The applause cut abruptly when Lawrence Ross, right after he was introduced, began his discussion on race by singing a song about “how there will never be a n*****” in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“There will never be a n***** in SAE,” Ross sang to the tune of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It.’ “There will never be a n****** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a n****** in SAE.”
Ross — an African-American author who has studied and written about the history of race relations on college campuses — was referencing a March 2015 incident, when two white, 19-year-old fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter sang that song on a party bus.
It was one example Ross gave of what he called systemic racism on college campuses across the United States during his Tuesday evening discussion in K-State’s Forum Hall. Over the past five years, he said there have been more than 500 racial incidents — such as use of blackface, nooses and slurs — at the country’s colleges.
The K-State Panhellenic Council and the Department of Diversity and Multicultural Student Affairs sponsored the talk.
K-State itself has seen a few incidents, including a September 2016 incident when a former student posted a Snapchat story that showed her in blackface and using the n-word. In November 2017, a noose was thought to have been found hanging from a campus tree, although investigators later determined that it likely wasn’t a noose, given the size of the rope and knot.
As part of his studies into those kinds of incidents since 1946, he said college administrations have typically responded to incidents with three “-izations” — individualization, minimization and trivialization, which seek to downplay the impact or significance of the incidents.
In reality, those incidents are symptoms of a more covert systemic racism, Ross said. He said that he often hears from people who say they’re “colorblind,” but he challenged that assertion, because that typically means that people don’t want to associate him with the negative stereotypes they might hold about his race.
“Race is a biological nothing, but never make the mistake that just because it is a biological nothing that it isn’t a sociological everything,” Ross said. “People will claim that race is social construct, but money is also a social construct. Do you want to give me all your money? Do you think it’s important?”
He also said that one of the country’s foundations is white supremacy, and that foundation has been threaded into the country’s history as it evolved from more overtly racist institutions like slavery to Jim Crow segregation to modern de-facto segregation. While such policies were more explicit in asserting racial supremacy in the past, Ross said those policies continue when they imply that whiteness is the default normal when it comes to humanity in the U.S.
“When I talk about white supremacy, I am not saying that you have a freshly cleaned KKK uniform in your closet that you’re about to pull out,” Ross said. “But what I am saying is that white supremacy is one of the foundations in this country in the exact same way I can say that misogyny is one of the foundations of this country.
“This is not anything controversial,” he continued. “It is one of the foundations of the country, prior to this country even existing — the idea what whiteness has value, and the idea that being outside of whiteness means you have to fight for the idea of having humanity and value.”
In defining racism, Ross said he looks beyond “garden variety racism” where one race claims supremacy over another and instead looks at behaviors that assert dominance through a complex system of beliefs, use of language and policies, particularly in education. Those behaviors send a message that people of color are not human and don’t belong on college campuses, he said.
The problem in dealing with those issues, though, is that white people are hesitant to conduct deep dives into racism and the privilege they might hold, Ross said, using social media, human-interest stories or even religion to quickly dismiss the issue of race.
“A lot of the times, when we throw Jesus out there, we’re throwing up our hands and saying that the issue is too big for us to handle,” Ross said. “Oh no it’s not. If white supremacy and racism are human constructs, we can deconstruct them, particularly when we’re talking about systemic racism. … Campus racism is pretty much on every campus, but before you can get healthy, you have to realize that you’re sick.”
To address racism, Ross said college campuses must examine the legacy of segregation and anti-affirmative action laws, campus symbolism, fraternity and sorority culture and racial microaggressions, which are common behaviors that demonstrate negative racial attitudes towards others, even if unintentional.
But what better place to begin to transform society than at college campuses, Ross suggested, where students undergo some of their most transformative years. That might even imply that students have a responsibility to fight for equality and make sure that every student receives the love they deserve, he said.
“Fighting racial justice doesn’t require to have melanin in your skin, the same way fighting misogyny doesn’t require you to be a woman,” he said. “It requires everyone.”