Smile Politely


Most of us have done things that we regret. Typically we write these off to youth, immaturity, inexperience or peer pressure. This is part of how we cope with our mistakes, while creating a rationalization of ourselves as a good person.

Today more than ever, I find myself struggling to reconcile my present self with the person that was once, at times, either passively or actively; sexist, racist, insensitive or cruel.  In virtually every one of the instances that I can recollect, there was an element of peer pressure, or a general sort of herd mentality that led me to want to fit-in, to be accepted, or simply to be cool.

It is hard for me to simply put a wrapper of immaturity or group-think around these behavioral missteps, because their larger implications frighten and trouble me too much.

As a white American, I wonder if born into a different time and place, might I have owned slaves (or tolerated the ownership by others)?  As a white American, I wonder if born into a different time and place, might I have forced American Indians from their homes and land and into reservations? As a person of German heritage, I wonder if born into a different time and place might I have fought for the Nazi regime (or worse, directly participated in the Jewish genocide)? As a white American, I wonder if born into a different time and place, might I have favored segregation and disparate rights between races? As a male, I wonder if born into a different time and place, might I have been opposed to equal rights for women?

And today, as a former SAE fraternity member, I wonder if born in only a slightly different time and place, might I have been a face on a cell phone video participating in a horrific racist chant in a tuxedo on a charter bus in Oklahoma?

Of course I want to answer each of the above questions with an emphatic “NO”! But the historic evidence simply isn’t there to support it. In my two years as a fraternity member (before transferring away to a small liberal arts school with less Greek emphasis and no SAE chapter), I went along with many things that now disgust and appall me. Whether or not they appalled me then, I can’t honestly say in hindsight, but whatever moral compass I did possess was not strong enough to stop me from either passively observing or actively participating in cruel, misogynistic, and sexist behavior (indeed, often expressed in song).

So as much as the SAE bus video sickened me, it didn’t surprise me. And as much as I support and respect the strong backlash from SAE leadership, the OU administration, and national news and social media, I also feel that it is slightly hollow to assert that it is as isolated an event as they would seem to want us to believe.

Contrast Oklahoma University’s stern, immediate and angry reaction to the 10-second video chant recorded on a private bus, with the University of Illinois’ response to 15,000 people openly cheering for 3-4 minutes during a public appearance of the Chief Illiniwek at three Illinois home basketball games this year.  Despite the school purporting to outlaw it, the NCAA calling it “hostile and abusive” to American Indians, the University’s own American Indian Studies department being among the hundreds of thousands of American Indian voices saying that it is a hurtful and racist symbol, thousands rise to their feet and chant their approval. Young and old, thousands of Illinois fans wear Chief shirts and eagerly take pictures and selfies of this white man in red-face. What is the response from the U of I administration to this? Silence — in fact, the President and Chancellor were quickly and quietly ushered out of their seats and out of the facility just before the Chief appeared last Wednesday night so as not to overtly show approval. Besides self-promotion on the Chief Illiniwek website and Facebook pages, this shocking event makes no headlines. I can’t imagine that an American Indian would feel more welcome at the U of I than an African American would feel at OU.

My conclusion is that we have a very hard task in truly getting to the root cause of all of this — and it involves acknowledging some pretty tough things about ourselves and our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. There is so much historical and traditional influence in our nurturing that the better part of our nature is not easily revealed.  Instead, the lesser part of our nature — that instinct to follow, to assimilate, and to seek approval – will keep much of the longstanding ugliness and failure in our behavior around for the foreseeable future.

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