SAE, Yik Yak, and the new issues of speech on campus

The civil rights struggle is nowhere near its goal. At least that’s my take on what’s going on at Oklahoma University as it bans SAE from campus (“as far as I’m concerned, they won’t be back,” President David Boren was quoted as saying). But banning a single fraternity won’t really address the problem, either at OU or anywhere else in the country.

The video of fraternity brothers and their guests, all in elegant attire aboard a chartered bus and destined to a celebration, reveals young people using the “n word” and casually referring to lynching as they declare and revel in the otherness of African Americans. Indeed, there are no faces of color in the short clip, which may indeed be why some on the bus felt comfortable enough to reveal their prejudices. But that comfort is surely gone now that the video has gone viral, two students have been expelled, and public outrage rises. In the same week that saw thousands of people gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, these students remind us that the struggle is far from over.

Addressing these students’ behavior is certainly important. But taking proactive steps to prevent such incidents is even more important. As Michael Twitty, scholar of foodways and race, so eloquently puts it, “I want to heal the cancer not blast the lesion.” As long as teachers, professors, administrators, and generally everyone pretends that we have settled the matter of race  in our society, videos like the SAE clip and incidents like the racist parties the movie Dear White People lampoons will continue.

Some faculty and many students have discovered the harm that can come from social media, as students take to Yik Yak to post anonymous comments, in one case notably ignoring a lecture to post “yaks” about the professors leading the class. Comments on the app range from racist to sexist to threatening and show how cruel their fellow community members could be when they can hide behind anonymity.

So what is the answer? More dialogue, not less. More exposure to history and current events. A requirement that the students on that bus write a detailed paper about the images found in Without Sanctuaryan interactive website centered around a collection of lynching postcards and images James Allen spent years tracking down. Perhaps then they’d be able to see why decent and honorable people do not joke about hanging anyone from a tree. Better yet, start a dialogue in our classrooms and residence halls and dining halls now about how words hurt. Encourage students to imagine themselves as members of a different ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender, or even as professors teaching a class. Developing empathy is a long-term process, and we must start now.


5 Replies to “SAE, Yik Yak, and the new issues of speech on campus”

  1. I was just having a discussion with some students recently about how they might respond to a recently posted photo from a UMW party whose “Mexican” theme took the form of impersonating “illegal immigrants.”

    I fully agree that banning the fraternity and expelling students makes for good PR (at least the administrators hope that). But it also sends two problematic messages. One: don’t get caught on tape saying these things. Two: racism and racist people are bad. I call the second problematic not because I think they are false, but because they are convenient in certain ways. Explanations for such incidents tend to treat racism as an individual malady and as found primarily in overt acts. Racism as an “attitude” or as “ignorance” isn’t really an explanation and invites the rest to think that merely reeducating a few individuals is what is needed. The much deeper and pervasive stuff just stays deep and pervasive.

    1. I agree with you, Jason. Social media is showing us how pervasive these problems are, even if students (and others) start to take great pains “not to get caught on camera.” Another sad development–threats against both the students in SAE and their families. Two wrongs do not make a right.

  2. The value of anonymous applications more generally is an interesting one. And YikYak has been the center of some interesting debate around just that. Many argue that alongside the vitriol, there is also an intense compassion for others that is demonstrated by some, in a specific case with this example of suicide prevention. That said, as As you and Jason point out the rhetoric around these moments of racism and sexism on the web is often linked to the idea of it being ever more transparent, and for some that is horrifying, rightfully so. At the same time, knowing it’s out there and how much work there is to do, as James Falkner notes, is the other side of that transparency.

    Now, where is that post on sermons and records 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.