Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fraternities and the Excuses of Racism

Most people I know will respond with strong emotion to the video footage of University of Oklahoma fraternity members'  racist chants during a bus ride to I don't know where. My African American friends are most likely hurt, angry, and disgusted. Perhaps they feel that nothing will ever change. I can't say I blame them.

Most white people too, will likely be angry and disgusted by such blatantly racist, hateful behavior. If they are from the north, as I am, they may even write this behavior off as a southern thing. "Yeah, Oklahoma," they may think, "what can you expect?" Of course, I recognize that this is a totally biased and false assumption - I know that there a plenty of southerners who are committed to social/racial justice and plenty of northerners who are racist, even if they don't ride on buses chanting racial slurs (just not done in NYC). But I'm being honest here - geography is one of the excuses whites may use to explain away the racism of other whites.

Which brings me to the topic of excuses. What fascinates me about this whole deplorable incident is the explanations given by the people involved, along with their friends and family members. Here are some I've heard so far:

1. The Mel Gibson Maneuver: "I was drunk." While I'm not an expert on the subject, it's my understanding that alcohol can make a person less inhibited, but it doesn't, in and of itself, turn people into racists. In that respect, booze is a lot like makeup - it works with what you've already got.

2. "I made a mistake." Writing the wrong date at the top of my check is a mistake. Forgetting to pay a bill because I lost it in a pile of junk mail is a mistake. Going out with a person after he asks how much I weigh is a mistake. Painting my bedroom hot pink is a mistake. Having my final grade in Statistics tattooed on my forearm is a mistake. Need I go on? We all make mistakes, but intentional, repeated behavior cannot be labeled a mistake or a "lapse in judgement."

3. "The song was taught to us." Yeah…and?

4. "The video does not define him personally," stated by a friend of one of the guys leading the chant. This is a derivation of the "I made a mistake" excuse (see #2 above). While I agree that people are complicated, aren't we all defined by our actions? Perhaps the video isn't the only thing that defines this guy, but it surely is one thing that defines him. And if the video doesn't define him personally, it defines him, what? Professionally? Religiously? Politically? Just as bad and maybe worse.

5. "I was singing along with a rap song." This, from the elderly fraternity house mother, is a version of the "they say it, why can't we?" motif. I have heard young people express confusion over the use of racial slurs because they hear them from African American rappers or friends. Not understanding the difference between insider/outsider status and entertainment v. everyday use, and not being fully aware of the brutal history of the slur as used by whites, white youth might not fully understand why they shouldn't use "the N word." But this woman is surely old enough to know better.

6.  And here's the saddest of all, stated by the parents of one of the chant leaders, "…we know his heart, and he is not a racist."  I'm a parent. We all want to believe the best about our children. Perhaps a more accurate assessment by these parents might be, "We love our son, and even though he did something very wrong, we know he has the capacity to do better in the future."

7. Speaking of parents, the last excuse is not from family or supporters of the chant leaders, but from their detractors. Apparently a group of protestors planted a small sign in front of the home of one of the chant leaders that said, "Racism is taught." The message here is that the parents are at fault for teaching their son to be racist. I don't know these parents, and it's true that racism can be taught by parents or family members. It's also true that, in the words of the Nox (message me if you get the reference), "The very young do not always do what they are told." Children's behavior does not always reflect the belief systems of their parents. I know this first hand, and, contrary to the rosy picture of family life depicted on Facebook, I bet most parents who have gone through the teenage years with their children would agree.

A critical race scholar by the name of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote a book called Racism Without Racists. His point was that people can and do hold racist attitudes without considering themselves to be racists. If there are no more racists in the world, then where is all this racist behavior coming from? If the people involved in this latest incident can find excuses for such blatantly racist behavior and claim they are not, in their hearts, racists, what does racism mean and what does it take to be considered racist?

Instead of all these excuses, I'd love to hear a true apology from these folks, and not just from the two that were caught, but from everyone involved. There were a lot more voices on that video than the two white guys who stood up and led the chant. I'd like to hear an admission of racism, and a desire to change. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear someone say, "I didn't realize before how racist I truly am. I'm sorry and I want to do better." That wouldn't solve everything, but it would be a start.

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