The Oklahoma University Fraternity Incident Reminds Us of What Is Racist?

Co-authored by Jeanelle L. Ferril, Esq.

After watching the despicable video of the University of Oklahoma fraternity members engaging in their racist chant, domestic attention seems to again be focused on racism, if only for a fleeting moment. A question arises from this intermittent focus: is a racist act determined only after certain news and political pundits say so? If so, many could, and actually do, argue racism is on its last leg. Unfortunately, and without reservation, those facing it can assuredly assert that such is NOT the case.

In current discussions on the subject, only the most pernicious and overt acts of racism are condemned. Discussions relating to racism have accordingly been converted into a conversation, which is dominated by individuals that have not been subjected to its torrent of abuse and manipulation. Indeed, few if any with said mantle or podium ever face the pervasive, and even agonizing force of the micro-aggressions people of color, and other outsiders, routinely confront. Upon viewing clearly racist videos, i.e. the OU SAE chapter song, mainstream media and local leaders courageous enough to even comment on the matter advise us that such events are abhorrent, disgusting, and are merely aberrations of reality. Despite being confronted with an act, indeed even a video of it, they assert that such views are not a reflection of the institution, the town, the organization, or even the people that have been caught under the microscope.

The evidence seems to reveal, or at least suggest, otherwise. From the Justice Department's report on Ferguson's system of race-based practices to the cell phone videotaped instances of police brutality, regardless of what a court of law has actually determined, the actions presented before us are clearly a reflection of deep-seated racial biases and/or stigmas engrained in the perpetrator's mind(s). We cannot succumb to chastising and/or being appalled solely at the events that society characterizes as "racist, sexist, classist, etc.," we must redefine the conversation.

The need for validation, and/or mainstream concurrence completely undercuts the need to challenge those that have maintained the power structure of this great nation. If we only rise to the occasion, after a member of the group, who has benefited from this system of domination to begin with, becomes outraged at the so-called "one bad apple phenomenon," then we will forever be repeating said sorry stories, rather than redefining the story and the power structure that created it.

We must be prepared to stand up and educate, and use the transformative power of love to articulate, precisely how words, regardless how benign they may seem, have power to both strengthen and destroy. While many in this society remain convinced that this country is "colorblind," objectifying even our president as an example of the era to end bias, such views allow society to be both complacent and largely blind instead of colorblind. In turn, we then are educated to believe that the progress achieved is enough, and we merely need to "move on." Smalls steps of progress are not evidence of the end of thousands of years of bias and hate: A half-black president is not enough; A Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice is not enough; A woman controlling the House of Representatives is not enough. This nation has transitioned from supporting overt racism to perhaps unwittingly condoning implicit bias, which may very well last much longer than the evils of overt perniciousness. While we do not suggest all of white America support racism or its ramifications, it is puzzling, saddening, and at times infuriating how frequently white America remains utterly silent on the unlawfulness of an unarmed black child being shot down in the streets. Is this normal to them? If a white child is gunned down, and only to discover no weapon existed to require the need for deadly force, would society simply assume the perpetrators "were doing their best" under the circumstances?

Many of those that practice hatred based upon ignorance, thus summing up all -isms, have altered their vernacular so that it is as hooded and protected as the infamous members of the Klu Klux Klan factions of society that so clearly existed, and sadly remain to this day. Until we can reflect openly on our pervasive racist history, its institutional and structural significance today; until we demand open and honest dialogue between those harmed and those that have benefitted from past wrongs, we will not move this great nation forward, but instead will be moving it backward. If such occurs, ultimately our great experiment will fail for far too many. Further, to avoid discussions of our racist past, and its impact on modern society is dangerous. It is dangerous because it reflects the unfounded notion that you can heal without examining the root cause of a problem, and any psychologist worth his or her salt will let you know you CANNOT. We cannot say we are moving forward without first addressing that (1) this country is incredible and has done many great things, but it has also done many BAD things to its outsider groups; (2) the BAD things have had long lasting repercussions for the communities of both the enslaver and the enslaved, for instance; (3) the BAD things may have repositioned itself in new venues that both sides have internalized; and (4) the learning of the BAD things requires an un-learning of the notions that BAD things have engrained in each community.

Race issues and discussions cannot be reserved for the moments in time when they are deemed relevant to the decision-makers of our news headlines -- we must do more, we must own the language and the conversation. We must educate, and must listen and teach each other. We must be willing to grow, understand, and love our fellow brothers and sisters.