University of Oklahoma SAE Racist Chant Reopens Old Wounds

ABC's Deborah Roberts shares a personal college experience.

ByReporter's Notebook By Deborah Roberts
March 11, 2015, 1:07 AM

— -- It is a vile, ugly scene that seems to have captivated social media: The surreptitious video of fraternity brothers jauntily singing a practiced chant about how "n------" can never join S-A-E and should be hanging from a tree.

Anyone who's seen the images expresses jaw dropping shock and disbelief. Is this really happening in 2015 -- fifty years after the bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, commemorated just days ago?

For many of us that celebration of hatred belted out by brothers of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma is a stunningly familiar moment. Though decked out in a tuxedo, apparently for some kind of beautiful occasion, the young ringleader and his fraternity brothers reveal an ugly truth about racial pain on college campuses. It's a stinging pain some of us are reliving at this moment, recalling long buried memories of how our innocence was shattered at the very place we had hoped to feel safe and nurtured. l am among those dealing with an old demon of racial bias while away at college.

For me it happened just yards off campus during a walk to a downtown store in quaint Athens, Georgia. The leaves were just beginning to change. I was an optimistic and happy freshman excited about all the possibility at the University of Georgia, home of the fierce "Bulldogs."

PHOTO: ABC's Deborah Roberts is seen here in this 1981 college photo at the University of Georgia.
ABC's Deborah Roberts is seen here in this 1981 college photo at the University of Georgia.
University of Georgia

Though I had grown up in the segregated South, just a couple hundred miles from UGA, oddly I had a carefree, rather idyllic school history. I was a cheerleader, a choral member and participated in a number of academic clubs. Believe it or not, I'd never personally felt the sting of a racial slur. Not that the language of hateful prejudice didn't exist in my town or at my high school, but I never experienced it. So I was utterly unprepared for this day at UGA. Walking down the sidewalk when a car of rowdy kids passed me and hissed that "preppy clothes are cool but not on a n-----."

The word was casual yet filled with daggers.

I stopped dead in my tracks as the car sped away. My heart raced and my eyes stung with tears.

Who could be so cruel? And why?

Suddenly, I was filled with fear and panic as I turned to run back to my dorm. I still feel that same hurt and shame that gripped me as walked back into the lobby, trembling with fear. I never told my roommate, who happened to be white, what had happened. I never told my parents either. I was too shaken and upset. As time went on, I buried the painful incident and chose to forget it. Overall, I had a happy experience at the school and look back on those years fondly.

As for the incident, I had mostly tucked it away in my mind until this week when the ignorant and cruel OU fraternity members reminded me -- and so many others -- of just how damaging racial bias can be. I hope that the incident, as disgusting as it may be, is a lesson to us all about how much work we have ahead of us if we want our children to sing new songs about tolerance and peace.

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