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Thursday, March 26, 2015

White Lies

Small group of Black Student Union students at dinner in March 2015.
Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, I had little exposure to black people. I liked the players on the Packers and Bucks who were black, so that was a start. In fourth grade, on a field trip to a movie downtown, I had my first meaningful personal encounter with a black person. It was with a student from a mostly black school on a similar trip, and he was loud, ran into me, and knocked over my popcorn. I made a judgment and formed an impression. (What's worse, the movie was Disney's Fantasia. I know.)

My next significant contact occurred when Brookfield East played in the basketball sectionals in the late 1970's against Milwaukee North and then Milwaukee Washington. I was in the stands. These were two mostly black inner-city teams and they each had home court advantage. Their style on the court was fluid, flamboyant, and what I considered undisciplined. Their style in the stands was even more so. It was alarming, because it was different, and intimidating. Again, the experience fed into negative stereotypes I had learned.

Finally, there was one other encounter - or near encounter - when I learned that black people from downtown would be marching out to the suburbs. This seemed really scary and threatening. They wanted what we had. We called it a threat. Today we call it social justice.

So one of my biggest concerns  heading off to college was whether or not I would have a black roommate. I didn't. But by the end of my freshman year I wished I had. Harold Deaudine a black student from Chicago was my wall-mate and was the coolest and smoothest dude on the floor. My roommate, Jeff from Beaver Dam, not so much. (I was no prize either.) My stereotypes were challenged by reality.

When the parents of the OU fraternity members -- who are now infamous for their horrible song -- tell us there is more to their young men, I believe them. We are complex beings. These students weren't born racist. Racism is something we learn. Most of us, like me, are challenged to then un-learn it. And the best way we can have our erroneous ideas and biases challenged is to broaden our experiences and figure out that superficial and stereotypical negative first impressions may not be accurate, and shouldn't be lasting ones. Hopefully we can see, in hindsight, that wherever the fear came from, that fear was based on lies.

The scary thing about the Oklahoma fraternity men is that this isn't just about them. Because they are us. We are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise. And we are in Ferguson, and in New York, and Oakland, and Los Angeles, and, well, Seemingly Almost Everywhere. A colleague recently asked me why I care so much about this campus population. Maybe it is because I like them. Maybe it is because I learned to like them. Perhaps I have a little white guilt. Mostly, though, I think it must be terrible to live in a country where racism lurks under (and often above) the surface everywhere and always. That a hanging in Mississippi of a man, Otis Byrd, though yet unproven as a hate-crime, can even seem plausible, means we should all bow our heads in shame. It wasn't that long ago, after all, when another man named Byrd met a despicable and horrible fate at the hand of racists.

After working at two campuses in upstate New York, with many African-American students, my notions have continued to evolve. Being mentored by Coleen Grissom and Felicia Lee, and working side-by-side with the likes of Ankita Rakhe, JaNay Queen, Karen Pennington, Raphael Moffett, and Ben Newhouse, to name a mere few, I feel better equipped to live in a diverse world. Now what is scary are the innumerable subtle and violent examples of racism that continue today.

And yet... Several years ago on vacation with my family at Disney World I almost got beat up by a large and loud black woman vying for a spot on a shuttle. Despite my progress, I was confronted with an individual and deep-seated stereotypes I thought I had shaken. Suddenly I was in fourth grade all over again. And there was popcorn at my feet. Maybe there is a Disney curse.

We can never stop working on ourselves - individually - and collectively. We need to fight our biases all the time. This is why having conversations, programs, and open-minds on college campuses is so important. Our Black Student Union is doing a great job of this. They co-hosted a panel called "I Can't Breathe," that tapped the expertise of our learned faculty. They hosted a soul food study break, a film, and more for Black History Month. They participated in our MLK Jr. march and attended an inspirational speech on campus that week by Tim Wise.

Indeed, our responsibility as a campus administration is to be vigilant about our campus climate for our black students. I loathe the campus-racial-incident-response formula: Racial incident, leads to forum, leads to out-cries that this has been happening "here" for years, leads to charges of a clueless administration, leads to a task force, leads to programs and new staff. And then things go back to normal.

Instead, because every campus is one-drunk student-with-a-marker-away from a racial incident, we need to have conversations all the time. We need to nurture the climate proactively rather than re-actively. This isn't just the responsibility of BSU. This is everyone's responsibility. I meet with our BSU students annually. I like what I hear, mostly. I want them to feel like we care about their experience and that we are not on cruise-control about what they deal with daily.

Our NASPA award-winning orientation program about diversity challenges students to have their own conversations and take safe and respectful, even if uninformed, risks. I once asked my Korean friend, Felicia Lee, how Chinese fortune cookies were made. She scoffed at me for assuming she knew simply because she was Korean. I followed up, though and asked, "do you?" - to which she said, "well, yes." It is hard, I know. No one wants to be ignorant. Who wants to ask a black person about their hair and seem insensitive and uneducated? Who wants to put any black person in the position to speak on behalf of their race?

If we keep shoving our ideas and biases deeper inside ourselves, they will come out. Maybe someday on a video. Or worse. Someone recently said that something like what happened at OU couldn't happen at Trinity. Oh, it definitely could. While I agree our racial climate may be generally positive, it would be a lie to think any campus could be immune. Just a little white lie.

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