Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that an attorney has said the two former University of Oklahoma students implicated in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon video withdrew from the university.
NORMAN — The large-scale conversation about race at the University of Oklahoma didn’t begin last spring when an anonymous source shared a video depicting members of the now-shuttered Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chanting racial slurs.
In late November 2014 after news broke that a grand jury didn’t indict a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, nine people who would later become the black student group OU Unheard met to discuss what they could do to incite change on their campus.
The group and its supporters marched across campus on Jan. 14, 2015, to raise awareness of the plight of black students. They covered their mouths with duct tape, the word “Unheard” written in black ink in the center. After a few more events, the bureaucratic wheels were turning to address some of the group’s seven formal grievances against OU.
“Then SAE happened,” said Naome Kadira, a founding member of OU Unheard. “And everything spiraled out of control.”
On March 8, 2015, the video showing members of the fraternity chanting “there will never be a n----- SAE” to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” exposed many from inside and outside the OU community to the issues Unheard had broached in the earlier months.
Yet for everything the 10-second video was — it was called among other things racist, bigoted and disgraceful in the furor after it was revealed — it wasn’t the catalyst for change at OU. It didn’t start the conversations about race at OU, and, a year later, it’s obvious it didn’t end there either — mostly thanks to the students who continue talking.
The infrastructure of inclusivity
Before the SAE video was revealed and went viral, OU President David Boren and Unheard members were in discussions about hiring a vice president to specifically address the university’s diversity and inclusion needs, said Kadira, now president of Unheard and the Black Student Association.
The hire would have been a first step in satisfying No. 6 on the group’s list of seven grievances. This grievance in particular denounced the lack of black representation among OU’s executive hierarchy.
On March 31, 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the video, Boren officially announced the appointment of former Oklahoma state legislator Jabar Shumate as vice president for the university community.
Since then, the dean of each of OU’s colleges has formed similar positions, Boren said.
In taking the vice president job, Shumate wanted to change OU’s racial climate and create a university-wide infrastructure to address issues of diversity and inclusions — all of which he plans to do in much the same way one eats an elephant.
“And that’s one bite at a time,” he said.
One of the first and most important efforts, Shumate said, was the installation of a mandatory diversity program for freshmen and transfer students.
During the five-hour Diversity Experience training, students are exposed to ideas about inclusive language, privilege and prejudice, Shumate said. The goal is for students to have an authentic understanding of how another person’s experience may be different from their own.
“I think the end result is real relationships start to begin there,” Shumate said.
New faculty and staff now must take a similar training, which emphasizes cultural competency. Current faculty, especially those looking to advance at OU, can participate in a new diversity program, a three-week, five-part training designed to help individuals unlearn prejudices, such as racism, sexism and ableism, Shumate said.
Shumate’s office also helped elevate OU’s Native American Studies program to a department and is searching for a tribal liaison officer in late spring. That officer’s job will be working with tribes to recruit and retain more Native American students on campus, Shumate said.
Year in review
A few hours after the video surfaced, the national SAE organization disbanded its OU chapter. The next morning Boren effectively evicted its members from their fraternity house, and students joined widespread protests across campus. Later that day university workers removed the group’s Greek letters from the house.
Boren said this sort of quick, “decisive action” was necessary.
“We must have the moral courage to do the right thing as quickly as possible. When overt racism is expressed there must be zero tolerance for it,” Boren said in an email.
In the coming days, Boren released a news release saying the apparent SAE song leaders Levi Pettit and Parker Rice were expelled from OU, though attorney Stephen Jones said in a March 2015 press conference the students permanently withdrew from the university.
Demonstrations and discussions continued throughout the semester. Then summer arrived, and most students left campus.
Among the first bouts of campus activism of the fall semester was a late-September push by a group of four Native American students, later dubbed Indigenize OU, to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, founding members Ashley McCray and Sydne Rain said.
Following a joint resolution from Student Government Association’s Undergraduate Student Congress and Graduate Student Senate and a presidential proclamation from Boren, they succeeded in making the change. It became official Oct. 12, 2015.
The group also campaigned to obliterate the name “Boomer” and “Sooner” from OU’s identity. So far it has met a lot of pushback, some of it violent, McCray and Rain said.
“People legitimately have no idea whose land they’re on, and whose land they’re occupying or what the history of this land is,” Rain said.
In some instances, though, the group has gotten through, reminding people of the “racist” and “criminal” connotations of the words.
