Early in November, the Embrey Human Rights Program honored several first integrators of Southern universities and colleges at the Opening Doors ceremony. The four men and women seated on the panel transformed the idea of ‘racial integration’ from a historic factoid into a vivid reality. These courageous panelists and other first integrators paved the way for racial diversity on campuses across the South throughout the Civil Rights era. Defying decades of segregation, these students transformed their campus environments as they challenged college administrators and students to recognize human dignity.
I wish that could be the end of the story. Don’t we all want some kind of utopian conclusion where acceptance triumphs over prejudice? A society where skin color and ethnic background no longer leave students ostracized at universities around the country? In reality, this integration panel took place only days after SMU’s own debacle over racial insensitivity. The ‘Ice Age’ party and horrendous GreekRank posting from late October both underscore the entrenched reality of bias on our beloved Hilltop. Racism can’t be relegated to the 1960s or simply viewed as a remote problem at campuses like the University of Missouri. As one panelist reminded me in her concluding remarks, we have grown “actively disengaged” from the ethical struggle that early integrators fought so hard to advance. Through apathy and silence, we give in to the status quo. We let micro-aggressions, informal segregation, and our fear of discomfort win.
By remaining complacent about racism on SMU’s campus, I was a participant in the problem. During my first two years at SMU, I saw little fault in the white-washed circles with which I surrounded myself. At times, I joked about the lack of racial diversity, but didn’t recognize the people that this hegemony hurt. I noticed how few students of color were admitted into most Greek organizations, but told myself that it couldn’t change. Because I’m not a minority student, I convinced myself that I shouldn’t speak up or publicly show that I cared. I’ve written about racism and social segregation in my classes. I’ve got the ‘head knowledge.’ But if professors brought up the GreekRank post or Ice Age party in class, I suddenly found myself very quiet and uncomfortable.
The story doesn’t have to end this way. Over the past few months, a series of mentors and student leaders have pushed me to consider my role in this broken system. Through silence, we contribute to the racism that corrodes the good character of SMU and other universities. But we can also change. We can become active participants and shape a different campus culture as we learn to speak out and trade apathy for long-term involvement. This isn’t an overnight process. The reality of racial bias on our campus will likely challenge us for semesters and even years to come. So our commitment has to outlast the challenge. To those of you who came to November’s town-hall meeting, Black Out event, or various campus dialogue on race relations, thank you for supporting justice. But this is just a beginning. At ‘bid day’ next January, will we see a commitment to increased racial diversity among our campus’s various Greek chapters? We may need to have hard conservations about race and privilege with our professors, parents, and classmates; but are we willing to challenge our friends about the apathy, jokes, and silence that often limit our sense of justice? Are we a community that will ask the hard questions, get involved in the movement, and deepen our understanding and respect for one another? If so, then we’re one step closer to being the World Changers that we promised to be and one page closer to writing a new ending for the story.