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On Tuesday of this week, the University of Oklahoma expelled two students for leading a group of others in singing a fraternity song littered with racial slurs, a reference to lynching, and boasts that their group would never have an African American member. The university’s action was swift, following the release of video footage of the song on Sunday. Not only did the school expel these students but they also shut down the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, in effect expelling it from campus. The president of the university declared publicly that the school had a zero tolerance policy for this kind of racial discrimination and harassment and that the university was not a place for racists. Seventy frat members moved out of the house as the Greek letters were removed from its façade. An investigation into this incident continues, though it has widened, at least informally, to include an examination of the practices of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. A history of racism has been documented in relation to this organization, and students at the University of Oklahoma claim that the chant was not unique to their chapter.
As I’ve watched these events unfold and listened to the commentary in the media, I’ve been struck by how easy it is to point the finger. And not just easy but gratifying. Now before I go any further, let me be clear: racial discrimination and harassment must be dealt with swiftly for the sake of justice, healing, inclusion, and community. There ought to be consequences for such behavior in any setting, and I have no problem, per se, with the university’s decision to expel the students and the fraternity. However, I am disturbed by scapegoating, by labeling a couple people or a particular group as THE PROBLEM in a system. Whenever a system chooses to identify one of its members as the source of its pain, the other people in the system get off the hook, so to speak. “The problem, the sin, the racists are out there! Those are the racists (fingers figuratively pointing at these students). And we will punish them:” if this is the only systemic response, then lasting (or any substantive) change in the system will be unlikely. Why? Because all of those participating in the racist system do not have to look at themselves or the structures that benefit them to the detriment of others.
Moreover this approach keeps our focus off of the less visible yet ever present forms of racism in the system. In other words, this finger pointing at the most blatant racial harassment and discrimination doesn’t necessarily help us identify the less visible yet insidious expressions of racism. Derald Wing Sue, professor at Columbia University, wrote an incredibly helpful article along these lines, “Racial Microagressions in Everyday Life.” Racial microaggessions are “commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.” Click here for a list of examples.
Perhaps each of us, rather than merely pointing the finger, can start to identify, name, correct (hear: confess and repent of) these microaggressions in the myriad systems in which we participate. In this way, we might be a bit more like David, who after hearing the prophet Nathan’s story and finally realizing that it was about him, confessed and repented before God.