I’ve lived in Berkeley for almost two years; I transferred here from Oxnard College in Southern California to study English and global poverty. So far, it’s been nothing short of a dream. I find my convictions challenged and called upon at every turn, my academic stamina pushed to the absolute limits and the need to constantly redefine how much coffee is actually too much coffee. But it’s all been worth it — to be among liberal, like-minded students at an institution that embodies the pursuit of free speech, the struggles for racial equality and empowerment in every possible sense of the word. Being here for five minutes is enough to fall deep into the progressive trance, leading you to assume (dangerously) that the rest of the world must be as magical and open-minded as it is here at UC Berkeley. We were reminded last week at the surfacing of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon video that the liberal spirit that surrounds us here does not extend to every edge of the map. There’s lingering hatred that fills the bodies of uninformed, ignorant abusers — those who recognize their privilege and use it shamefully. Unfortunately, we’re all accountable for these missteps.
Like the majority of people who watched the SAE video — showing members of the Oklahoma fraternity singing racial slurs and slinging the N-word around like it’s nothing — I was horrified. I don’t use “horrified” like people use “literally” nowadays; I mean it in the very way it was intended. I was overcome with horror that there are college students existing in the world — a demographic most associate with being the most informed minds of the time — who are amused by bigotry. They sang in unison and laughed as they declared they’d never allow black students in the fraternity. As college students, they come from a place of privilege. They are allowed a quality education, something the majority of people in this world do not have. Given this place of privilege, these frat boys reject gratitude for the place in which they find themselves. They arrogantly turn their backs on efforts toward racial equality, a battle that’s still being fought. They cowardly sing hatred with their “brothers,” without considering that the black students about whom are singing have mothers whose hearts are breaking, or that they have fathers who shudder at the thought of their son being spoken of in this way, or that they are real people who have already faced a level of adversity the frat brothers will never understand. The situation is nothing short of horrific.
I question my own personal stakes in writing this. I do not attend the University of Oklahoma, nor am I black. Still, I am deeply and genuinely offended. Not just by the moronic actions of the SAE brothers, but by all facets of racism. I can’t help but think about incidents of racism that have occurred at the University of Mississippi, San Jose State University and even here in Berkeley. Recently, comedian Kamau Bell was stereotyped — presumably considered to be a homeless man — outside the Elmwood Cafe, where he was eating with his caucasian wife. I don’t point the finger at the University of Oklahoma as the instigator of modern racism. It’s proven to be hidden in shadowy crevices all over the map. But what happened at the University of Oklahoma is what I would like to think of as a wake-up call.
It is not simply the job of the faculty at the university to hold them accountable, nor is it the responsibility of the black community to tell them why what they did on that bus is inexcusable. It becomes all of our responsibilities to notice and act on the racism that has shown to percolate through the mouths of the uninformed. It is our job to do the informing so these incidents don’t recur. It is our job to react with outrage when civility is broken — because bigotry is a breach in civility. It is our responsibility to not excuse or justify this misstep by saying it was said by a bunch of kids; these are adults who were aware of the deep racial history they were disrespecting. Simply, as college students, it is our responsibility to respect our university by using it as a ground for breeding empathy, not hate. I hope we don’t reduce what happened in Oklahoma to a “learning lesson” — something to be swept under the rug and forgotten about. I hope this can become a call to action and a vow that we will do better. We absolutely must do better.
MacKenzie Ring is a UC Berkeley senior studying English and global poverty.