It has been almost two months since a grainy 10-second video exposed the bigotry of the University of Oklahoma's chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon on the national stage. Though the media emitted a collective gasp, the clip only confirmed what many students of color and their allies already know: college campuses are not "post-racial" spaces. Colleges across the country are confronting instances of racism and inequality daily, and student activists are often the first to fight back.
"The SAE video was a terrible thing, but it was almost a blessing and a curse at the same time," said Naome Kadira, a sophomore accounting major at OU and a co-director of Unheard, the student group that took the lead in organizing in the wake of the scandal. "How can you deny that? That was on our campus, these students go here. You clearly heard what they were saying, you saw the passion in their faces."
Kadira now credits university administrators for their prompt response to the SAE situation, while acknowledging that action on institutional racism should have been taken a long time ago. Once the video became public, OU President David Boren gave fraternity members 48 hours to vacate their house, and the two students thought to have been leading the chant were expelled. In the weeks that followed, the university also announced that they would be hiring a vice president of diversity programs, as well as mandating that all incoming students receive diversity education.
"We still feel like 'why wasn't this already in place?'' Kadira said.
Too often, student groups are the ones left responsible for educating their peers about the experiences of people of color in the university system.
"We're students like the next student, but we have this extra job because we care about seeing the university be better," said Kadira.
In the absence of a headline-making incident, students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton have struggled to convince their administration of the existence of racial discrimination on campus. A group calling themselves Students for Change formed in the fall of 2014 in response to the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police officers. Students for Change produced a list of demands comprised of changes they want to see made at their university, though they have been met with significant resistance. As dialogue surrounding institutional racism increases on the national stage, some students at Binghamton have reported an increase in hate speech both on campus and on anonymous social media app Yik Yak.
Administrators and campus officials have further fueled tensions by refusing to acknowledge the demands put forth by Students For Change. In late March, university President Harvey Stenger walked out of a town hall meeting in which the group's concerns were being addressed.
"Our demands as a whole are just being looked at as absurd and impossible," said Melisa Brito, a junior at Binghamton and a member of Students For Change. Included in the list are requests for the instatement of minimum cultural competency requirement and the increased placement of people of color in faculty, staff, and administrative positions. By 2020, Students for Change want half of the Binghamton faculty, staff and administration to be made up of underrepresented groups.
In the aftermath of their failed negotiations with Stenger, Students for Change chose to stage a peaceful occupation of his office waiting room.
"People on this campus think we're attacking the president, but people don't realize that this is not about him specifically," said Epiphany Muñoz, another member of Student for Change: "It's about the system that produces presidents like him."
Forward Together, a student-led social justice organization at Wake Forest University, are no strangers to allegations of extremism. In their two years of existence, the group has coordinated activist events -- from a candlelight vigil for Mike Brown to a "Hands Up Walkout" protest against police brutality. Javar Jones, a senior and member of the Forward Together steering committee claims that they have long contended with negative perceptions on campus.
"We can get painted by administrators as agitators or people that just want to stir
up trouble," he said, noting that his peers can be equally admonishing.
"Largely, the student population in not receptive to the work that we do," Jones said. "I attribute that to the demographics of the school and to the exposure that individuals have had to conversations about race or sex or class."
According to collegedata.com, the Wake Forest student body is almost 80 percent white. Against these odds organizations like Forward Together try to facilitate discussions of oppression, though members of the dominant identity group cannot perceive a need for them. Jones urges prospective allies, above all else, to educate themselves. Once a knowledge base has been established, Unheard's Naome Kadira encourages self-defined allies to call out the racism they witness in white spaces.
"If someone says the n-word or refers to someone and talks about lynching them, they aren't going say it to my face as a black student. I'm not going to be around to say 'hey, that's not right,'" she said. "It's up to our allies to step up and say 'hey, do you really know what you're saying' and 'hey that's not okay.'"
Hate crimes, discrimination and microaggressions are issues currently facing all American institutions of higher education -- public and private, secular and religiously affiliated, progressive and conservative. Student activists nationwide are doing their part to identify and "call out" racist campus cultures. They are fighting daily to improve their world -- with education, and with action.
"You can't go out feeling comfortable being a person of color on this campus," said Brito. "We're not saying that every person of color doesn't feel comfortable, but enough of us do that we're standing up for this, and we're not getting any kind of response. So we're gonna keep rallying, we're gonna protest, and we're gonna keep putting pressure on administration until we do see some changes. "
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