“We just don’t feel welcome.”
Four years after SAE. Six days after two OU students filmed themselves wearing blackface and saying the n-word. Hours after a man wearing blackface openly walked across Campus Corner. Black students don’t feel welcome on this campus.
“I’m speaking for the entire black community: It really breaks our hearts,” Jasmyne Devonshire said. “Right now, I don’t think any of us are proud to say we go to the University of Oklahoma.”
Devonshire is a senior, just a few months from graduating with a psychology and pre-medicine degree. She’s been at OU through three and a half years that were supposed to bring change, to rebuild a university almost torn apart in front of a national audience by racism.
Those years since have been marked with sporadic incidents of public racism, just enough time between them for university-wide conversations about addressing racism to fade away.
“I saw a small change starting to really happen my freshman and sophomore year, and then another incident happened, and then another incident, and it’s like every time we take a step forward, we take two steps back,” Devonshire said. “So I can tell that there has been some change, but it hasn’t been drastic.”
Devonshire and other students of color packed the Molly Shi Boren Ballroom Tuesday, hoping to make their voices heard by a university they say has not yet listened. The sadness, exhaustion, anger and resilience of the four days before the rally filled the room too, hanging in the air and in the words of the students who spoke.
The assembled audience heard a message from its administration: This won’t happen again.
“We are saying enough is enough,” interim vice president for university community Jane Irungu told the crowd. “We need to hold each other accountable.”
But in reality, change is slow, often backtracking as soon as it moves forward. The rally was a moment for some students to feel heard. A day later, they watched and reacted in anger and frustration as videos surfaced across Twitter in which a man in blackface silently strode across their campus. “Face painted black again,” a voice says in one video of the man. “I guess President (James) Gallogly’s message did not go through. Again. Again.”
Black students are stuck in situations like this — they want things to get better, but say this never gets easier. They want to push for genuine justice and change, but say they also want to be able to attend a university where they can just be students, not activists too.
They shouldn’t be expected to shoulder that burden, said Karlos Hill, chair of the African and African American Studies department.
“They are students. Their number one job is to be the best students that they can be. They’re not anti-racist activists, they’re not diversity workers — we shouldn’t be asking them to do that, that’s not their job,” Hill said. “We don’t ask other students to do this, so we shouldn’t ask them to do it … they should continue to raise these issues … but their job is not to solve the problem. Their job is to be students.”
And yet, students are doing that activist work.
Black students organized Tuesday’s rally, refocused its discussion after administrators strayed from the topic at hand and have responded with leadership to the events of the last six days as they’ve unfolded.
“What they did is what changes the world,” Hill said of the students who spoke at and arranged Tuesday’s rally. “Authentic witness is what they were engaged in, and that’s priceless.”
Even as the Black Student Association called the community together Wednesday night for a time to feel safe and to process the last few days, the work did not stop. The organization wrote on Twitter that the meeting would allow black students to “come together as a community to strategize and come up with a viable plan of solutions.”
BSA has already revived the demands made of OU administrators by OU Unheard almost four years ago, after the SAE event. Black students are telling the university that they’re still unheard, that there’s still significant work to be done. A zero-tolerance hate speech policy, a curriculum dedicated to cultural competency and education, a focus on increasing resources for African American studies programs and a push for more black faculty and staff are their clear demands.
Increasing diversity in faculty and staff is a perpetual goal university presidents and leaders tell OU they’re working toward — Gallogly said in a statement Monday he’ll work to “increase efforts to recruit more students, faculty and staff of color on campus.”
It’s also something OU has to start taking seriously to move forward in a way that benefits its students of color or makes them feel welcome on its campus, Hill said.
“I can tell you that for sure, OU is falling down in terms of terms of faculty diversity, and specifically black faculty diversity,” Hill said. “...If I were to capture the black experience at OU, that is it: They don’t see people who look like them.”
And while black students don’t see people who look like them, while they don’t attend a school with a zero-tolerance racism policy, while some students around them sing racist songs and paint their faces black, they continue to advocate, to engage their campus and challenge it to be stronger, more welcoming to everyone who invests in it. They’ll arrange events like the Better Together March, a demonstration starting at Dale Hall, moving to the president’s office and ending in the Union today that will push the administration for tangible action toward justice for their demands.
The work continues today.