RDC Editorial: Reflections on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Racism Exposé

The Red Dirt Chronicles is an Oklahoma cultural blog created specifically for the purpose of shedding light on the unique attributes of our state.  Most of our work contains perspectives which are neutral or positively framed; we tend to stay away from negatively slanted or harsh stories as there are plenty other outlets covering that type of content.

I’m writing this rare editorial because a series of events in our state over the last few weeks has led me to a point where I feel it’s important to use my voice.  Because we’re heavily into our legislative session, we first began dealing with national ridicule of several measures that seem to distract from our state’s $640 million dollar projected budget deficit.  And now, it appears that we are dealing with racism in at least one of our fraternities.

I write “we” because these students are in Oklahoma.  I write “our fraternities” because that Greek house was here long before these particular male students were caught on camera singing their song.

I am sickened by the irony TLO mentioned in their post:

“On the same day we’re remembering one of the most violent days in the civil rights movement – the Bloody Sunday march in Selma – we have a busload of white frat boys singing about lynching on the way to a party at a country club.”

Last night, right before the video was Tweeted, I was watching a very different video rough cut of Kay, our “Every Point on the Map” friend we made in Crescent, OK.   She was talking about people in Oklahoma and following is the verbatim transcript ending our conversation. I had just thanked her for her time she spent with us, talking about her historical home and her family narrative, while sitting in a sunlit room last summer.

Kay: “Oh, that’s alright – glad to do it girls. You have fun. I think, if you haven’t already, what you’re going to find with your work, is that there are wonderful people in Oklahoma.”

Me: “Well, if you were going to tell us something that would make ME cry, that would be it. Just…everyone has been so special.” (earlier, she had teared up talking about her work as a history teacher)

Kay: “We just ARE a good bunch of people….we really are. Friendly. Friendly. And I think you’ll find it in Texas also. Something about this Bible Belt…but not TOO Bible Belt. I mean, we’re still open – we’re not so dogmatic in our religion that we aren’t tolerant of others. And accepting of others. And there’s a spirit here in us.”

I went back to that file, post-racist video release, and watched it again.  In my mind, I pictured Kay sitting on that bus, observing the chant. I thought about the irony of how busses and activities taking place on them were such an integral part of U.S. Black History.

During this mental struggle, my thoughts moved to an e-mail I wrote an author who recently covered our “Every Point” project.  He was asking me the “why” question.

“When all of this is done, and you’ve hit every town, what do you hope your project will have accomplished? IS it something personal, like learning what it is that makes Oklahoma what it is, or is it part of a bigger story, like leaving a legacy of tales for generations to come? Or something else entirely?”

I got deep with my response.
Probably deeper than he needed for a paragraph in a story.  In fact, my answer was downright lengthy:

As a child of the 60s, I grew up in a world where I recall vividly some of the adults, and children – for that matter, in our social circles using poisonous language to describe people of Black, Native American, Asian, Jewish, or very-high income communities.  They were talking about their neighbors, or families who lived only a few miles down the road.  I think part of this journey is almost to repair my inner sense of sorrow for hearing humans in our state described by other humans in our state with subjugational (is that a word?) or “less than” adjectives.

This isn’t a commentary about my hometown, or family of origin, as much as it’s a commentary about all I took in in my earlier years from a variety of contexts.  My parents in particular modeled respect and openness toward a variety of cultures, and for that I’m grateful.

So, by doing this project I hope there are ways, story by story, to open small windows into those who reside in Oklahoma.  Taking the time to share pieces of their “turf,” their patois or vernaculars, their personalities, I believe, is a way to remove barriers and open channels for genuine regard.  I know there are many other projects, with similar goals, and my hope is that the well-crafted or documented noise we all generate drowns out some of the white noise of negativism about our state.

I think this project is especially salient for me, and to give to my children as a legacy, however, due to my sense of how Oklahoma is reflected across national dialogue of late.  Frequently we’re in the headlines for the “worst data of all 50 states” regarding social measures (child abuse, intimate partner violence, diabetes or other health indicators, educational outcomes, etc.) or due to bills generated from our legislature that are scoffed at and are written from a sense of the same protectionist fears I observed growing up.

Our state culture and people are a beautifully complicated fabric, where brightly dyed silks and roughly spun wools live side by side, and I want to do what I can to share that beauty and strength and capacity for heady connections with those both in Oklahoma, and – if we’re successful enough in sharing our message – others outside our borders.

I love people. I love my Oklahoma people. I love them so much, and I hope to reframe some of the narrative I read about our State in national papers.  My hope is that intrigue, respect and thoughtful expressions of understanding generated form this project and others take the place of the “subjugational” or “less than” headlines and perceptions.

I wrote those comments on February 22nd.  It’s now March 10th, and I feel like I’m re-thinking the entire dialogue…as if, once again, I want to say the same thing.  Maybe louder. Maybe with desperation.

Tonight, as I finish this editorial, I know without a doubt that once again, Oklahoma is being “reflected across the national dialogue” in a very horrific way.  And, based upon the content of the video, perhaps – as The Lost Ogle mentioned –  it should.

My appeal to any who are reading this, however, is that we take care.  We take care and do our COLLECTIVE BEST to “reframe some of the social narrative” about Oklahoma.

I know that it will take some time to repair the Oklahoma discourse regarding this particular situation. I just noticed there is now a Vine-loop posted showing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon housemother attempting to rap, of course, while using the N-word like gunfire directly into the camera.

It will take time for the well-crafted or documented noise we all generate to drown out some of the currently-deafening noise of negativism about our state.  And that’s fair, I suppose.

So, we’ve got work to do.  Please join me in finishing the job well.  Because I have a feeling that, if you’ve lived here for very long, you love Oklahomans too.

And, love is a very good place to start.

Kelly Roberts

~Editor Red Dirt Chronicles



5 thoughts on “RDC Editorial: Reflections on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Racism Exposé”

  1. Well stated,RDK! My heart hurts each time I see the replay of this video, (whether on tv or in my mind). Kudo’s to Pres. Borden for his swift action. I am saddened to know I was naive enough to hope this was in our past. I love our state….and yes….it must begin and end with love. We just need to fix the middle, I guess? ♡

    1. Agreed. It’s retraumatizing, isn’t it. Can’t imagine how deep the retraumatization goes for our Black community. You’re a good one to spread the love, dear Paula.

  2. Very well stated, Kelly! Our former governor and U.S. Senator, and now OU president, David Boren, made me extremely proud to call Oklahoma home yesterday with his swift and decisive actions regarding this unfortunate stain on our history.

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