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Students Air Issues Of Race, Diversity At University Of Oklahoma Forum

Jacob McCleland
Jesse Robbins speaks in front of students at a town hall forum on race and diversity at the University of Oklahoma.

Too few peers in the classroom. A lack of minority professors. Insensitive jokes. These were a few of the issues raised at a race and diversity town hall forum on Wednesday night at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The forum was hosted by Unheard and the Price College of Business.

A standing room only crowd filled a 270 seat auditorium only three days after a video surfaced that showed University of Oklahoma members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist chant on a bus. The national SAE shut down the local chapter while the university severed all ties with the local SAE and expelled two students for their role in leading the chant.

“It’s been a rough week here at OU and in the OU community and in the nation as a whole,” Shelly Grunsted, the executive director for student success and a professor of legal studies, said as she moderated the event.

“Tonight’s dialogue, we hope that can be respectful, a conversation, that we all can listen to, learn from, be a part of, and move ourselves forward in the healing process.”

Public relations major Cheyenne Smith said she was in her car earlier that day when a man called her “the n word.” She asked what people should do when confronted with a racial slur.

“I felt so threatened and hurt and angry all at once, and I was shocked,” Smith said.

Vanessa Ogbeide’s parents are immigrants from Nigeria and she went to predominantly white high schools. When she first moved into a house at OU, her new roommates cracked racist jokes behind her back about making her “their slave."

“I broke down, and I never even told my roommates that I knew. They had no idea that I knew that,” Ogbeide said.

“This SAE issue is a blessing in disguise because this issue, it’s prevalent here. There is racism here on campus, and there needs to be a discussion that’s had. And every single person in this room has a duty that the discussion never ends because there are stereotypes that linger throughout society and people inadvertently learn them,” Ogbeide said.

Jesse Robbins, a Choctaw, said colonization is perpetuated through the reenactment of the land run every time the university's football team scores a touchdown.

“Boomer Sooner. That doesn’t mean the same thing to me,” Robbins said. “If we’re talking about racist chants, let’s talk about racist chants. When I hear Boomer Sooner, I think of the cannons going off to take this land back when we were already given it and moved off our original lands.”

Graduate student Darion Mayhorn is from Ferguson, Missouri. He has a friend and white roommate who has never asked him about the events in Ferguson or the SAE video.

“You live with a black guy that lived in Ferguson, and you haven’t asked him anything what he thought about it? It’s like those types of things," Mayhorn said. "We need to challenge ourselves to remove that stigma of being scared of whatever it may be and open up our minds and hearts and find out what that person may know that you don’t know.”

Iraq War veteran Tirann Laws grew up in Norman and graduated from Norman High School. He now lives in Oklahoma City. He isn’t a student at OU, but he wanted to join the conversation because he said he has faced racism and injustice since returning from his deployment.

“This is probably the first time I’ve been back to Norman in maybe three years,” he said. “To a way, maybe I was just too ashamed to come back down here.”

Laws said police harassed him while in uniform on his way to field training, and people judge him on site.

“I got PTSD from the war, and I also got PTSD from here,” Laws said.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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