Essay: The Tainted 'Gentlemen' of Sigma Alpha Epsilon

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“There will never be a n***** SAE”, those were the words so cheerfully sung by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s University of Oklahoma chapter on their way to “date night.” That hateful and scripted chant came from SAE, a fraternity whose creed is the True Gentleman written by John Walter Wayland in 1899:

The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity…

Yet, there these men are on a bus, singing a song about lynching, to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” It wasn’t just one person singing it, but an entire bus of people, as if it were a dress rehearsal for a KKK retreat.

Contrary to what the Supreme Court may think by gutting the voting rights act -- ‘cause you know, we don’t really need it anymore -- post-racial we are not. Nope, racism is alive and well and thanks to social media no longer hidden. In just nine-seconds we received that reminder and William Bruce James II, a black member of the fraternity, a sucker punch.

There may not have been a n***** at SAE, but there was indeed at least one black man.

Having grown up in a small town in Oklahoma, Will was used to being the “only one.” He may have been used to it but it wasn’t something that he wanted. So, then how did he end up pledging SAE?

“A friend of mine had a grandfather that pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon and he wanted me to go to the house with him to check it out, so I went. I may have been the only black person in the room, but they didn’t make me feel that way. There was a feeling of inclusion.”

... At one point or another black people are put in the role of “ambassador” to the community... Being the “only one” often means having to disrupt stereotypes and use racially insensitive remarks as “teachable moments.”

That sense of inclusion faded away yesterday as he watched his fellow SAE brothers sing about lynching. The sadness in his voice was palpable as he talked about the good times he had being Song Chair of the fraternity. “I never heard that song before yesterday. We used to sing songs about symbolism and drinking, it was corny and spirited, this was something else.”

He had hoped that his presence would have changed something. Made his brothers think about diversity and stereotypes. “I wouldn’t say I was an ambassador, but I did think my presence would shift something, clearly I was wrong.”

It’s unfortunate, but at one point or another black people are put in the role of “ambassador” to the community. If like me, your parents moved to an area where they wanted “good schools” and “safe neighborhoods,” thanks to segregation by zip code and tax brackets, that means moving to largely white areas, where you may be the only black family on the block. Being the “only one” often means having to disrupt stereotypes and use racially insensitive remarks as “teachable moments.”

Will, had these moments with SAE but he says they were few and far between. “Not everyone was happy when I got signed, but they were happy by the time I graduated because by then they knew me and we were brothers.”

What’s frustrating is that these men on the bus knew Will, not because they had met him, but because his picture like other alumni hang on the walls. Will took to his blog to air his frustration writing, “there will never be another black SAE… I wish there had been one less.”

What’s worse is that not only does Will’s picture hang on the wall, but the chef that had been feeding these men for years was a black man named Howard Dixon. Howard, who has now despite having had this job for decades, has lost it with the closing of the frat house, because of a busload of racists who clearly thought very little of him. Thankfully, some of the SAE alumni are trying to fix a terrible wrong by raising money to help him land on his feet.

One can only hope that the tainted gentlemen that were singing on that bus will find their way and a new tune worth chanting.

Naome Kadira, co-director of Unheard, an alliance of black students organized for change on the campus, released the video. In an interview with NBC Nightly News she said she wasn’t shocked by the video but instead “more hurt and just astonished.”

She went on to say, “but just to know that wow, these are the same people when I walk around campus that wave at me or even these are the same- I'm an RA here- these are the same people that I serve, I'm here for, I'm here to help and then when I turn around you're calling me these words.”

The film "Dear White People," written and directed by Justin Simien, used satire to capture the very essence of how Will and Naome feel as being black faces in white spaces. In an interview I did with Justin a few months ago he discussed covert and overt racism.

“The covert racism built into the system and based upon prejudices and the way we’re seen by the culture are more insidious and it’s harder to fight," said Simien. "Slowly over time the covert institutionalized forms of racism bubble up to the surface and then we have incidents like Ferguson.”

He goes onto to say that our desire to be colorless ignores the reality that we each are having a different experience in America and that it’s these perceptions of others colors our opinions.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon video shows us just how distorted some of these opinions are.

Instead of a fight at a race-themed party like in "Dear White People" the release of the video spurred a demonstration on University of Oklahoma’s campus, the closing of the SAE house and the fraternity’s removal from campus. These incidents are becoming all too common and what we know is that ignoring race doesn’t make racism go away it just allows it to fester.

Will, said that SAE’s credo, the "True Gentlemen." helped him find his path and develop him into the man he is today. One can only hope that the tainted gentlemen that were singing on that bus will find their way and a new tune worth chanting.

However Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are believe them.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

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