The recent viral video of Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers participating in a racist group sing-a-long testifies to how far we still have to go with race relations in this country. That much is obvious. Of particular concern and irritation to me is this: I’m quite sure that some of the young men who participated in this pinnacle of poor judgment are from affluent families. They have had, or should have had, the opportunity to travel, to be exposed to fellow human beings of diverse backgrounds, and to have understood that the privileges they’ve enjoyed brought with them a certain responsibility. Namely, they had the chance to be better than this behavior, and, if that wasn’t possible, to at least not confirm for the world the provincial and ignorant nature of their character.
Sadly, they were unable to do this. And while the blame falls squarely on the students who participated, let me not stop there: it also falls on their parents. Racist attitudes and speech are learned at home. They are stopped, addressed, and corrected at home, as well.
One friend of mine vividly recalls barely finding a large, empty suitcase at his bedroom door, his father standing stoically beside it. When he inquired as to the meaning of the suitcase, his father reminded him of a less-than-well-thought-out comment he’d made about an African American classmate he’d made at dinner that night. His father then informed him that if he ever made a similar comment about anyone of any race again, the young man could pack the large, empty suitcase with all his worldly possessions, exit the family home, and find somewhere else to live.
For a high school freshman, this was a sobering but effective ultimatum. Not only did it address the speech that would not be tolerated, it forced my friend to address his attitudes about others. After a few days of reflection, with the suitcase sitting near the door, no less, he concluded that he’d picked up some less than admirable attitudes from a new group of friends. He quickly let those relationships die and found other people to hang out with.
Racism has its roots in fear, ignorance, and wanting to belong, which are feelings we all share. When we realize that we have a lot in common with everybody, regardless of their skin color and background, it challenges our sometimes long-held beliefs. And that can be scary. We have to face that discomfort, address it–with the help of others, if necessary–and grow up.
Or not. You can choose to remain insular, hold tight to your prejudices, and call yourself “elite” or “exclusive” or “well-bred”. Fine. Just don’t call yourself Old Money.
You’ll get an earful from me.