Social justice symposium Mosaic, formerly known as Sooner Mosaic, dropped “Sooner” from its name because of Native American students’ concern. The LGBTQ advocacy group, formerly known as Sooner Ally, is now LGBTQ Ally, McCray said.
As well as individual group efforts, many of OU’s minority rights activist groups — including Indigenize OU, OU Unheard, The Brown Collection, Queer Inclusion on Campus and Disability Inclusion and Awareness — have started a coalition to deal with diversity and inclusion issues on campus, McCray said.
When a photo of an OU Sigma Alpha Phi fraternity member wearing a white, hooded robe surfaced on Twitter in early February, the coalition members demanded answers. After the national chapter’s representative spoke with Shumate and his staff, fraternity officials ultimately decided to change the colors of their ritualistic robes on a national level to avoid any potential future backlash, Shumate said.
“All because of what happened on this campus and a conversation that happened with the national office,” Shumate said.
Now the coalition is throwing itself behind an incident bias reporting system, where students can anonymously report violence or microaggressions whenever they experience them on campus. Through that system, incidents will be tracked and coalition members can use that data to push for other changes at OU, such as mandatory facultywide diversity training, McCray said.
As for SAE, the fraternity is still gone. Its house at 730 College Ave. remains vacant. Its windows are boarded, and trash litters the now-empty parking lots.
On Feb. 16, its national organization announced it couldn’t confirm the origins of the now-infamous chant, though five chapters acknowledged hearing it in the past five years. Of those chapters, none reported hearing it after 2012. That is, until the incident at OU in 2015.
“The fraternity headquarters continues to work with our Director of Diversity & Inclusion to ensure proactive education and awareness for our members,” according to the statement.
An ongoing conversation
Not everyone is pleased with the changes, in particular the Diversity Experience training, which members from the school’s OU College Republicans decried in a Feb. 26 campus newspaper article.
Shumate, to a certain extent, understands those concerns.
“In fact, talking about diversity issues is often, you know, I wouldn’t say difficult, but a challenge for most individuals,” he said.
However, Shumate still believes mandatory training sessions are essential, and he doesn’t believe just apologizing can adequately rectify the issue of insensitivity, unlike the students in the article suggest.
Making an apology effectively ends a conversation, and therein ends any authentic understanding or relationship one might have with whomever they are speaking with, Shumate said.
Kadira put it this way: “Not only have you failed yourself and skipped out on a learning moment, you’re going to continue to go on and offend the next person, and the next person. And you apologize and move on until something like the SAE happens again.”
On Feb. 26, a week before the anniversary of the SAE incident, journalism professor Meta Carstarphen held a panel discussion about Unheard’s impact on OU’s community, particularly the conversations the group incited around campus.
“They were really articulating the frustrations of many students who did not feel they were being heard,” Carstarphen said.
Among the panel’s speakers were OU professor emeritus George Henderson, the university’s third black faculty member, and the first black man to own a home in Norman. He came to campus in 1967.
For Henderson, Unheard and the conversation they started was a continuation of efforts students began at OU in the 1960s and carried through the ’70s and ’80s, he said at the panel.
“What happened with Unheard was a wake-up call for us. It gave us an opportunity to finish what we started,” he said.
Looking back at the SAE scandal, Kadira said she and the other Unheard members never thought their group would blow up the way it did.
“No one ever thought a day in our lives that this thing would gain national attention and make the impact that it did,” Kadira said.
But she said Unheard was never about the members or the attention they received. The group is about ideas and activism and starting a dialogue many people were uncomfortable with. It’s about the seven grievances and making OU more inclusive of black students, Kadira said.
And the group did change the culture at OU, at least in part. Nearly one year after the country was outraged that fraternity members would get on that bus and say the things they did, race is less of a taboo subject on campus and minority groups feel more empowered to advocate for the needs of their communities.
“Now it’s kind of an ongoing conversation where not only can I feel more comfortable and more confident — along with other minority students — to bring it up, but other people can feel confident to ask or want to learn or want to indulge in that conversation, as well,” Kadira said.
Shumate agreed, saying their work and his office “really moved the needle in terms of solidifying the conversation and not just responding to a bad incident.”
And although things aren’t perfect on campus for any minority groups, at least people are willing to talk about it, Kadira said.
“(SAE) was the wake-up call. ... That’s what it took.”
Paighten Harkins 918-581-8455