It was the twisted “happy and you know it” remix heard ‘round the world: On a charter bus headed to an annual formal event, members of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon—a national fraternity that counts an eclectic and powerful membership including novelist William Faulkner, oilman T. Boone Pickens, Jr., and former Goldman Sachs executive and former treasury secretary Hank Paulson—chanted in unison a song celebrating that “there will never be a nigger SAE.”
The outrage was loud, and in some semblance of justice, swift: OU’s president David Boren announced that the school’s chapter would be shut down, and, soon enough, the fraternity’s national office castigated the members involved in a series of statements. It ultimately contended that the behaviors of the “ringleaders” of the chant, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, did not represent the national organization’s values or pledge process and didn’t meet the expectation of the “true gentleman” SAE’s members pride themselves on upholding.
That a few teenage boys would go on a boozy diatribe of ignorance isn’t a surprise, just as it wasn’t a shock that they were a part of Greek life—a system that is exclusive by nature. I’ve spent time in Oklahoma frat houses, and so little of that time was enjoyable or comfortable. It didn’t take overhearing a handful of Trayvon Martin jokes for me to understand that a different frat house in a different city wasn’t a safe place for my emotions or experience. I know that Greek life is a deeply important structure for so many people I care for and respect—I am a member of Emerson’s Kappa Gamma Chi sorority, after all—but the unwillingness of many members of this national community to work to reform (or, in many cases, even acknowledge) the power structures that embolden this notorious SAE chant and the backlash to Rice and Petit’s punishment is what is the most shocking.
The video of those “true gentleman” from OU’s SAE chapter didn’t shock my sensibilities so much as the footage and the subsequent responses on social media confirmed my deepest suspicions: that so many people I love and trust might never be able to understand why this video is offensive. I’m not even surprised that a group of white college boys on a bus thought it was acceptable for them to say the word “nigger”—which, for the record, it isn’t. But the realization that so many white people think it’s their place to forgive other white people for their wrongs against people of color is totally and frustratingly incomprehensible.
The plethora of thinkpieces shared by disgruntled frat boys and emotional moms that suggest it was rap music or alcohol that birthed this chant all ignore a reality that they might never be able to understand: what it means when the words of the people on that bus to apply to them, and how it feels when 19-year-old college students—in almost every way, people identical to my peers—smile at the prospect of hanging people who share my skin color from a tree. It doesn’t matter how much money a Greek house raises for a philanthropy or the persistence of what feels like its most baseless stereotypes if a membership delights in their organization’s history of race-based exclusion.
In December, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote about the implosion of The New Republic, a DC-based magazine that suffered a shocking mass exodus of writers and editors. Coates wrote about his own experience with the magazine, and how it was always seen as a bastion of white intellectualism that he would never gain access to. “White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism,” Coates wrote about the white editors who were silent as the magazine’s higher-ups pushed to publish and promote bigoted ideologies, “but rarely are they pained enough.”
Coates’ words resonate with every new development in this story. Total Frat Move, a niche website that caters to the fraternity community and is known for its penchant for debauchery, posted an anonymous account of the “persecution” that members of OU’s Greek life have faced. “OU is our home, and we are no longer comfortable here,” this anonymous student wrote. “In our own homes, we do not feel safe. You shouldn’t be afraid to walk to class alone due to the actions of a few bad eggs simply because you may be a member of a Greek organization.”
I have no doubt that many people who earnestly criticize the chant’s lyrics feel genuine distaste for these student’s actions, but accounts like this one—similar to Parker Rice’s pseudo-apology, which referenced the fact that he and his family feel unsafe in their homes—belie the shallowness of this sentiment. For them, this “discomfort” is temporary. To not feel safe in your home as a racial, sexual, or gendered minority of this country doesn’t just happen because a few boys say a bad word; it’s a reality of life. Please, save your persecution woes for someone who does not minute-by-minute and day-by-day know better.