What We've Learned About White Folks and "Casual Racism" from the SAE Scandal

by Ogechi Emechebe Last week, the country was engaged in debate around a controversial incident that took place at the University of Ok...

by Ogechi Emechebe

Last week, the country was engaged in debate around a controversial incident that took place at the University of Oklahoma, which showed white student members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant that included the lyrics, “There will never be a n*gger in SAE,” and “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.” The uproar surrounding the case immediately prompted the University of Oklahoma’s president to shut down the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students seen in the video.

Shortly after punishment was handed out, one of the boys in the video, 19-year-old freshman Parker Rice, issued an apology. While admitting his intoxication wasn’t an excuse, he stated he was “wrong and reckless” and continued with, “I made a horrible mistake by joining into the singing and encouraging others to do the same.”

While it’s understandable that college students do and say dumb things, it’s troubling how some people are defending the boys by trying to convince us they aren’t racist and they just made a dumb mistake. This trend of “casual” racism, perpetuated especially by white people, is far too common and allow offenders to minimize their racism to singular, isolated incidents. Time and time again, we are told to believe these folks really aren’t racist, they just made a mistake. We all make mistakes, right?


Casual racism, just like what was witnessed in the SAE video, is a result of people bred and raised in a patriarchal, white supremacist society that excuses such behaviors that continuously lead to the profiling, racial bias, and systemic oppression of black people. Rather than attacking the root cause of these occurrences, every excuse in the book is made to deflect the real issue at hand. A classic case of deflection gone wrong was when Morning Joe’s hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough blamed rap music for the SAE racist chants.

After rapper Waka Flocka Flame canceled an upcoming concert at the university, Brzezinski and Scarborough said the boys on the bus were chanting n*gger because Flocka uses the word in his songs and that’s how they learned it. The remark immediately prompted Black Twitter to clap back with the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery, humorously highlighting the ridiculousness of their statements while pointing out racism and the use of the n-word as a racial epithet were around well before rap music. None of the hosts held the boys accountable for their actions, but instead placed blame on a rapper and his lyrics for a group of young white men singing and laughing at black men being lynched.

While the media won’t label Rice and his fraternity brothers as racists, it’s quite obvious they are and this “mistake” isn’t an isolated incident. Being a racist isn’t a uniform you can just take off when it offends people; it’s practicing behaviors and beliefs based on a system with racial prejudice against people of color. In his apology, Rice admitted the song was taught to them; presumably by their elder brothers. “There will never be a n*gger in SAE,” didn’t appear out of thin air overnight: the song dates back to the late 1800’s when the fraternity was founded pre-Civil War in the South. The fraternity’s website discusses its founding in 1856 in Alabama (when slavery was still legal) and many journalists have mentioned the fraternity once bragged about how a majority of its members fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It’s clear the song emerged during a time when “n*ggers” were hung from trees and denied entry to the organization. It’s clear the song was passed down from generation to generation, from brother to brother. It’s clear the very foundation of this fraternity has a racist past and present. But why isn’t it clear to white folks that this, like many similar cases, are indicative of larger problems of racism in America? None of this is surprising though, because admitting the truth would expose and threaten the power structure of white supremacy.

The irony of defending the boys as anything but racists is that it does more harm than good. If they are truly not racists at the core of their very being, it means the implications of them singing the song are even more grotesque. That would mean whites who aren’t actually racist are willing to engage in racist acts despite their core decency, which , in my opinion, is a far scarier thing than people who unapologetically admit they are racists. White Americans see racism as an interpersonal pathology so much so—and thus seek out the “bad guys” who they can reprimand and criticize—that they miss the systemic problems at the foundation of individual behaviors.

As a result, these behaviors continue breeding the mentality of white supremacy that ultimately benefit privileged white males. The racist ideologies of Parker Rice and his frat brothers are in turn the same men who grow up to become police officers that hold racial bias and stereotyping, such as those within the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department. They grow up to be lawmakers and politicians and hold other positions of power, continuing the cycle of oppressive practices that result in the brutalization and killing of black men, women, and children across the nation. They become bosses and managers who throw out applications with “black sounding names,” even if the applicant is qualified for the job. They are awarded televised platforms, like Bill O’Reilly, allowing them spew out hateful, ignorant information about black people, which audiences internalize and feel justified in their own racist behavior, casual or not.

As of now, I, like many other black folks, am fed up with the fake apologies and attempts to convince us you’re not really racist. Say what you mean and mean what you say, and don’t be sorry for getting caught. For future reference, it’s best to keep your wack-ass apologies to yourselves because we can’t hear ya’ll: the rap music is drowning you out and we’re too busy jammin’ to be upset.

Ogechi Emechebe enjoys reading, writing and cooking. Her topics of interest include gender equality, social justice and healthy lifestyles. She describes herself as a gym rat with a slight obsession of eating healthy. She can be reached at emechebe1021@yahoo.com

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