop it.
— Don’t appropriate any movements. Don’t act like your friends or organization are the best shining example of diversity in the world. Because clearly people of color on your campus can prove why that’s not true. Just sit back and understand the movements. Don’t brag. Improve, and show that you are.
— Don’t take attacks against “white America” personally. If someone says they have an issue with white people, chances are they have a very specific one that has no bearing on all of white society. And if you listen long enough, they’ll tell you what it is. Keep in mind that America was built on the backs of slaves. And, well, Selma happened only 50 years ago. Our parents were alive when black people were being beaten by police. Keep that in mind. And keep in mind that every black person in America is somehow affected by institutions and systems that are a legacy of deeply violent and exclusionary history.
Finally, keep in mind that these guidelines can loosely be applied to a number of things like sexism, transphobia, Islamphobia, ablism, etc. We learn in elementary school to treat others how we want to be treated. Somehow that important lesson is lost, but let’s get it back America.