I didn't want to write about the now infamous SAE chant, partially because it's always uncomfortable to write about race, but mostly because for me it brings up a skeleton in my closet, a Rick Ross-sized shadow in my past.
The reason I don't want to write about SAE is because, well..
I was an SAE.
I say "was" because I quit after two years. Well before the chant video emerged I was always at least a little ashamed of my frat past. The more I became an American Studies scholar, the more I learned about the world outside the bubble I'd grown up in, the more I saw how fucked up the practices of the fraternity was. Though we were a small liberal arts chapter, racism, sexism, homophobia and privilege were everywhere.
I wish I could say I quit for purely noble reasons, but truth be told I also simply didn't fit in. I've always been a lone wolf, an outsider, but it wasn't all onme. The people in my chapter were some of the most rude, brash motherfuckers I've ever met. Sure, I initially joined because I wanted to belong, sit with the cool kids for a change, but that just wasn't me and looking back I'm so glad I didn't end up like them. Plus, when you walk into a room with a bunch of dudes snorting lines that would make O.T. Genasis blush, it turns you off to the whole idea of "brotherhood." They didn't want me and I didn't want them, so I stopped paying dues and pledged Broke Phi Broke instead.
I always got uneasy when someone asked me if I was in a frat, but I wasn't bitter, angry or hostile. We all did stupid shit when we were in college, and this frat experiment was just another regret that had faded into my past, next to that class I simply stopped going to mid-way through the semester and smoking a bowl while driving around campus with my headlights off (that one got me arrested). Though I've grown into a completely different person, and the memories of my frat-itude are as blurry as the first night of pledging, when the racist OU chant fiasco surfaced I got flashbacks. It's like when you see an ex; you may not want to be with them, but all those memories, good and bad, come flashing back.
“You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me / There will never be a nigger in SAE.”
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While the internet was stunned, shocked and amazed, I wasn't the least bit surprised. A fraternity founded in Alabama in the 1800s who boast Pat Robertson as a notable brother has issues with racism? After getting over my initial detachment, suddenly I was diving back into my memories, thinking about my time as a bro, what racism did I come across? Fuck, did I ever hear or recite this chant? If I did I've legitimately forgotten, just like I've tried to forget most of my fraternity experiment, but one thing I can never forget is the SAE creed. Ironically it's called "The True Gentlemen," and it's charred into my brain because we were locked in a room until we could all recited it word for word.
"The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe."
Granted, my pledging experience was vastly different from that of my Oklahoma "brothers" -- we didn't have house moms, cooks or even a chapter house -- but I know every SAE member knows this pledge by heart. I also know, whether it's my chapter spaying beer on the Pi-Phi sorority pledges at their first party and calling it "tradition" or a group of white kids singing a chant about lynching niggers, is that these words in that pledge are hollow and meaningless. It's code we memorize, but nobody seems to live by. It's something you learn so you can go to your costume party in blackface, not so you can Iive your life as a better human being. It's not the only place these issues arise, but it's certainly a breeding ground for ignorance and exclusivity.
As I read through Twitter, watched the backlash, and heard MSNBC blame hip-hop, because white racism is somehow always the fault of black rappers, one part of the True Gentleman hit me like a paddle (fun fact though, nobody actually ever got paddled):
"Who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another..."
Fraternities pride themselves on their rich, deep history. The whole point is to feel like you're a part of something bigger, that you're connected to people from different generations. That's why we learn the name of the founders, most of whom were Confederate soldiers, and that's certainly how this chant started. Like the True Gentleman creed, or the secret handshake, that infamous chant has obviously been passed down from class to class, brother to brother, chapter to chapter, from one generation of men who think it's okay to marginalize and devalue an entire race to the next. I frankly don't think I've ever heard a racist SAE chant as explicit as this one, but there are plenty of problematic chants, songs, and slogans that do get passed down, which leads me to believe this is no isolated incident; it's just the one that got recorded and put on the internet. A group of predominantly white males don't simply become racist once they pledge, they don't become racist because of a chant, they've learned racism living as a white male their entire life.
Whether you are an SAE at Oklahoma or a poetry major at Berkeley, devaluing marginalized groups, be it black people, women, anyone with less social power, have been cultural pillars long before anyone resided in the apartments on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. So when I hear MSNBC blame hip-hop or label Mike Brown a thug, rather than admit racism is as deeply embedded into American society as chewed gum and beer stains on a chapter house couch, I can only think of "Who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another." That concept is further described in the SAE manual:
"No man is perfect.
We all make mistakes, and there are times when we need
to be advised of our error or failure."
The Brother Neros (SAE lingo for brothers who don't act like true gentlemen) at Oklahoma are not purely perfect nor are they purely evil, but whether they meant those words or simply went along with the crowd, they violated a code of conduct much more important than "The True Gentlemen" - don't be a racist, ignorant asshole. Maybe they should be kicked off campus for good, maybe they need to be suspended, or better yet, maybe they need to be educated about the ugly impact of racism in America, but one way or another the men on that bus need to be held accountable. They need to learn not just what they did was wrong, but why it was wrong, and when you blame hip-hop or "gangsta" rap, you give them an out and prevent them from becoming true gentleman.
They need to be humbled, so do the apologists, and so do you and me. We all have biases and prejudices. Letting these kids off the hook by blaming rap is a problem, but the bigger problem is our inability to humble ourselves. No one wants to be thought of as racist, but the refusal to see we all play a role our countries racist history, and racist present, only makes it worse. Prejudice and racism don't have to go viral to be dangerous either. Sometimes the little acts - fake laughing at a racist joke rather than calling someone out - can be just as damaging. Just because you're not yelling about lynching niggers at the top of your lungs on a frat bus doesn't mean you're completely free from prejudice. Of course some need it more than others, but everyone, from me to you to your parents to your favorite rapper, needs to humble themselves in one way or another, reflect on how they can free themselves from even the smallest amounts of hate hidden in our hearts.
We aren't all SAEs, but we could all stand to be True Gentlemen.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]