The first time Jack Counts heard members of his fraternity sing the racist chant that brought OU national scorn, he stayed quiet.
A freshman at the time and a fourth-generation SAE, Counts knew it was wrong. But he didn’t speak up — no one did.
"Even though you kind of have that 'that song’s a little bit not okay obviously,' you don’t really say anything about it," Counts said. "You’re not settled in. You’re a freshman trying to make friends."
A year after a video of OU SAE members singing the chant surfaced, Counts’ hands shake as he nervously smiles to recount the story of his tumultuous freshman year.
At the start of the year, things looked bright for Counts. He was doing well academically and was the philanthropy chair of his pledge class.
In March, Counts’ year took a turn. OU’s chapter of SAE took over headlines when the video surfaced, depicting SAE members chanting racial slurs. Shocked, he watched as the video spread from the Total Frat Move website to national television.
Members feared what might happen to them and their house.
"Everybody felt bad, and everybody was concerned," he said. "At the time it was more panic, though, than feeling bad."
The chant promoted lynching and a strong anti-black sentiment, repeatedly using the "n" word. It was known by some members of the fraternity but wasn’t taken to heart as an official SAE chant, Counts said. It wasn’t commonly used or sung around the house. Some members said it shouldn’t exist at all, while others brushed it aside since it hadn’t caused any problems.
"It wasn’t like a big SAE thing or anything," Counts said. "It was more of a smaller group thing than everyone knowing it and ever singing it around the house or anything."
Younger members didn’t want to stand up to the older members who perpetuated the chant, Counts said. They looked the other way, and the cycle continued on from freshmen not wanting to cause trouble to upperclassmen not wanting to address the issue.
"Anybody could have tried to put a stop to it sooner, but you’re in college," Counts said. "You’re a freshman in a fraternity, and even when peer pressure isn’t a big thing, you still don’t want to make too much of a splash yourself a lot of the time."
Counts thinks many members believed the chant was remnant of an older time. However, Counts’ father and grandfather hadn’t heard the chant before. He believes the chant was created five to six years ago.
There had been African-American members in the house previously, Counts said. If there had been an African-American member in the fraternity at the time, Counts believes the chant would’ve been stopped sooner.
"If there had happened to be an African-American in the house at the time, no one would have even kept that song around because it would have been one of the members," Counts said.
When news of the chant broke out, SAE members had to face explaining the situation to friends and family. Although Counts’ family was understanding about the incident, some of his friends were not.
"It’s a hard thing to approach," he said. "Some of my African-American friends did take it personally at first. A lot of people were upset at the beginning just in general — across the whole country — and so even some of my friends weren’t excluded from being upset about it."
The video made Counts feel displaced, he said. Fellow classmates, athletes and people who had previously been friends with SAE members were now throwing all of them under the bus.
Because people knew he was an SAE, even going to class was difficult, Counts said. His motivation faded, and his grades began to suffer.
"All of a sudden, one of the only things (classmates) know about you aside from that you’re an SAE is that you’re probably a racist, because that’s what everybody was thinking at the time," Counts said.
The video brought to the forefront a new group on campus: Unheard. The group is an alliance of black students that formed in Jan. 2015. Unheard spearheaded the campus-wide discussion of diversity and inclusivity issues. While Counts views the SAE incident as an isolated example of campus racism, Unheard leader Chelsea Davis said it was representative of a larger issue.
"This is an issue we see with white students regularly, and it just doesn’t happen in greek houses," Davis said. "I think, more so, it happens in greek houses because they have an agenda that they need to throw parties and act in a certain way.”
Davis said segregation is a founding platform of the greek community and doesn’t see these issues in greek life being resolved anytime soon.
It’s been a problem, and it’s always going to be a problem," Davis said
Although Davis thinks racism is the true source of the incident, Alpha Tau Omega’s first African-American president, Cameron Burleson, thinks there is an aspect of desensitization to the issue.
"I don’t think that they were racist," Burleson said. "I don’t think that SAE is a racist fraternity by any means. I think that the song that they were singing — they had been desensitized towards because they had sang it so much to the point that they didn’t realize the gravity of what they were saying."
It’s easy to criticize SAE when you aren’t in the midst of the situation, Burleson said. Although there are no excuses for the racist chant, it is important to realize the difficulty of standing up to what is wrong.
"It’s easy for us to stand in the outside and say, 'Oh you should have done this, and oh you should have done that,' when we’re not actually on the bus," Burleson said.
This notion of understanding is shared by OU President David Boren, who asks the university to move forward in forgiveness.
"As an educational institution, our purpose is to allow students to learn from their mistakes and move onto the future," Boren said in an email relayed by his press secretary, Corbin Wallace. "The SAE members have taken required sensitivity training and have suffered from the loss of their fraternity. Leaders of the fraternity also apologized to African-American student leaders in my office and that apology was accepted. It's time to forgive those who made mistakes in the past and to move forward with mutual respect as one caring community."
To people who felt betrayed by SAE, Counts said he sees where they are coming from. It was wrong to let a song like that go on, he said, understanding its hateful sentiment toward black people.
"No one ever wanted anybody to get hurt, just nobody felt secure enough to stand up against the song, so they just kind of let it be," Counts said.