It’s Not About the “N” Word

Long bus trips are so tedious.  When the frat “boys” of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) at the University of Oklahoma were faced with the dilemma of how to pass the time on their bus trip, they voted against singing the old standard, “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Instead, they chose to sing a rally song proclaiming their preference for strange fruit hanging from a poplar tree to the integration of their fraternity.Their rousing rally cry was secretly captured in a video of SAE  members and has been playing on all the major news networks since Sunday, March 8, 2015.  Prior to the release of the video on television, it was posted on social media by a group of OU minority students, OU Unheard. Once the video of SAE reached social media, the “boys will be boys” fraternity rant was met with public outrage, including a wall of angry student athletes at OU. These athletes, a source of significant revenue for OU, along with other protestors demanded that action be taken against Sigma Alpha Epsilon.  The demand for action was met quickly as University of Oklahoma President David Boren shut the fraternity down, ordered all members of SAE to vacate on-campus housing and–amid an ongoing investigation–expelled two students who were identified as leaders of the racist chant.

Now, the waters are being muddied.  The waters are being muddied by reports that the SAE dorm mother and the cook are out of work.  The waters are being muddied by the release of a video showing the grey haired dorm mother repeatedly saying the “N” word as she sings along, according to reports, to a rap song.  I think this is where we are supposed to say to each other: “See, it’s not so bad. They’re just using words that black rappers sing in a song.”  But, as any linguist will tell you, context matters.  And, black rappers do not use the “N” word to advocate lynching as a means of maintaining racial purity.

The waters are being muddied by the parents of one of the expelled young men who say that their “boy” is not a racist; he’s just young and misunderstood.  The other young man who was expelled, Parker Rice, did at least speak for himself.  He apologized for his words, but had no explanation for his unconscionable behavior.  Perhaps, he was only acting out Lord of the Flies and, at the time, he thought the bus was an island.  At any rate, he wants the public to believe that he is sorry for his actions–not just sorry that his actions cost him something.  One can only hope that he, at least,  learned that all actions have ripple effects–a valuable lesson at any age.

And, the waters are being muddled by reports that friends of the expelled students (I read that to mean other young people who were on that bus) are feeling unsafe and some have been harassed by others, according to the upstanding Parker Rice.  It seems to me that this constitutes a lesson in compassion for Rice and the “boys” as this is how minorities feel when we hear a rowdy group of “boys,” happily singing a ditty about lynching black people simply because they exist and their existence, in the minds of the “boys,” threatens the exclusivity of the SAE domain.

So, while Rice and the “boys” sang about protecting their treehouse, they created a hostile environment on the university campus.  And, lest there be any confusion, the outrage expressed by the community at large is not, just, about the superficial use of the “N” word.  It is about “boys” who flaunt their power and willingness to intimidate in order to protect the racial “purity” of their fraternity, “the little boys’ network”, if you will.  While Parker Rice, the “boys” and their families seek to downplay their behavior; the larger community is right to demand that these “boys” be held accountable for their actions.    To do anything less would be a failure of the education of these young men who are preparing for a future where their ideals and actions could have a major ripple effect on the larger world.

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