KGOU

Diversity Concerns Linger On University Of Oklahoma Campus

Mar 17, 2015

In the days after a racially charged video circulated on social media and gained national attention, minority students at the University of Oklahoma spoke out, many expressing concerns about their experiences on campus.

The leaked video shows Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members chanting that African American males would never be allowed in their organization. It was blatantly racist, and emotions ran high with students and faculty at the university.

Anthropology professor Betty Harris is the longest-serving female black professor at OU. She says many times discrimination isn’t as cut-and-dry.

“There are others who harbor racist views, which are carried out in various ways, but they never utter the 'n word' or at least where anyone can record it,” Harris says.

According to OU’s 2015 fact book, black student enrollment has trended downwards for the last ten years on the Norman campus. At the same time, Hispanic enrollment is up, but the group makes up less than ten percent of the student body. And many students feel that.

During a town hall meeting on diversity last week, students lamented there aren’t enough racially diverse professors There are too few minorities in the classroom, and insensitive comments swirl across campus.

“I have been told a lot in my life that I sound white; that I act like a white girl,” says Maya Sykes, a senior at OU.

“How does someone sound white? How does someone act white? I think that I sound educated. I think I uphold myself with certain standards and principles,” Sykes says.

By pairing those together, Sykes feels like the comparison is obvious: black women aren’t well spoken or well behaved. Sykes wants the university to facilitate more discussions about race, but Darion Mayhorn says conversations also need to happen on an individual basis.

Mayhorn grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and he lives with a white roommate who has never once asked about the ongoing protest.

“You live with a black guy who lived in Ferguson and you haven't asked him anything of what he thought about it. Those types of things, we have to challenge ourselves to remove that stigma of being scared or whatever it may be,” Mayhorn says.

There were a few students who spoke up last week, saying their race didn’t have a large impact on their experiences at OU. And nearly all the grievances were on a university-wide level, not necessarily aimed toward sororities or fraternities. 

Students listen to colleagues discuss diversity at a town hall meeting March 11 at the University of Oklahoma
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Vanessa Ogbeide even said she was thankful the racially charged video was released.

“This SAE issue is a blessing in disguise because this issue is prevalent here. There is racism here on this campus, and there needs to be a discussion that's had,” Ogbeide says.

But members of the Greek community are speaking out against the idea of racism within their organizations. The president of OU’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity issued a statement last week. Tyrone Speller said he, as a black male, has never felt out of place, even when he visited Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Speller declined an interview with KGOU, but his statement went on to say he hoped the nation would realize OU is, quote, “a university of acceptance and equal opportunity.”

“That's an isolated individual who is the president of a predominantly white fraternity,” says anthropology professor Betty Harris.

“There are people who can be accepted and get along in a predominantly white setting, and they may think that the whole world is like that, but to me, it's probably tokenism,” she says.

Harris says you can’t let one person in a leadership position overshadow the hundreds of complaints heard this past week. Not every minority student has felt racism, but it’s more common than many would like to think, she says.

Darion Mayhorn, the student from Ferguson, says until the university recognizes the issue as a whole, students can’t expect change.

“We have to train ourselves that it's not just a black problem or Latino problem or Hispanic -- whatever it is -- problem. It's a society problem. And we all have to take it that way and figure out how to fix it,” Mayhorn says.

Unheard, the group of African American students who leaked the Sigma Alpha Epsilon video, says it will continue to raise awareness about issues on campus. Students say they hope conversations about race and diversity spark change at both the student and the administrative level.

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