BERT starts Twitter campaign to share student experiences of racism, discrimination at OU

Jamelia Reed, BERT co-director, speaks during the OU Black Emergency Response Team press conference, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, to address an incident of blackface early in the week. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

The stories started slowly Thursday afternoon, then gained momentum, spreading across Twitter under the tag #OUrexperience.

Black students at OU used the hashtag to share stories about living with racial discrimination from other students or professors, acting as advocates and activists for their community while being students, and failing to see progress or hear acceptable responses to racism on campus.

The tweets were a movement of solidarity and visibility as black students discussed their experiences navigating a predominantly white campus in light of OU's latest incident of widely-publicized racism.

On Tuesday morning, Gaylord professor and graduate director Peter Gade said a racial slur in his class, comparing the use of the n-word with the use of the phrase "OK, Boomer." By Wednesday, the incident was national news.

The university condemned Gade's words in two statements Tuesday, while the professor formally apologized to students in a Tuesday evening email, calling his word choice "an inexcusable mistake." Multiple students spoke up in the class or walked out, and have since talked to Gaylord and university administrators through a series of meetings.

On Thursday afternoon, OU students started tweeting. Nearly 50 students shared their disappointment with an institution where they feel unsafe or face discrimination, yet are hoping for change.

The social media push came after OU's Black Emergency Response Team called a town hall Wednesday night, allowing black students to find a community space where they could share frustrations and plan their next moves.

"We really wanted the entire community to know, especially administrators and upper staff and faculty, that this isn't just these Gaylord students who experienced these things this week," said Miles Francisco, an OU senior and co-director of BERT, "but the vast majority of our students have experienced, whether it's micro-aggressions or just outright, overt bigotry, on this campus, in the classroom and in various organizational spaces. We have a structural, cultural problem here at OU and that it isn't just one bad apple or a faculty member."

For students like Francisco, who has been on campus for nearly four years, overt and widely-publicized racism at OU is nothing new. In 2015, there was a racist song from Sigma Alpha Epsilon members that gained national attention. In 2019, there were at least three incidents of blackface on campus or involving OU students.

Gade's actions on Tuesday were familiar to black students across campus, even if they weren't in the class, Francisco said.

"It's pretty hard, and it really struck a chord I'd say, because I can honestly say that I think the majority of black students especially have experienced a professor saying the n-word in class," Francisco said. "I think a lot of us didn't speak up and didn't tweet out in the same way that Janae (Reeves) did on Tuesday, but I think we're really happy that she did, and (we're) just being there for each other again, like we do best when these things happen."

By now, many black students are used to standing up to racism and inaction from the administration, to taking the energy to educate and advocate while performing normal student duties, Francisco said.

"It's particularly painful, I think, for younger students who are just getting here, who were sold a certain vision of the University of Oklahoma -- what that looks like, the community that they can have here -- and then to get here and just in the second semester to have a tenured faculty member to say racial epithets, to say something harmful, so violent to our community," Francisco said.

Isiah Irby, an OU senior and president of the university's National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) chapter, said this week has been transformative for him.

"It's been a change, a shift," Irby said. "I feel like I went from being a professional writing student who is just a couple of months away from graduating here at the University of Oklahoma to someone whose voice is much more powerful and resonating, but also a little bit of activist-like."

While Irby is not in the capstone class and didn't witness the incident, he and other black Gaylord students have taken on the work of seeking a path forward.

NABJ released a statement Tuesday calling for an enhanced curriculum with more cultural and competency, a new "chief officer of diversity and inclusion" position within Gaylord, an increase in faculty and staff diversity within the college, and "a tangible repercussion" for Gade's actions. The organization also announced that that incident in Gade's class had been reported to the university's Title IX office. Right now, conversations within Gaylord are still in progress, Irby said.

Gaylord leadership, along with OU vice president for diversity and inclusion Belinda Hyppolite and vice president for student affairs and dean of students David Surratt, met with Gade's class Thursday morning, listening to student concerns over the course of the 75-minute class period.

Ed Kelley, Gaylord's dean, said that while administrators are keeping students' comments anonymous, he believes the conversation was productive. The college will be implementing diversity and inclusion training for its faculty and staff starting this semester, Kelley confirmed.

"The meeting was informative and educational for us and I hope for the students as well," Kelley wrote in an email Thursday afternoon. "They wanted to see that we take their concerns very seriously, and I hope we signaled to them that we do."

Irby said while he believes Gade made "a badly mistaken choice of words trying to (compare two things) that are not alike on any level of cultural or historical significance," Gaylord will have diversity and inclusion work to do as the college moves into the future. Gade is a tenured professor at OU, and as of Thursday, is still teaching the capstone class.

With the university's recent emphasis on diversity and inclusion under Interim President Joe Harroz, OU's response throughout the week has been even more disappointing, Francisco said. In his statement on Tuesday, Harroz called Gade's words "fundamentally offensive and wrong," but said the professor is protected by the First Amendment.

"For you to turn around and officially say that there will be no repercussions, no consequences, no accountability for this professor who inflicted all of this trauma on his students, and then to try to turn around in the same statement and say, 'we are better than this,' that is total nonsense to me, and is an action that speaks much louder than (Harroz') words about what diversity and inclusion is on this campus," Francisco said. "Because the reality is, this is what we are here at the university. We are a racist, colonized institution, and until we fully grapple with that history...we're not going to get anywhere."

Emma Keith366-3537Follow me @emma_ckeithekeith@normantranscript.com

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